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Michael J. Driscoll, leader in nuclear engineering and beloved mentor, dies at 86

Michael J. Driscoll, MIT

Emeritus professor’s contributions over a span of seven decades advanced nuclear waste disposal and fuel cycle development


Michael J. Driscoll, emeritus professor of nuclear science and engineering, recognized for his leadership in research and devotion to mentorship and education, died peacefully on December 31 in Boston, Massachusetts. He was 86.

Born in Peekskill, NY in 1934, Driscoll received his BS in chemical engineering from Carnegie Mellon. Soon after graduating he joined the Nuclear Navy and served as a commissioned officer on the USS Nautilus, the world's first operational nuclear-powered submarine. His four years “working for Admiral Rickover as a nuclear propulsion engineer” sparked a lifelong passion for nuclear technology and engineering and inspired his career in research and teaching.

Driscoll first came to the MIT Nuclear Engineering Department (as it was known at that time) as a graduate student in 1962. He obtained his doctorate under the supervision of Professor Irving Kaplan and was invited to join the Department’s faculty in 1966 by then Department Head Manson Benedict.

Since then he supervised more than 230 doctoral, master’s and engineer’s theses in the Department. Driscoll found particular joy in working with undergraduates at MIT through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). A committed and passionate educator, he continued supervision of students well past his official retirement in 1989. His well-subscribed classes benefited an even larger number of MIT students. Driscoll received the Ruth and Joel Spira Award for Distinguished Teaching at MIT in 2001 and the Outstanding Teacher Award from the Nuclear Engineering Division of the American Society for Engineering Education in 1975. His dedication to training young scientists and engineers was recognized in 1982 through the Irwin Sizer Award “For the Most Significant Improvement to MIT Education”. Last but not least, Driscoll’s classic textbook on the linear reactivity model for nuclear fuel management shines for clarity and practical utility, and has been used by generations of nuclear engineers worldwide.

Over seven decades, Driscoll’s research spanned fields such as reactor analysis, thermal and fast reactor engineering, fuel management, and fuel cycle engineering and analysis, and included uranium extraction from seawater and disposal of high-level waste. His deep intellectual contributions continue to have significant impact today.

His work in nuclear waste disposal, which examined the viability of the use of deep boreholes as an alternative for disposal of spent fuel and/or its reprocessed constituents, took on new importance in the 1990s following the closure of the Yucca Mountain disposal site.

Driscoll led projects on thorium-fueled and high-burnup core designs for Light Water Reactors that would improve the economics and sustainability of the nuclear fuel cycle. He also strove for the development of a cost-effective once-through core design for fast reactors that would enable their near-term deployment, and would accelerate the transition to full breeder or burner mode operation.

In the early 2000s Driscoll and his colleagues at MIT pioneered the resurrection and improvement of the supercritical CO2 Brayton power cycle – which is projected to both significantly increase thermal efficiency and reduce capital cost compared to the conventional Rankine cycle design for both nuclear and concentrated solar power plants.

Driscoll was animated by his work—which he never thought of as work—and his collaborations with his colleagues and students.  A quietly warm man, he touched and enriched the lives of a remarkable number of students and colleagues over the years of his dedicated and vastly productive service on the MIT faculty.  His MIT colleagues remember him as a kind man and a true gentleman with an insatiable scientific curiosity and an inexhaustibly creative mind.

“Mike may have been the finest educator I’ve ever known. He understood what students (and the rest of us) were capable of, and he was so selfless and generous in helping them achieve it. We were incredibly fortunate to have had him in the department for so long,” reflected Richard Lester, former NSE department head. “This is a very sad day. But with time we can also celebrate his legacy.”

An avid follower of baseball, Driscoll admired Ted Williams and was a big Red Sox fan. He enjoyed building model ships, the way in which Sherlock Holmes solved problems, and the calm of tending orchids.

Driscoll was predeceased by his wife Regina who worked for Nuclear Reactor Laboratory director Theos (Tommy) Thompson, and is survived by his son John Driscoll ’90, of Washington DC.

Donations in Driscoll’s memory can be made to the Michael J. Driscoll (1964) Fund. NSE will hold a memorial service when we are able to come together in person.


RELATED


Michael J. Driscoll — a photo essay
Unlimited Energy Meets an Unlimited Resource
Michael J. Driscoll Graduate Fellowship in Nuclear Science and Engineering


Photo by Jason Dorfman, taken at symposium to celebrate Driscoll's 80th birthday in 2014
Video by Casey Atkins, recorded for 60th Anniversary of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering

January 2021

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