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. 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. A dedication of the TRIGA nuclear reactor on the Urbana campus on Oct. 21, 1960, further enhanced the program. Decommissioned 38 years later, TRIGA gained American Nuclear Society National Landmark Status in 2016.
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 the status of Nuclear Engineering from “program” to that of “department.” The name of the unit was changed to the Department of Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering in 2003 to reflect the three paths typically followed by its students and the wide variety of courses available to them.
Undergraduate enrollment grew considerably in the early 2000s, as a “nuclear renaissance” was proclaimed across the country. NPRE moved on the Urbana campus from the Nuclear Engineering Laboratory to Talbot Laboratory in 2007. By academic year 2011-12, undergraduate enrollment hit a historic high with over 200 students.
By 2010, NPRE began a major push to add faculty in the areas of nuclear power safety, materials, risk assessment, and homeland security.
In 2014, NPRE's plasma/fusion track was boosted considerably by acquiring the Hybrid Illinois Device for Research and Applications (HIDRA) plasma/fusion advanced physics testing facility from the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics.
Today, NPRE researchers educate students and conduct investigations in materials science; nuclear power; plasma physics and fusion; radiological science; and reliability and risk. This work has been advanced using a number of world-class facilities and laboratories:
- Advanced Reactors and Fuel Cycles
- Center for Plasma-Material Interactions
- Fuel Cell Research Laboratory
- Functional X-ray Imaging Laboratory
- Fusion Studies Laboratory
- Helicon Injected Inertial Plasma Electrostatic Rocket Laboratory
- High Temperature Environmental Exposure Laboratory
- High Temperature Nuclear Materials Laboratory
- Hybrid Illinois Device for Research and Applications
- Multiphase Thermo-fluid Dynamics Laboratory
- Non-Equilibrium Matter Laboratory
- Nuclear Materials Fabrication and Studies Laboratory
- Radiation Detection and Imaging Laboratory
- Radiation Surface Science and Engineering Laboratory
- Radiological Instrumentation Laboratory
- Socio-Technical Risk Analysis Laboratory
- Virtual Education and Research Laboratory