Just a teenage nuclear builder

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 November, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 November, 1998, 12:00am

WASHINGTON officials often fret about the apocalyptic dangers of some spare uranium or plutonium disappearing from a crumbling Russian nuclear weapons plant and finding its way into the hands of terrorists.

Scary though that scenario may be, it seems that - when it comes to atomic terrorism - the likes of Osama bin Laden and Abu Nidal have been trailing a few isotopes behind a very unlikely competitor.

One of those strange-but-true stories - the kind that would scarcely be believed if Tom Clancy stuck it in one of his novels - has been emerging from a leafy suburb of Detroit.

It is a story, moreover, that the government would rather remained untold, since it involves a 14-year-old who, getting carried away over a boy scouts project, almost built himself a nuclear reactor in his garden shed.

For four years, David Hahn had indulged his fascination for chemistry by acquiring the components necessary to produce highly radioactive radium, thorium and uranium - usually by posing as a teacher - and then playing with them in a bid to start a nuclear fission reaction.

Who knows what would have happened had police not stopped the teenager's battered Pontiac on a routine traffic check and happened upon his radioactive treasure trove? When staff from the federal Environmental Protection Agency were notified and descended on his rudimentary laboratory, dressed in full anti-radiation suits, they discovered a toxic mix of isotopes that was emitting a radioactive count 1,000 times higher than normal background radiation.

At that strength, it is quite possible the 40,000 residents of the entire suburb might have been harmed by the radiation emanating over several years from the shed. David, who said he had no evil intent but merely a schoolboy's fascination, is almost certainly at high risk of dying a premature death from having handled radium without any basic safeguards.

The EPA clean-up cost US$60,000 (HK$464,000) and required the burying of the contents of the family's shed in the Utah desert. Not bad for a chemistry experiment.

Although the EPA raid merited a brief mention in the local press, the government managed to keep a lid on the incident for two years - a cover-up presumably being preferable to mass panic. But David Hahn, now a seaman on a US aircraft carrier, was tracked down by Harper's Magazine, and his story should send a chill down the spine of anyone who fears his feats being replicated by someone rather more malicious in intent.

A Michigan state radiation expert, David Minaar, told the magazine that nobody suspected that a schoolboy could do what David did.

'These are conditions that regulatory agencies never envision,' he said. 'It's simply presumed that the average person wouldn't have the technology or materials required to experiment in those areas.' In fact, it was the same regulatory bodies which set David on his path, believing letters in which he claimed to be a teacher, and sending him pamphlets explaining the basics of nuclear fission.

Armed only with gall and inventiveness, the teenager bought 1,000 defective smoke alarms to extract tiny amounts of americum-241 from each; chanced upon a clock whose luminous dial was full of radium paint; tricked a hospital into supplying him with barium from an x-ray ward; and opened 1,000 batteries to extract lithium. With these ingredients, plus rudimentary knowledge gleaned from brochures and textbooks, David beavered away in his mother's shed, while she suspected nothing, other than that he was trying out schoolboy pyrotechnics.

When his Geiger counter began detecting radiation hundreds of metres down the street, David realised his home-made reactor was a bad idea.

After his eventual arrest, David was not charged with any crime. He was invited to be tested for radiation levels in his body, but refused. Nobody knows how much damage he may end up having caused to the health of his neighbours.

THEY say much of the politics game in Washington is nothing but smoke and mirrors. It turns out that one can even make do without the mirrors.

Anyone who believed the big tobacco companies had been humbled by the big compensation payments they have been handing out in settlements with various US states can think again.

The 'Big Five', led by Philip Morris and R J Reynolds, have never been so flush with cash - judging by how much of it they are spending. Far from being put on the defensive by the national agreement to make them atone for past misconduct, the firms spent US$40 million in the first six months of this year alone - that is three times more than in 1997 - on lobbying.

The public may have been aware that a popular, bipartisan bill to hike the tax on cigarettes was suddenly squashed by the Republican leadership in Congress. What they never saw, however, was the mammoth behind-the-scenes arm-twisting being paid for by tobacco industry cash.

Some of the capital's biggest VIP lawyers - including ex-senator George Mitchell and former Texas governor Ann Richards - were drafted to convince their buddies in Congress to stop the tax increase in its tracks. Despite overwhelming public support for the bill, it was easily killed.

Joe Camel may have been put out to pasture, but his handlers are still up to their old tricks.