The nuclear merit badge

Friday, May 7th, 2004

The nuclear merit badge looks at The Radioactive Boy Scout, a book about the teenage kid who started to build his own nuclear reactor:

David’s aptitude for science was phenomenal. From a 1960s-era book of chemistry experiments, he quickly gleaned the principles and skills of manipulating reactions, and expanded his capabilities with long hours of research at the library.

His safety record was literally stunning. Taking only the barest precautions, he remained unfazed by accidents that turned his hair green, burned his skin, or knocked him out cold. Larger blunders alarmed his father and stepmother, but he learned to cover up his failures.

At school, he was a poor student and terrible speller (the wall of his potting-shed laboratory carried the admonition: “Caushon”). His occasional claims of chemical and, later, nuclear research were dismissed by parents and teachers as attempts to get attention.

And so it was that with ingenuity and supplemental information from letters to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 17-year-old David gathered and refined – mostly from household products — enough radioactive material to make a crude breeder reactor in his backyard.

It was small and would never create an appreciable amount of fissionable fuel, but by the time David disassembled the runaway experiment in 1994, his Geiger counter was detecting radiation from several houses away.

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