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. The faculty body doubled to 16 tenured or tenure-track members by 2016-17, and the rise in faculty consequentially led to over 90 graduate students.

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: