December 14, 2012
Dr. David Okrent, Professor Emeritus of Engineering and Applied Science at UCLA
and world-renowned nuclear physicist and pioneer in the field of nuclear reactor safety, died at his home in Los Angeles on December 14, 2012. He was 90. David Okrent grew up in Clifton, New Jersey, to immigrant parents from Lithuania and Belarus. He received his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Stevens Institute in 1943. From 1943-46, he worked at the NACA (now NASA) Aircraft Engine Research lab in Cleveland to help develop improved engines for fighter planes and bombers, such as the B-29, a bomber integral to the U.S. war effort in the Pacific. In 1946, Okrent was awarded a teaching fellowship from Harvard University
, where he received a Ph.D. degree in Physics in 1950. While studying at Harvard, Okrent met his beloved wife, Rita, whom he married in 1948. They were happily married for 57 years, until Rita passed away in 2005. In 1951, Okrent was hired as an associate physicist at Argonne National Laboratory, in Illinois. He worked at Argonne for 20 years, first, on designing the reactor for the Nautilus Nuclear Powered Submarine and then on fast reactor physics and safety, soon becoming the leading expert at Argonne on fast reactor safety. Also while at Argonne, Okrent designed the new TREAT reactor, for which he received commendation from the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC, now known as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or NRC). In 1963, Okrent was selected to serve on the ACRS (Advisory Committee For Reactor Safeguards), which advised the AEC on issues related to nuclear safety. Okrent served on the ACRS for 24 years, or 6 terms and as its Chairman in 1966. During his time as Chairman, and while on the committee, he was known for his unwavering commitment to reactor safety, and was instrumental in urging the AEC to construct plants with safety measures to protect against core meltdowns (also known as the "China Syndrome", a term he coined). In 1971, Okrent came to UCLA to help establish its Dept. of Nuclear Engineering. While at UCLA, Professor Okrent and his graduate students used quantitative safety goals in researching other environmental risks, such as hazardous waste removal and transport, earthquakes and dam breaks. At UCLA, Okrent initiated and directed a number of major research projects, advised over 50 Ph.D. students and mentored more than a dozen PostDoctoral Fellows. In 1979, when the Three Mile Island accident occurred, Okrent was brought to Washington D.C to consult on safety issues related to the accident. Afterwards, Okrent recommended trying another approach to regulation which would enable the regulator and the public to evaluate whether a nuclear plant is safe enough. In a taped interview about his career, Okrent explained: "I proposed numerical criteria for measuring reactor safety, in other words, "how safe is safe enough?" The ACRS said "Yes, Dave, you do it!" Okrent also stated: "It's now the main way reactor safety decisions are made. That technique is used now not only for nuclear reactors, but is used for dams or various places." Okrent considered this seminal work to be one of his most important contributions to the field of reactor safety. Okrent's publications include a book he co-wrote with S. Yiftah and P.A Moldauer, "Fast Reactor Cross Sections: A Study Leading to a 16 Group Set", which was a "best seller" among fellow physicists. His 1981 book, "Nuclear Reactor Safety: On the History of the Regulatory Process" is considered an invaluable resource on the regulatory history of reactor safety. Okrent also presented a paper on Fast Reactor physics and safety at the First Atoms For Peace Conference in 1955 in Geneva, Switzerland, and served as a scientific secretary at the next one in 1958. Okrent received many prestigious awards during his career including: Two Guggenheim Fellowships, the first Argonne Universities Association Distinguished Appointment Award in 1970, election to the National Academy of Engineering in 1974, the American Nuclear Society (ANS) Tommy Thompson Award for nuclear reactor safety in 1980, the USNRC Distinguished Service Medal in 1985, the ANS Glenn Seaborg Award in 1987 and the prestigious ANS George C. Laurence Pioneering Award. David Okrent is survived by his three children, Neil, Nina and Jocelyne, and four grandchildren. He is greatly missed by his children, grandchildren and extended family, friends, colleagues and students for his mentoring and advice, his gruff sweetness, his generosity, and his terrific sense of humor. A memorial service was held for him on December 17th at Hillside Memorial Park in Los Angeles. Later this year, Professor Okrent's career contributions to the field of nuclear reactor safety will be honored at an event at UCLA and at the PSA 2013 multi-day conference on probabilistic safety assessment and analysis.