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Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering

Heads of the department

Manson Benedict 1958-1971
Elias P. Gyftopoulis 1968-1969, Acting Head
Edward A. Mason 1971-1975
Kent F. Hansen January-July 1975, Acting Head
Norman C. Rasmussen 1975-1981
Neil E. Todreas 1981-1989
Mujid Kazimi 1989-1997
Jeffrey P. Freidberg 1997-2003
Ian H. Hutchinson 2003-2009
Richard K. Lester 2009-2015
Dennis Whyte 2015-2019
Anne White 2019-

Research and education in nuclear engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began in the Departments of Physics and Chemical Engineering as early as 1946. To foster education and research in the field, the Institute actively recruited personnel who had been involved in atomic energy projects during World War II. Nuclear science was not yet the domain of any single group of academics; mathematicians, scientists, and engineers worked together, often on specific applications, as they had during the war years. Many of the subjects offered and much of the research undertaken at the Institute was classified. Civilians and military personnel came to MIT primarily to acquire graduate training related to nuclear weapons and propulsion, but there was no organized program in this field for several years.

In 1946 the Laboratory for Nuclear Science and Engineering, later named the Laboratory for Nuclear Science (LNS), was established under the direction of professor of physics Jerrold R. Zacharias. The lab reported to the Department of Physics, but the personnel were drawn from many departments, including metallurgy and various engineering departments. Under the auspices of the lab, faculty members from throughout the Institute taught classes and supervised graduate research. Subjects included a classified course in nuclear reactor design and an introductory course in which approximately 30 pioneers in the field of nuclear energy gave a series of unclassified lectures. Other early members of the lab include Clark C. Goodwin, a physicist who taught nuclear reactor design; Edwin R. Gilliland, a professor of chemical engineering; Robley D. Evans, a physicist who taught treatment of nuclear fusion; and Albert R. Kaufman, a metallurgist who directed classified research and taught about the metallurgy of nuclear materials.

In 1948 the Department of Chemical Engineering established an engineering practice school at Oak Ridge, Tenn., to solve problems that arose at the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) facilities. William A. Reed was the first director, and was succeeded by Thomas H. Pigford in 1950. In 1948 Walter C. Whitman, then head of the Department of Chemical Engineering, directed a classified “summer study,” called Project Lexington, to evaluate the feasibility and problems of alternative ideas for nuclear-propelled aircraft. The MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE) was also a partner in the project, which was staffed by scientists from many institutions.

In 1950 the Institute decided to focus instruction and research in nuclear engineering within one department. The Department of Chemical Engineering was chosen as it was the department most involved in nuclear-related activities. The department appointed faculty members with nuclear experience and developed a curriculum leading to advanced degrees. Nuclear engineering was established as Course XXII in the Department of Chemical Engineering.

In January of 1951 Manson Benedict became MIT’s first professor of nuclear engineering. Pigford, who transferred back to MIT from Oak Ridge in 1952, and Evans also taught in the program. In 1953 Course XXII conferred four master of science degrees, and the first Ph.D. was granted in 1956.

During the mid-1950s the department grew and expanded the scope of its research and instruction. A significant part of the program involved summer studies such as Project Dynamo, headed by Ascher Shapiro from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Project Separation, directed by Professor J. Edward Vivian of the Department of Chemical Engineering.

In 1955 the Institute made two significant decisions: to offer a doctoral program in nuclear engineering and to build a first class university research reactor. Tom Cantwell was hired as business manager for the reactor project; Theos J. (Tommy) Thompson joined the faculty of MIT to take charge of the reactor project; and Edward Barnett came to MIT from Brookhaven National Laboratory to serve as reactor engineer. The AEC received the application for a permit in early 1956 and on 6 June 1956 ground was broken for the new reactor. The reactor, named MITR-I, was completed in 1958 and on 9 June the AEC issued an operating license. On 21 July 1958 the reactor began to operate.

Course XXII separated from the Department of Chemical Engineering and became the Department of Nuclear Engineering on 1 July 1958. This was partly warranted by the sufficiently divergent interests and activities of the nuclear engineering faculty and students from the chemical engineering department and partly by the increased size of the program. Manson Benedict was named the first department head. In the five years that followed, the new focus on domestic applications of nuclear power production propelled the department to double the number of subjects and to increase the number of faculty from ten to sixteen. During this period, the first civilian nuclear power plants in the United States went into operation and many faculty members served as advisors to the AEC through its committees. Some of the more notable of the many research projects undertaken by the department during this period included: the Heavy Water Lattice Project funded by the AEC (1959-1967); the Organic Coolant Project, also funded by the AEC (1960-1968); the construction of a bent-quartz-crystal spectrometer to measure the energies of gamma rays emitted when different nuclides absorbed neutrons emitted from the reactor (1958-1963); and the construction of a medical therapy facility in the early 1960s, which was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Between 1963 and 1968 student enrollment increased to 130. The department offered a number of postdoctoral fellowships funded by the Ford Foundation. In 1963 a second heat exchanger and cooling tower was installed at the MIT reactor to permit a power increase to five megawatts. One of the more salient projects of this period was the SIFTOR (Safety Information for the Technology of Reactors) project, the objective of which was to provide guidance for nuclear reactor designers, operators, and safety evaluation groups. With NASA support through the MIT Center for Space Research, Edward A. Mason and Kent F. Hansen made design studies for a hydrogen-cooled nuclear reactor for propulsion of space vehicles such as the NERVA engine that was being developed by the AEC. Gamma-ray detection was updated through the use of a newly developed resolution, triple coincidence lithium-drifted germanium gamma-ray detector. The Reactor Lattice Project, later referred to as the Reactor Physics Project, completed its eight-year program in 1967. In 1966 a special summer session geared toward professionals, Nuclear Power Reactor Safety, was offered for the first time.

Beginning in 1970, the department broadened its undergraduate curriculum and by 1975 offered a full undergraduate program. The first bachelor’s degree was awarded in 1977. In parallel with increasing national concerns about the societal effects of advanced technology, the department placed increased emphasis on the historical, economic, environmental, safety, and policy aspects of both nuclear and conventional energy production. This new emphasis enabled the department to participate in joint research projects with other departments and research centers, notably the Research Laboratory of Electronics, the Energy Laboratory, and the Center for Policy Analysis. The new emphasis on environmental and policy-related topics in conjunction with the undergraduate curriculum permitted the department to nearly double its subject offering from 27 to 52.

One of the most significant experimental projects during this period was the reconstruction of the reactor, initiated in 1967. The redesigned reactor, MITR-II, had a more compact core and was cooled by light water. The reactor began to operate again on 14 August 1975. Another significant project with long-term applications for the department was ALCATOR, a plasma experiment. It was conceived by Bruno Coppi of the Department of Physics and was funded by the AEC and NSF. It was built at the Francis Bitter Magnet Laboratory between 1971 and 1973.

In 1976 the federal government began to modify its strong support for the development of nuclear power. Dramatically rising energy costs caused a decline in the demand for new utility plants and the cancellation of projects already under construction. Because nuclear power plants were the bulk of new construction, the nuclear industry was especially hard hit. A growing anti-nuclear movement that resulted in increased regulations for nuclear power plants was further fueled by the accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Station in Pennsylvania in 1979. Demand for nuclear engineers did not drop through this period, however, and the difficulties of the industry represented challenging research problems for the members of the program. Graduate enrollment remained high, at between 150 and 160 students.

Manson Benedict retired from the department in 1978. In 1982 the department reviewed the undergraduate program, determining that the program was still worthwhile in spite of low enrollment. In 1983 a new doctoral program was started by Gordon L. Brownell and Alan C. Nelson in radiological sciences to supplement the medical radiological physics program. Also in 1983 a new master’s program in health physics was introduced under the leadership of Otto K. Harling. Research projects pertaining to reactor engineering included work in the areas of thermal hydraulics and heat transfer; thermal-hydraulic computer codes; and interface between man and the machine as applied to nuclear power stations.

Recognizing that problems encountered in the operation of nuclear power plants are related to materials science, the department also strengthened its program in materials research. In 1978 an Institute decision to integrate activities resulted in the creation of the Plasma Fusion Center. The center was first directed by Lawrence M. Lidsky. The center permitted more effective support for major projects such as ALCATOR, and important advances in fusion research were made by department members. Reactor physics remained essential to nuclear engineering training, and the basic subject material did not change much during this period.

In 1981 Neil E. Todreas became head of the department. In 1982, under Todreas, the department defined as its four-fold mission: (1) providing education, through teaching and research, to individuals from the U.S. and abroad interested in the peaceful uses of nuclear reactions; (2) identifying and developing new scientific and engineering approaches to practical application of nuclear phenomena, and translating these approaches to education programs; (3) contributing to a thorough understanding of nuclear energy and radiation in national and international communities; and (4) contributing to a thorough understanding of the issues which will determine the role of nuclear power in meeting domestic and world energy needs. In the same year Richard Lester launched a major new research project in the area of nuclear power plant design innovation. The Nuclear Power Plant Innovation Project, which received NSF funding the following year, proposed to explore the role of nuclear power plant design innovations in increasing the attractiveness of the nuclear option to U.S. electric utilities in the 1990s.

By the late 1980s research in the department was divided roughly into 40 percent fission, much of which was focused on next generation nuclear reactors; 25 percent fusion; 25 percent radiation science and technology; and 10 percent energy economics and policy. In 1990 the department began Know Nukes, a semi-annual newsletter for faculty, alumni, and students. Also in 1990 the department established the Advanced Nuclear Power Reactor Program, and two years later hosted the first MIT International Conference on the Next Generation of Nuclear Power Technology. In 1993 a long-range plan that called for the consolidation of the fission and fusion areas into an “energy” area and shifted more resources to radiation science and technology applications in the environmental, industrial, and biomedical areas was completed. To implement the plan, the department undertook a broad review of the graduate curriculum with the intention of creating a core curriculum for all graduate studies prior to specialization. The undergraduate curriculum had already been organized into two tracks: “energy” and “radiation for medicine and industry.”

The department expanded its opportunities for professional education by offering a one-week course on management issues of nuclear power plants in June of 1993 and a five-week course, co-sponsored by the National Academy for Nuclear Training, designed for utility executives, called Reactor Technology Summer Program for Utility Executives. The special summer session, Nuclear Power Reactor Safety, which started in 1966, was still popular in the summer of 1994. In 1993 graduate enrollment remained around 150 students and undergraduate enrollment fluctuated between 25 and 40 students. Also in 1993 Professors Harling, Allan Henry, David Lanning, John Meyer, and John Bernard undertook studies to upgrade and relicense MITR-II.

Major centers and labs associated with the department in 1994 included the Laboratory for Nuclear Science, the Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, and the Plasma Fusion Center.

In the fall of 2004 the department proposed to change its name to Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering to reflect more accurately the range of research of its faculty and the interests of its students. In December 2004, the Executive Committee of the Corporation approved the name change.

Prepared by the Department of Distinctive Collections, MIT Libraries
October 1995; updated 2005, 2010, April 2020