Today in NC State History: Campus dedicated to nuclear age

May 23, 2012
By Chris Saunders

PrintNothing better defines NC State’s prominence as a leader in science and technology than its marriage to nuclear power. It was on the university’s campus where the first nuclear reactor housed outside of the Atomic Energy Commission appeared. Built in 1953, that reactor marked a dedication by the engineering program to nuclear research.

John Harold Lampe.

John Harold Lampe.

As Alice Elizabeth Reagan writes in North Carolina State: A Narrative History, John Harold Lampe, then dean of the School of Engineering, set out to improve the school’s physics department. So he appointed a faculty committee that steered the department toward a commitment to nuclear science. Clifford K. Beck, who was a member of the Manhattan Atomic Bomb project, came from Oak Ridge National Laboratory to head the department, developing a program in nuclear physics. With Beck in hand, Lampe then pursued the Atomic Energy Commission in hopes of obtaining its permission to build a nuclear reactor at NC State.

The reactor and facility around it was completed in 1953. The Atomic Energy Commission supplied the uranium-235 isotope needed to fuel the reactor, and Burlington Industries, the North Carolina textile company, financed the construction. It was on this day in 1955 that  Burlington Nuclear Laboratories was dedicated.

In 1973, the larger facility that is today known as Burlington Engineering Laboratories was built. It now holds a one million-watt Pulstar reactor.

The Burlington reactor in the 1950s.

The Burlington reactor in the 1950s.

Reagan writes that Lampe’s efforts solidified NC State’s School of Engineering as a top program in the country.

“It insured State College’s leadership in the field of nuclear engineering for many years,” she writes, stating that Lampe secured new faculty members and the accreditation of several programs in the department.

“After this success, only Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology had more accredited engineering programs.”

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