The Radioactive Boy Scout

by Ken Silverstein

(Random House)

Ah, the rites of passage for a teenage boy--Boy Scouts, Little League, learning to shave, building a nuclear reactor in a garden shed in your mom's backyard.

Scratching together antique items that contained trace amounts of radioactive material and using his astonishingly deep knowledge of chemistry and nuclear theory, Michigan resident David Hahn, at the age of 16, got really damn close to building a nuclear breeder reactor.

Through interviews with David, his oblivious, dysfunctional family, and nuclear experts, Ken Silverstein's The Radioactive Boy Scout conveys the extraordinary events David set into motion in his Detroit suburb. It's a path that begins with David's motivation--a blindly optimistic 1950s-era science book praising the limitless power of the atom--and ends in 1994, with the Federal Radiological Emergency Response Plan and the Environmental Protection Agency swarming through David's suburb and makeshift "laboratory" for signs of how much radiation had spread to his 40,000 or so neighbors.

Silverstein fleshes out David's story with background info on America's love/hate relationship with nuclear power. It's in these segments that David's story--which is all to easy to write off as misguided young genius--gets frighteningly broad; Silverstein limns America's astoundingly naïve and deadly fascination with anything radioactive. Through the Manhattan Project and Hiroshima, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, Spider-Man and the Simpsons, Silverstein tackles interlocking tales of the now-abandoned "nuclear age" and notes that "while it's easy to understand an adolescent boy's boundless enthusiasm for atomic power, the starry-eyed optimism of all those sober experts who preceded him is harder to explain."

The Radioactive Boy Scout starts out as something fairly innocent, even cute--watching David awkwardly combine household chemicals and struggle socially is more endearing than anything else. But as David's knowledge, ambition, and aptitude grows, and as Silverstein draws far-reaching comparisons with humanity as a whole, the book gets scarier and scarier. Watching David's alarming success is exciting and terrifying. Silverstein has managed to tell a story that's fascinating because of its truth, jarring because of its repercussions, and, in the end, a hell of a read. ERIK HENRIKSEN