Answer to Question #3501 Submitted to "Ask the Experts"
Category: Nuclear Power — Nuclear Energy
The following question was answered by an expert in the appropriate field:
There is talk about a 17-year-old boy who pieced together a breeder reactor with antiques and radiation laboratory supply items. Is this an urban legend or truth?
There are bits and pieces of the story you relate that are true, while others are an exaggeration. You are probably thinking of an article written in Harper's magazine in 1998 by Ken Silverstein (who recently published a book called The Radioactive Boy Scout). You can find a copy of the article on the Looksmart website or you can do a Google search under the phrase "radioactive boy scout."
True: a high school student DID collect all sorts of radioactive materials in an attempt to build a nuclear reactor. This included collecting smoke detectors and trying to chemically extract radioactive materials from a variety of objects.
True: the student heavily contaminated his home, which later became a Superfund site.
False: the student built a working nuclear reactor (in fact, the student made some progress towards producing fissionable materials and the work he did was impressive. But it would have taken him a VERY long time to produce enough fissionable material to make a nuclear reactor.)
So—the bottom line is that a very bright student did make a fairly sophisticated effort to extract radioactive materials and construct a neutron "gun," and he tried to produce fissionable materials, with the goal of making a breeder reactor. However, he never accumulated enough material to create an actual reactor, and the methodology he used would have taken too long to make the materials. Even if he had manufactured the requisite kilograms of fissionable materials, he would still have had to assemble them into a nuclear reactor, which is not easy to do. The most likely outcome of his experiments, had they been carried through to fruition, would have been poisoning (from the chemical toxicity of the materials he was working with) and disappointment. However, the level of scientific sophistication exhibited by this boy was impressive!Andrew Karam, CHP, PhD
Answer posted on 29 March 2004. The information and material posted on this website is intended as general reference information only. Specific facts and circumstances may alter the concepts and applications of materials and information described herein. The information provided is not a substitute for professional advice and should not be relied upon in the absence of such professional advice specific to whatever facts and circumstances are presented in any given situation. Answers are correct at the time they are posted on the Website. Be advised that over time, some requirements could change, new data could be made available, or Internet links could change. For answers that have been posted for several months or longer, please check the current status of the posted information prior to using the responses for specific applications.
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