In 1942, in a reactor known as Chicago Pile-1, physicist Enrico Fermi and his team achieved the world’s first sustained nuclear reaction. Three years later, in the final weeks of World War II, the United States exploded two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, demonstrating to the world the destructive power of nuclear.
After the war, however, nations around the world focused on developing nuclear energy for peaceful civilian applications, including medicine and generating electricity. Argonne National Laboratory offered to help Big 10 universities develop curricula for their own nuclear engineering educational efforts—and as a result, in 1953 UW-Madison formed a interdisciplinary committee of nationally renowned educators and researchers to set the university’s program in motion. With now-Engineering Physics Professor Emeritus Max Carbon as its first chair, the Department of Nuclear Engineering officially formed in 1963.
In 1958, the committee hired Carbon to establish the nuclear engineering bachelor’s, master’s and PhD curricula. He oversaw construction of the university research and training reactor, which achieved initial criticality in early 1961, and recruited and hired top faculty and staff (among them Henry Barschall, Harold Forsen, Bill Vogelsang, Mohamed (Bill) M. El-Wakil and Charlie Maynard), an effort that garnered the program immediate ongoing recognition as among the best in the nation.
Initially, the faculty focused on fission reactor engineering; in the 1970s, they added the emerging research areas of plasma physics and nuclear fusion. “This second area of growth, accompanied by growth in physics and electrical engineering, has made UW-Madison the premier fusion research university internationally,” says Wisconsin Distinguished Professor of Engineering Physics Michael Corradini, department chair from 2001 to 2011.
By 1980, the number of students enrolled in nuclear engineering at all degree levels exceeded 200. In 1995, recognizing common research and educational threads, the nuclear engineering and engineering mechanics (which this year marks its 125th anniversary) programs merged and the Department of Engineering Physics was born. In the 1980s and 2000s, and several “rising stars” joined the faculty, further solidifying each program’s high national ranking.
It’s success that’s rooted in the people who, for more than a half century, have worked to improve and innovate nuclear engineering research and education at UW-Madison. “And as a result,” says Corradini, “our graduates now are national and international leaders in virtually every aspect of the field.”