In Memoriam: Robert Powell

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Posted: August 11, 2011

Robert PowellRobert Powell, who joined BNL as a Pile Project engineer — life number 00133 — on February 16, 1947, died at 93 on June 20, 2010. He had retired as a senior engineer on February 29, 1980, after stepping down on February 1 as head of the Reactor Division for 24 years.

Powell was born in Birmingham, Alabama, where he attended school, and he received his B.S. in chemical engineering from Auburn University. After the start of World War II, he joined the U.S. Army, but was soon released to assist E.I. duPont de Nemours & Co., Inc. in fabricating materials needed for the war effort. He was then assigned to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he began work in January 1944 on the X-10, the first controlled, largescale nuclear reactor, as part of the Manhattan Project.

At BNL, Powell joined the design project for the “Pile” — the Brookhaven Graphite Research Reactor (BGRR), first peacetime nuclear reactor built in the United States. He was in charge of the Reactor Operations Division from 1949 until 1956, when he was appointed head of the Reactor Division. He was awarded tenure in 1955.

On Powell’s selection as a Fellow of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) in 1968, he was cited as being “personally responsible for the successful design, construction and operation of the leak detection system for the original natural uranium fuel elements” of the BGRR. The ANS also noted that “the unique fuel shuffling technique employed to flatten the flux distribution in the BGRR following its conversion to enriched uranium fuel was established under his personal direction, and he developed the technique used for monitoring the net growth of the graphite structure due to fast neutron irradiation.” Powell, who held a patent for a cooling mechanism employed in nuclear reactors aboard submarines, was also project engineer for the Brookhaven Medical Research Reactor and a member of the High Flux Beam Reactor Design Steering Committee. He was responsible for the operation of BNL’s three reactors and, when the 10th birthday of the HFBR was celebrated on October 31, 1975, he was given credit for this reactor’s remarkably fine performance over the years.

Powell was chair of the BNL Safety Committee for six years, as well as a member of the Lab’s Reactor & Critical Experiments Safety Committee and of the Bureau of Standards’ Reactor Safety Committee. After his retirement, he continued his work with the Bureau of Standards and was also a frequent consultant for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for many years. Many of BNL’s world-class scientific achievements were made possible by Powell’s dedication to the design, operation, and safety of BNL’s research reactors. For more information, see “Brookhaven’s History,” at

On his retirement, Powell was presented with a DOE Certificate of Appreciation, citing him for his years of outstanding contributions to the design, development, and use of research reactors. The certificate also stated that “for most people, it would be sufficient to state that their efforts, imagination, and resourcefulness have earned great distinction for themselves, their institution, and the sponsoring agency. However, in your case, this would be inadequate, for you have brought a degree of cooperation and integrity to your endeavors that has earned the respect and admiration of all who have worked with you.”

Robert Powell is survived by his wife of 67 years, Shirley Powell, and their seven children and 13 grandchildren.


Last Modified: August 11, 2011