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“Radioactive boy scout”: as a teenager assembled a nuclear reactor in the barn

“The dream of his life was to collect samples of each element from the periodic table. I don’t know about you, but at his age I dreamed of buying a car, ”recalled David Khan’s school physics teacher. The guy did not become a Nobel laureate and did not lecture at prestigious universities, although he could, given his perseverance and outstanding knowledge (at least for a teenager) in chemistry. Alas, David did not cope with the depression and ended up very badly.  studied the amazing story of a man who, by the age of 17, had assembled a nuclear reactor in his barn near his mother’s house.

Start of experiments

David Khan, who would later become better known as the Radioactive Scout, was born in 1976 in Michigan. He lived in the suburbs of Detroit, relatives mainly worked at General Motors. The parents of the child divorced, the father remarried. David began to live with his dad and stepmother, and came to his own mother for the weekend.

As a child, the guy was the most ordinary: a little reserved, thin, played baseball and football. Everything changed at the age of 10, when the grandfather presented the boy with the Golden Book of Chemical Experiments, which was authored by Robert Brent. The benefit turned the mind of David.

The guy grabbed formulas on the fly and conducted more and more complex experiments. Simple experiments no longer interested the teenager, at 12 years old the child read textbooks from the college program. According to the recollections of relatives, they often found the guy asleep in the middle of encyclopedias related to chemistry.

First, David built a laboratory in his father’s house. There began experiments, which then take a very steep and life-threatening turn. Despite the great interest in chemistry, the guy did not care about safety: either he was overly confident, or did not realize the potential harm. And he backfired more than once.

Smoke and claps became commonplace in the house of the Khans. Once the adults looked into the room of the son and saw the carpet destroyed by chemicals, after which they demanded that the child move the laboratory to the basement. There, David began full expanse.

It all ended in a blast. Parents rushed to the noise and saw the child on the floor with charred eyebrows, he was almost unconscious. It turned out that the guy was beating a red phosphorus poured into a plastic container with a screwdriver (used in the manufacture of matches), and he burst into flames. David was lucky: he could lose his sight due to plastic particles that hit his face during an explosion, but he got off with regular visits to an ophthalmologist. After such poisoning with cantaxanthin (the teenager wanted to make an artificial tan – his face was the color of a carrot) and the magnesium set on fire in the scout camp seemed like childish pranks.

At the same time, it’s hard to call David a child prodigy. Brilliant results in chemistry did not correlate with the performance in other subjects: for example, he almost failed the annual test in mathematics in high school.

David received money for materials for his research from small part-time work. Gradually, he became more closed, instead of meeting with friends all his free time was sitting in the basement. Almost no one knew about his experiments, except for a couple of close friends. The parents of the guy were not particularly interested in what the child was doing. Rather, they asked, but did not understand: David flooded them with scientific terminology, and even his father, who studied chemistry at the college, poorly understood the essence of his son’s experiments.

Han Laboratory

Once David got the idea to get the badge of a scout eagle – the highest rank in the boy scout hierarchy. In addition to standard tasks like rendering first aid and performing socially useful works, the guy needed to do a scientific project. David chose the category “Atomic Energy” – according to the scoutmaster, in his memory this section was taken for the first time. The guy wrote a great essay on nuclear energy, assembled a model of the reactor (needed can, soda, matches, hangers and rubber bands) and received the coveted badge in 1991 when he was 14.

Reactor for home

Apparently, during this period David had a conviction that a nuclear reactor was needed in case other sources of energy were exhausted. So he came to the idea of ​​collecting a real reactor at home. By that time, the laboratory had already moved to the barn near the house of the boy’s birth mother.

The teenager swung at the breeder reactor. If simply, such a device produces more nuclear fuel than is necessary for its operation. It sounds good in words, but in practice it turned out that there are serious problems with reliability and safety: at one station the reactor began to melt, at another it did not work properly.

First, the guy decided to make a neutron gun that would collide isotopes with neutrons. Khan sought advice from research centers and institutes. David introduced himself as a physics teacher. He wrote to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the American Nuclear Energy Society, the Edison Electricity Institute and other organizations. The guy asked about the operation of the reactor and the components for its construction. The addressees answered in detail, never checking his identity.

Where to find components

After learning what was needed, David still had to get rare and prohibited elements for free sale: americium-241, radium-226, uranium-238, etc. If at the beginning of the hobby of chemistry, the guy’s experiments could be called curiosity, now his actions have become more and more manic.

David found out that americium-241 in very small quantities is contained in smoke detectors, – the manufacturer sold Khan hundreds of idle devices for just a dollar apiece. It was also easy to find thorium-232: it is used in the glowing grids of lamps. True, it was necessary to incinerate the nets with a torch and isolate thorium with lithium from batteries. The result – a teenager received thorium nine thousand times cleaner than it is found in nature.

The remaining elements had to seriously look. Radium-226 before the beginning of the seventies was used in luminescent paint on the dials and hands of the clock, as well as in the dashboards of airplanes and cars. David was driving around the landfills, but the catch was meager. Once he was lucky: the guy was driving to his girlfriend, when suddenly the Geiger counter began to pop near an antique shop. They found suitable table clocks, which Khan bought for $ 10. The discovery was so successful that David left a note to the shopkeeper in which he promised any money for another copy of such watches.

With uranium, everything is more complicated: the substance is not found in the public domain. Khan is not embarrassed. He wrote to a company from Czechoslovakia, which sold the substance to a certain list of universities and companies. David called himself a professor in a research lab who needs uranium for scientific purposes. The European company, without batting an eye, sent samples of suitable ore. David’s beryllium for neutrons was stolen from the laboratory in which he worked.

Stopped almost on time

As a result, David built a cannon, with which it was possible to obtain uranium powder. I had to go through several components in order to achieve the desired result. Measurements with a Geiger counter over several weeks have shown that the level of radiation is getting higher. But at that time, Han did not care. It is time to collect a full-fledged reactor.

The guy mixed the substances, put them on the foil and rolled the ball. David surrounded the original core of the reactor with thorium and uranium ash, wrapping it around with adhesive tape. The idea worked, although there was no benefit from such a reactor: it only emitted radiation.

David continued to be frivolous about security, despite rising levels of radiation. The maximum that he did was changing shoes and clothes upon entering the barn. When the teenager told a close friend about his reactor, he advised using rods to control nuclear reactions – just like in real nuclear power plants. Khan installed cobalt drills for drills, but it turned out to be of little use to them – the process became uncontrollable. David really got worried when the Geiger counter gave alarming numbers across five buildings from his mother’s house. It became clear that it was time to turn off the experiment.

Problems with the police

The guy dismantled the reactor and wanted to take the components to the forest. On the night of August 31, 1994, he loaded everything into the trunk of his Plymouth 6000 and went on the road, but he was stopped by the police. It seemed to the neighbors that David was stealing tires, and the cops called. They demanded to open the trunk.

Seen them were alerted, especially after warning the driver: they say, do not touch anything, there are radioactive things. The police decided that the guy was collecting the atomic bomb, and called a squad of sappers along with health professionals. When it turned out that thorium and americium are not found in nature in such a strong concentration as was found in the trunk of a car, serious bodies became interested, including the FBI.

The 17-year-old was not simple: he was not afraid of the police or the people in the strict suits who interrogated him. Apparently, the security forces underestimated the young man. They went to the house of Han’s father and did not find anything suspicious there. The guy kept silent that the real laboratory was in the barn near his mother’s house, and the cops did not check her dwelling. Only three months later, David told where he built the reactor. The specialists who went there found that the radiation level of some objects exceeded the permissible one thousand times.


The costs of disposing of radioactive things at a burial site in the state of Utah cost the authorities a lump sum, and David’s parents were billed for $ 60,000. To make matters worse, the teenagers were taken over by the FBI agents. They were afraid of his further experiments, moreover, a person with such knowledge could be useful to terrorists.

At the insistence of his parents, David entered Macomb Community College, where he studied metallurgy, but constantly skipped classes. Finally, the mother and father offered him to go to the army. The guy got on the aircraft carrier (ironically, atomic) USS Enterprise, where he was engaged in routine affairs, and in his spare time he continued to study chemistry.

Rejecting a military career, Khan returned to the citizenry. After some time, the guy was caught stealing smoke detectors – the ones that contain americium. David was sent to jail for three months. The next years of his life were relatively quiet, and shortly before his death, he wanted to get permission to work as a mechanic.

David Khan passed away two years ago: he died on September 27, 2016 at the age of 39. At first, it was suggested that the long effect of radiation played a role. But surveys during his lifetime showed that Khan did not earn serious damage to his health. Yes, and the guy himself said that his experiments shortened his life “by no more than five years.” The cause of death turned out to be completely different: alcohol poisoning. To leave a mark on the story, as David wanted, he did not succeed.

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