I've been doing research into school science projects, and came across this interesting item, billed as "The Ultimate Science Fair Project" - homebrewed nuclear reactors.
It's not as off the wall as it seems, and brings to mind the forgotten story of gamer Cameron Sneed. Twenty-two-year-old Sneed lived with his parents in Rockwall, Texas, a small town east of Dallas. He’s an auto school dropout, but he was also a resourceful geek who loves to make things. While working as a coder at a local telecom, Sneed got the video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. He couldn’t afford a new PC to play the shooter, which was set in the post-meltdown hellscape of the infamous nuclear power plant. So Sneed tweaked his old graphics card and cooling device to keep it from overheating.
The game was good, full of radioactive mutants to kill. But the graphics were lacking, so Sneed created a “mod” to fix them. He uploaded his mod and promoted it on the site Ars Technica a gathering place for hackers and tinkerers. More than 50,000 people downloaded Sneed’s tweaked version of the game, and PC Gamer named it Mod of the Year. “I'm glowing with pride that this project came out of our own community,” effused one geek on the Ars Technica forum. Sneed, unemployed, basked in the glory for a while. Then he decided to build something a little more ambitious: A nuclear reactor. “The whole point of the project was to prove to myself that you can breed materials with little expense in your garage and do it relatively safely,” he said.
He wasn’t the first. In 1994, a 17-year-old misfit named David Hahn gained notoriety after a failed attempt to build a fast breed nuclear reactor in his parent’s backyard. Hahn, dubbed “The Radioactive Boy Scout,” can’t shake his hobby. He was rearrested after stealing several smoke detectors, presumably to harvest their Americium-241. Hahn’s mug shot shows a face dotted with lesions, which were caused by repeated exposure to radiation:.
But Sneed was determined not to become another David Hahn. Unlike him, Sneed wouldn’t sneak around or steal; he’d build his reactor in public. Last November, he logged onto Ars Technica and posted: “I will document all experiments and injuries along with odd phenomenon such as opening the gates of hell.”Sneed snagged some Americium-241, as well as some natural radioactive ore on eBay. He boasted of producing Plutonium-239, a component in nuke weapons. He later wrote, “I melted a large hunk of uranium out of one side of an ore chunk. I am concerned that background radiation level in my office and bedroom have almost doubled” Meanwhile, posters in the Ars Technica forum begged Sneed to stop. “Do not ionize or vaporize uranium!” one geek wrote. “It's not the radiation that will kill you, it's the fucking heavy metal toxicity.” Sneed ignored such warnings. “I am no David Hahn and am not as stupid,” he posted, “I HAVE built a functioning breeder Aluminum+Lead shield, but some radiation is escaping. I’ll beef it up.”
He didn’t get the chance. Agents from the FBI and the Texas Department of State Health Services' Radiation Control Program showed up at his parent’s house. They’d been tipped off by someone on Ars Technica. Because there were not dangerous radiation levels yet and since the materials were legally obtained, Sneed was not arrested. FBI spokesman Mark White admired Sneed’s handiwork, saying “if he had kept his experiment going, it probably wouldn't have blown up.”
David Kushner is the author of many books, including Masters of Doom, Jonny Magic & the Card Shark Kids, Levittown, The Bones of Marianna, and Alligator Candy. A contributing editor of Rolling Stone, he has written for publications including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Wired, and The New York Times Magazine.