Thomas Pigford, influential voice in nuclear policy, dies at 87

Thomas Pigford, professor emeritus and founding chair of the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and an influential voice in nuclear policy, has died at the age of 87.

Pigford died Sunday, Feb. 28, at his home in Oakland, Calif., from complications of Parkinson’s disease.

Thomas Pigford

Thomas Pigford (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Pigford’s five-decade career in nuclear engineering – captured in an oral history produced by The Bancroft Library on campus – spanned nuclear reactor design, nuclear safety, nuclear fuel cycles and radioactive waste management.

At UC Berkeley, he led a research program to develop theoretical means for predicting the long-term behavior of radioactive and chemical waste disposed of underground. Results of this research have been used in the design of geologic repositories for radioactive waste in the United States and abroad. Toward the end of his career, he became engaged in studies related to nuclear weapons proliferation and arms control.

He championed nuclear power, but not at the expense of appropriate safeguards for health and the environment. He was respected among scientists and environmentalists alike for his technical expertise and objectivity, and was appointed to numerous advisory commissions on nuclear reactor safety, including the Expert Consultant Group to Evaluate the Chernobyl Accident and the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island (TMI).

“It was Tom’s wisdom, judgment and practical experience that, in my opinion, led to the TMI Commission’s recommendations being so well thought out,” said Vice Adm. Eugene “Dennis” Wilkinson, commander of the fist nuclear submarine and first president of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, in a quote from Pigford’s oral history. “Those recommendations have stood the test of time and have served as a catalyst for significant change.”

More recently, in the extended debates surrounding the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear disposal site in Nevada — a plan abandoned last month — and the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., which began operating in 1985, Pigford questioned the planning process and stood out as a strong and vocal advocate for stricter safety standards.

“He was very strongly pro-nuclear and, because of that, he wanted it to be done right,” said Daniel Hirsch, a lecturer of nuclear policy at UC Santa Cruz and president of Committee to Bridge the Gap, a non-profit organization critical of nuclear development. “He knew a nuclear program couldn’t be viable if you ignored safety problems. I admired him beyond measure.”

“My father spoke truth to power, which gained him respect from both proponents and opponents of the nuclear power industry,” said his daughter, Julie Pigford Earnest. “Everything he said or did was based on analysis of the data and not on politics or emotion. That said, he was also insightful about the impact of politics on scientific decisions and had a sense of how human error and concerns contribute to scientific policy.”

Pigford was recognized internationally for helping nuclear science evolve from its focus on reactor physics — critical in the development of weapons — into a discipline that incorporated principles of chemical engineering, which was more relevant as scientists sought to harness nuclear power for peaceful, if not controversial, purposes.

“Pigford helped generate nuclear chemical engineering as a coherent field at a time when President Eisenhower was pushing strong for nuclear power,” said Donald Olander, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of nuclear engineering and a colleague of Pigford’s for more than 30 years.

Olander specifically cited a book that Pigford co-authored with his mentor, Manson Benedict, called “Nuclear Chemical Engineering,” considered by many to be the seminal book for the nascent field of nuclear engineering. “The separation of isotopes, reprocessing of fuel, fabrication of fuel rods, extraction of uranium ore and the storage of waste were all addressed in that book.”

Early years

Pigford was born April 21, 1922, in Meridian, Miss., where he attended schools before leaving for college. He received his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1943. He continued his graduate studies in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he earned his Sc.D. degree in 1952.

His graduate studies at MIT were interrupted when he joined the U.S. Navy, where he served in the Pacific during the last stages of World War II. He was discharged with the rank of lieutenant junior grade at the end of the war and returned to MIT to continue his studies.

While still completing his doctorate, Pigford was asked to join the MIT faculty – he became associate professor of nuclear and chemical engineering in 1955 – and his career there included a two-year stint as director of the MIT Graduate School of Engineering Practice at Oak Ridge, Tenn. Pigford transferred back to MIT from Oak Ridge in 1952, the same year he helped Benedict inaugurate MIT’s new graduate program in nuclear engineering.

At the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Pigford also held a position as senior development engineer with the Aqueous Homogenous Nuclear Reactor Project. From 1957-1959, he was a founding staff member at General Atomic, now called General Atomics, at the time a nuclear technology research and development firm based in La Jolla, Calif.

In 1959, Pigford was recruited to the UC Berkeley faculty as a full professor by Nobel Laureate Glenn Seaborg, who was UC Berkeley chancellor at the time. Pigford became the first permanent chair of the nuclear engineering department, which had just been elevated to a full department from a graduate studies program. He also held a position as a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

He served three non-consecutive terms as department chair between 1959 and 1988, a rarity in academia. In 1966, Pigford helped spearhead the construction of a 1-megawatt research nuclear reactor in Etcheverry Hall, its use as a teaching and research tool outweighing concerns by groups opposing its presence on campus. Two decades later, the reactor’s role in research began to wane, and the decision was made to shut it down, a process Pigford oversaw. The reactor was finally decommissioned in 1991, the same year Pigford retired and became professor emeritus.

He continued his connection to UC Berkeley as a Professor of the Graduate School, a title given to select emeriti faculty members who are fully engaged in research on campus and who continue to contribute with distinction to the graduate program after their official retirement.

Honors and avocations

Among the numerous honors Pigford received throughout his career were the Robert E. Wilson Award, given by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers for outstanding chemical engineering contributions and achievements in the nuclear industry; election to Georgia Institute of Technology’s Engineering Hall of Fame; and the Berkeley Citation, the campus’s highest honor. He was co-founder and charter member of the American Nuclear Society, to which he was elected Fellow in 1971. Both Pigford and his brother, Robert Pigford, were elected to the National Academy of Engineering, an unusual example of sibling membership in the academy.

He was an avid tennis player and an enthusiastic and competitive sailor. As skilled with his hands as he was with his mind, he also was an accomplished woodworker, a dedicated gardener and an amateur musician who played French horn, recorder and oboe at various points in his life.

Pigford’s first wife, Catherine Pigford, died in 1992. He is survived by his second wife, Elizabeth Pigford of Oakland, Calif.; his daughters from his first marriage, Cynthia Pigford Naylor of Durham, Calif., and Julie Pigford Earnest of Portland, Ore.; and his step-daughters from his second marriage, Janvrin Demler of Dedham, Mass., and Laura Weekes of Los Angeles, Calif. Also surviving him are five grandchildren and a great grandson. He was also pre-deceased by his brother, Robert, and his sister, Mary Smyser.

A memorial service will be held Saturday, March 27, in Berkeley, Calif.

In lieu of flowers, the family prefers that donations be made in his honor either to a graduate fellowship established in Pigford’s name, or to Doctors Without Borders. For the fellowship, please mail checks — made payable to UC Regents — to the Thomas H. Pigford Graduate Fellowship, University Relations, University of California, Berkeley, 2080 Addison St., Berkeley, CA 94720. For Doctors Without Borders USA, checks should be mailed to P.O. Box 5030, Hagerstown, MD 21741.