How would you like to live next to this dude.

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    Golf Manor, a subdivision in Commerce Township, Mich., some 25 miles
    outside of Detroit, is the kind of place where nothing unusual is supposed
    to happen, where the only thing lurking around the corner is an ice-cream
    truck. But June 26, 1995, was not a typical day.

    Ask Dottie Pease. Cruising down Pinto Drive, Pease saw half a dozen men
    crossing her neighbor's lawn. Three, in respirators and white moon suits,
    were dismantling her next-door neighbor's shed with electric saws, stuffing
    the pieces into large steel drums emblazoned with radioactive warning signs.

    Huddled with a group of neighbors, Pease was nervous. "I was pretty
    disturbed," she recalls. Publicly, the employees of the Environmental
    Protection Agency (EPA) that day said there was nothing to fear. The truth
    is far more bizarre: the shed was dangerously irradiated and, according to
    the EPA, up to 40,000 residents of the area could be at risk.

    The cleanup was provoked by the boy next door, David Hahn. He had attempted
    to build a nuclear reactor in his mother's shed following a Boy Scout
    merit-badge project.

    Grander Ambitions

    David Hahn's early years were seemingly ordinary. The blond, gangly boy
    played baseball and soccer, and joined the Boy Scouts. His parents, Ken and
    Patty, had divorced, and David lived with his father and stepmother, Kathy,
    in nearby Clinton Township. He spent weekends in Golf Manor with his mother
    and her boyfriend, Michael Polasek.

    An abrupt change came at age ten, when Kathy's father gave David The Golden
    Book of Chemistry Experiments. David became immersed. By age 12 he had
    digested his father's college chemistry textbooks; by 14 he had made

    One night his house in Clinton Township was rocked by an explosion in the
    basement. Ken and Kathy found David semiconscious on the floor. He had been
    pounding some substance with a screwdriver and ignited it. He was rushed to
    the hospital to have his eyes flushed.

    Kathy then forbade David from experimenting in her home. So he shifted his
    operations to his mother's shed in Golf Manor. Neither Patty nor Michael
    had any idea what the shy teenager was up to, although they thought it was
    odd that David often wore a mask in the shed, and would sometimes discard
    his clothing after working there until two in the morning. They chalked it
    up to their own limited education.

    Michael does, however, remember David saying, "One of these days we're
    gonna run out of oil."

    Convinced he needed discipline, David's father, Ken, felt the solution lay
    in a goal that he didn't himself achieve, Eagle Scout, which requires 21
    merit badges. David earned a merit badge in Atomic Energy in May 1991, five
    months shy of his 15th birthday. By now, though, he had grander ambitions.

    Concocted identity

    He was determined to irradiate anything he could, and decided to build a
    neutron "gun." To obtain radioactive materials, David used a number of
    cover stories and concocted a new identity.

    He wrote to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), claiming to be a
    physics instructor at Chippewa Valley High School. The agency's director of
    isotope production and distribution, Donald Erb, offered him tips on
    isolating and obtaining radioactive elements, and explained the
    characteristics of some isotopes, which, when bombarded with neutrons, can
    sustain a chain reaction.

    When David asked about the risks, Erb assured him that the "dangers are
    very slight," since "possession of any radioactive materials in quantities
    and forms sufficient to pose any hazard is subject to Nuclear Regulatory
    Commission (or equivalent) licensing."

    David learned that a tiny amount of the radioactive isotope americium-241
    could be found in smoke detectors. he contacted smoke-detector companies
    and claimed that he needed a large number for a school project. One company
    sold him about a hundred broken detectors for a dollar apiece.

    Not sure where the americium was located, he wrote to an electronics firm
    in Illinois. A customer-service representative wrote back to say she'd be
    happy to help out with "your report." Thanks to her help, David extracted
    the material. He put the americium inside a hollow block of lead with a
    tiny hole pricked in one side so that alpha rays would stream out. In front
    of the block he placed a sheet of aluminum, its atoms absorb alpha rays and
    kick out neutrons. His neutron gun was ready.

    The mantle in gas lanterns, the small cloth pouch over the flame, is coated
    with a compound containing thorium-232. When bombarded with neutrons it
    produces uranium-233, which is fissionable. David bought thousands of
    lantern mantles from surplus stores and blowtorched them into a pile of ash.

    To isolate the thorium from the ash, he purchased $1000 worth of lithium
    batteries and cut them in half with wire cutters. He placed the lithium and
    thorium ash together in a ball of aluminum foil and heated the ball with a
    Bunsen burner. This purified the thorium to at least 9000 times the level
    found in nature, and up to 170 times the level that requires NRC licensing.
    But David's americium gun wasn't strong enough to transform thorium into

    More Help From the NRC

    David held a series of after-school jobs at fast-food joints, grocery
    stores and furniture warehouses, but work was merely a means of financing
    his experiments. Never an enthusiastic student, he fell behind in school,
    scoring poorly on state math and reading tests (he did, however, ace the
    test in science).

    Wanting radium for a new gun, David began visiting junkyards and antique
    stores in search of radium-coated clocks. He'd chip paint from them and
    collect it.

    It was slow going until one day, while driving through Clinton Township, he
    says he came across an old table clock in an antique shop. In the hack of
    the clock he discovered a vial of radium paint. He bought the clock for $10.

    Next he concentrated the radium and dried it into a salt form. Whether he
    fully realized it or not, he was putting himself in danger.

    The NRC's Erb had told him that "nothing produces neutrons from alpha
    reactions as well as beryllium." David says he had a friend swipe a strip
    of beryllium from a chemistry lab, then placed it in front of the lead
    block that held the radium. His cute little americium gun was now a more
    powerful radium gun.

    David had located some pitchblende, an ore containing tiny amounts of
    uranium, and pulverized it with a hammer. He aimed the gun at the powder,
    hoping to produce at least some fissionable atoms. It didn't work. The
    neutron particles, the bullets in his gun, were moving too fast.

    To slow them down, he added a filter, then targeted his gun again. This
    time the uranium powder appeared to grow more radioactive by the day.

    "Imminent Danger"

    Now 17, David hit on the idea of building a model breeder reactor, a
    nuclear reactor that not only generates electricity, but also produces new
    fuel. His model would use the actual radioactive elements and produce real
    reactions. His blueprint was a schematic in one of his father's textbooks.

    Ignoring safety, David mixed his radium and americium with beryllium and
    aluminum, all of which he wrapped in aluminum foil, forming a makeshift
    reactor core. He surrounded this radioactive ball with a blanket of small
    foil-wrapped cubes of thorium ash and uranium powder, tenuously held
    together with duct tape.

    "It was radioactive as heck," David says, "far greater than at the time of
    assembly." Then he began to realize that he could be putting himself and
    others in danger.

    When David's Geiger counter began picking up radiation five doors from his
    mom's house, he decided that he had "too much radioactive stuff in one
    place" and began to disassemble the reactor. He hid some of the material in
    his mother's house, left some in the shed, and packed most of the rest into
    the trunk of his Pontiac.

    At 2:40 a.m. on August 31, 1994, Clinton Township police responded to a
    call concerning a young man who had been apparently stealing tires from a
    car. When the police arrived, David told them he was meeting a friend.
    Unconvinced, officers decided to search his car.

    They opened the trunk and discovered a toolbox shut with a padlock and
    sealed with duct tape. The trunk also contained foil-wrapped cubes of
    mysterious gray powder, small disks and cylindrical metal objects, and
    mercury switches. The police were especially alarmed by the toolbox, which
    David said was radioactive and which they feared was an atomic bomb.

    The discovery eventually triggered the Federal Radiological Emergency
    Response Plan, and state officials would become involved in consultations
    with the EPA and NRC.

    At the shed, radiological experts found an aluminum pie pan, a Pyrex cup, a
    milk crate and other materials strewn about, contaminated at up to 1000
    times the normal levels of background radiation. Because some of this could
    be moved around by wind and rain, conditions at the site, according to an
    EPA memo, "present an imminent endangerment to public health."

    After the moon-suited workers dismantled the shed, they loaded the remains
    into 39 sealed barrels that were trucked to the Great Salt Lake Desert.
    There, the remains of David's experiments were entombed with other
    radioactive debris.

    "These are conditions that regulations never envision," says Dave Minnaar,
    radiological expert with Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality.
    "It's simply presumed that the average person wouldn't have the technology
    or materials required to experiment in these areas."

    David Hahn is now in the Navy, where he reads about steroids, melanin,
    genetic codes, prototype reactors, amino acids and criminal law. "I wanted
    to make a scratch in life," he explains now. "I've still got time." Of his
    exposure to radioactivity he says, "I don't believe I took more than five
    years off my life."
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