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Talk began as early as 1951 about the need to create a nuclear engineering program at the University of Illinois. The matter took on more urgency when President Dwight D. Eisenhower made nuclear energy a priority, and the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 became law.
Ross J. Martin, former Associate Dean of the University of Illinois College of Engineering, addressed the program's beginnings during the 25th anniversary celebration in 1982. "Within the college," in the mid-1950s, Martin said, "there was a number of people interested and knowledgeable about nuclear engineering and nuclear energy."
Those people included such founders as Marvin E. Wyman and Felix Adler, the first two professors hired to build the Nuclear Engineering program; Bei Tse Chao, mechanical engineering professor; Arthur B. Chilton, founder of the Office of Arms Control, Disarmament, and International Security; and Daniel F. Hang, professor of electrical engineering. Through their efforts and the help of others, the program began with a master's degree curriculum in the 1958-59 academic year. Curriculum for the Ph.D. degree soon followed.
The early founders joined forces with Argonne National Laboratory scientists, who concentrated much of the facility's work on nuclear power and peaceful uses of atomic energy. The benefits from that early collaboration continue through this day. A dedication of the TRIGA nuclear reactor on the University of Illinois campus on Oct. 21, 1960, further enhanced the program. And, recalled Martin, "We had a red letter day, a beautiful day, in June 1964, with the commencement of the first Ph.D. in nuclear engineering being presented to Robert L. Hirsch."
Hirsch later in his career was elected to the National Academy of Engineering. Hirsch has been particularly noted for his work on the report, Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, and Risk Management.
By 1961, the internationally renown George H. Miley had started at Illinois his prolific research into fusion systems, and later served a stint as program chair. By 1966, the program attracted Roy A. Axford, the first nuclear engineering Ph.D. in the United States. Axford established at Illinois his impressive teaching career, while building among his former students a research web of national lab collaborators. Barclay G. Jones came to Illinois in the late 1950s to earn a master's and then a Ph.D., and stayed for half a century, teaching, contributing to reactor research, and leading the department as head for 14 years.
By 1976, the program had graduated its first bachelor's degree earners. By the late 1970s, nuclear engineering counted up to 129 undergraduates, and as many as 99 graduate students. Ten years later, on March 13, 1986, the University of Illinois Board of Trustees approved changing Nuclear Engineering's status from "program" to that of "department." By 1999, the unit's name was changed to the Department of Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering, to reflect the three paths typically followed by its students and the wide variety of courses available to them.
In the years following the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident of 1979, NPRE survived several setbacks. Among them was a decline in enrollment, a reflection of a downturn in the nuclear power industry; the shuttering of the TRIGA nuclear reactor in 1998; and an effort in the early 2000s to reorganize the College of Engineering and dissolve the department.
Now in its second half-century, a new promise of a bright future emerges for NPRE ILLINOIS. Undergraduate enrollment hit a historic high in the 2011-12 academic year with over 200 students, while graduate student enrollment numbers remained steady in the 60s. The increased interest has been in direct response to the federal government's pursuit of alternative energy sources. Engineering at Illinois has re-committed its support for NPRE ILLINOIS, signaling the go-ahead for additional faculty, physical space and financial resources.
"We are looking forward to a bright future while we grow our program and support the growth in the nuclear industry," said NPRE ILLINOIS head James F. Stubbins. "We are proud of the accomplishments of our faculty and alumni in the past 50 years, and we look forward to continuing this leadership with new students and new ideas in the next 50 years."