Nuclear Engineering at Caltech

by Noel Corngold


The field of nuclear engineering deals with systems energized by nuclear rather than atomic processes. In practice it has come to mean the study of fission and /or fusion reactors, and it is the fission option that has prevailed, so far. Caltech’s program in nuclear fission–engineering dawned in the late 1950s. It is mentioned, for the first time, in the 1958-59 Catalog. It flourished beautifully for about fifteen years, then suffered the fate of other, similar, university programs—it died.


That Caltech’s program began so late is puzzling. Reactors generating beams of neutrons for research and reactors generating power began to appear in public in the early '50s. These were novel and ingenious machines, and though born in an atmosphere of military urgency, they were expected to produce great benefits in peacetime. They would be a source of cheap, clean, energy . Was the post-war Caltech faculty intrigued, challenged? Apparently not. Robert Bacher, Caltech’s provost, had been a member of the first Atomic Energy Commission. He, along with other Caltech faculty members— Professors Robert Christy, Richard Feynman, Robert Walker— had played major roles at Los Alamos. Yet, one examines in vain Caltech Catalogs 1945-58 seeking the merest mention of nuclear reactors or “applied” nuclear physics.

Some movement was observed in the mid 1950s, stimulated perhaps by President Eisenhower’s announcement of his Atoms for Peace program. Then, in 1955, the First Geneva Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy was convened. There, papers and plans about fission and fusion engineering, many recently declassified, were presented amidst great optimism and enthusiasm. The world press observed and reported. How could Caltech continue to ignore the subject? Indeed, the Institute responded; in November of ’55 President DuBridge asked Fred Lindvall, chairman of the engineering division, to head a committee that would include professors Bacher, C.C. Lauritsen, Plesset, and others, to consider an Institute program in applied nuclear energy—its extent, its directions, and how it might obtain financial support. In his oral history, Professor Milton Plesset said, recalling the committee and its discussions and remarks,“I don’t think that ever got anywhere.”

While Caltech’s senior faculty may have lacked nuclear enthusiasm, its young people did not. In particular, Robert Meghreblian (Ph.D. 1952 Aeronautics) and Harold Lurie (Ph.D. 1950 Mechanical Engineering), recent Caltech doctorates, were out ahead. Their interest was crystallized into hard skills at ORSORT, the Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology, a remarkable institution. To quote a news item, “The school operated in the 1950’s, to provide trained nuclear engineers at the time when most of the technology was classified and universities were therefore unable to offer programs in nuclear engineering. The ORSORT course lasted for a year, with classwork and laboratories 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. The school was started by then-Captain Hyman Rickover, the father of the nuclear submarine program and reflected that man’s work ethic.” Meghreblian was the first to make the journey to Tennessee. He arrived in 1952, to be told that because of his strong background in physics, he could not be admittedas a student. Rather, he would be one of the instructors! (Indeed, later, an author, too. The text, “Meghreblian and Holmes” was an early and successful book on reactor physics.) Lurie arrived shortly afterwards, and learned in the traditional manner. Harold had been educated in South Africa, and was a skilled and enthusiastic pilot. He came to Caltech as a graduate student in mechanical engineering in the late 1940s. His talent had been recognized by Caltech in 1953 with an appointment as assistant professor of applied mechanics.

Either enthusiast might have been the father of Caltech’s program, but Meghreblian felt obligated to stay at Oak Ridge for another half-dozen years (He returned to Pasadena in the '60s, to a distinguished career in physics at JPL) while Harold carried the flame west, to campus. Lurie built a laboratory in a shed behind Thomas; its nucleus was a “sub-critical assembly” built of natural uranium and graphite borrowed from the Atomic Energy Commission in 1957. (A uranium-free, teaching laboratory resided deep in Thomas’ basement, too.) Later, a modest linear accelerator was added, so that experiments on the dynamic as well as static behavior of neutron distributions could be performed.

Courses and Research

Nuclear engineering makes its first appearance as a graduate option in mechanical engineering in the 1958-59 catalog, its courses appearing under the aegis of applied mechanics. Later, they were listed as engineering science. The program was simple enough— a year’s course in the physics and mathematics of nuclear reactors, enriched by one term of adventures in the nuclear laboratory, and a year’s course in nuclear physics to supplement the engineer’s traditional training. The first two were taught by Lurie, the last was the responsibility of Milton Plesset. Plesset had a rich background in theoretical physics, having been one of Robert Oppenheimer’s associates in the 1930s. But he had changed career paths, and for some time had been focused on cavitation phenomena in fluid dynamics. While he supported the nuclear engineering program, his interest in it was, at best, minimal.

The program had an obvious lack—a course in “advanced topics.” The most important of these was the theory of particle transport, which is a variant of classical kinetic theory. It was taught from time to time by visitors, members of Caltech’s extended family —E.Richard Cohen (Ph.D 1949 Physics), and Anthony Leonard (B.S.1959 ), later our von Karman Professor of Aeronautics, helped. Upon his return to Pasadena, Meghreblian also participated. The “pencil-and-paper” (i.e., reactor theory) situation was stabilized in 1966 when Noel Corngold was recruited from Brookhaven National Laboratory to join as Professor of Applied Science. The laboratory effort had been strengthened earlier by the appointment in 1961 of Jerome Shapiro as Research Fellow. Shapiro, trained at the University of Michigan, graduated into the faculty as assistant professor in 1965. Among his other tasks, he supervised the accelerator.

The program flourished in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. Very talented students were attracted to what appeared to be an exciting and promising field. Interesting work could be done with modest experimental facilities and an ample supply of pencil and paper. A dominant theme in the research was neutron physics. There were new insights into the manner in which neutrons came into thermal equilibrium with their material environment. Overall, the program produced perhaps a dozen PhDs, many of whom became leaders, prize-winners, in science and engineering. Among them: George Apostolakis, Robert Conn, James Duderstadt, Kaye Lathrop, Mike Lineberry, Hans Ludewig, Harold McFarlane, Wayne Pfeiffer . . . . One finds Caltech Distinguished Alumni, four E.O. Lawrence Award winners (an award shared, at times, with Caltech’s Achmed Zewail and Steve Koonin) , members of the National Academy of Engineering, and a university president. One might wager that no other option at Caltech has produced such a density of ‘stars.’

But the small, fragile university program could not withstand external and internal stresses. Government enthusiasm for nuclear energy and, with it, generous graduate fellowships, waned in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. (The coup de grace, Three Mile Island, did not come until 1979.) Internal support for the Caltech effort was never sturdy. Shapiro did not continue up the academic ladder and departed, and Lurie, who had diverted some of his energy to the Graduate Office, went on leave, resigning in 1972. The division chose not to refill either position. In some respects the arc of the Caltech effort was not unusual; nuclear engineering programs at Stanford, Columbia, and, later, UCLA rose and fell in a similar manner. But Caltech’s Harold Lurie was special— and indefatigable. After leaving the Institute he served as dean of engineering at Northeastern University. Upon retirement from Northeastern he enrolled in law school and earned a degree in patent law. And just before his death in 1998, shortly before his 80th birthday, Harold was gratified to receive his pilot’s license—for helicopter flight.

Noel Corngold, May 2007

Last updated 6/1/07.

Christopher E. Brennen