Ted Rockwell, Atomic Pioneer and Tireless Campaigner for Facts

By Rod Adams

letters from lynchburg 190x160On Sunday, March 31, 2013, just a few months before his 91st birthday, Ted Rockwell passed away quietly in his sleep. His passing has stimulated a profound sense of loss among nuclear energy professionals.

For many of us, Ted was a visible and active reminder that our technology, as established as it might seem to some people, is younger than the duration of a single human life. Ted may not have been around when people first realized that uranium nuclei had the potential to provide a reliable, energy dense source of heat, but he was actively involved in the process of taming the “new fire” known as atomic fission and bringing it indoors to begin to serve some of mankind’s growing energy needs.



When Ted started his professional career, Enrico Fermi and his team had not yet assembled Critical Pile #1, the simple construction of graphite bricks and uranium metal that conclusively demonstrated that a fission chain reaction could be established and controlled. Ted became a nuclear energy professional within a few months of that experimental demonstration, serving during the Manhattan Project as a member of an elite Process Improvement Task Force at the Clinton Engineer Works, the facility that is now known as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Ted’s professional accomplishments are legendary; when he met Captain Rickover, he was in charge of the Radiation Shield Engineering Group at Oak Ridge. He then served as Admiral Rickover’s technical director during the development and construction of the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear powered submarine, and during the development and construction of the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, the first commercial nuclear power plant in the United States. He was involved with the process to produce commercial quantities of zirconium and he was the assigned editor of the Shield Design Manual, a document that remains a basic reference for engineers more than 50 years after its initial publication.

In 1964, he and two of his colleagues from Naval Reactors left that organization to found MPR Associates, an engineering company built on the principles of excellence that they refined while working with Admiral Rickover. They had learned that one man can make a difference and that three men working together could build a formidable team to produce exceptional quality work.

Ted was the author of several books including The Rickover Effect: How One Man Made a Difference, and Creating the New World: Stories & Images from the Dawn of the Atomic Age, that should be a part of any collection on nuclear energy technology and history.

Though Ted stopped working full time at MPR several decades ago, he never got around to retiring. He was still actively writing and mentoring other nuclear energy professionals until the very end. He focused on several important nuclear energy topics including the health effects of low level radiation, using realistic assumptions to compute accident effects, the importance of agreeing on facts in order to achieve useful decisions, learning lessons from history and natural experiments, using nuclear energy to propel commercial ships, and the importance of sharing knowledge widely with as many different people as possible.

I had the good fortune to meet Ted at an ANS meeting nearly twenty years ago. He was a featured speaker at a session on the health effects of low level radiation organized by Jim Muckerheide in either 1994 or 1995. He has appeared as a guest on several Atomic Show podcasts and has provided a dozen or more guest posts on Atomic Insights. He was always generous with his time, his knowledge, and his vast experience.

Based on email correspondence with other nuclear energy professionals, my experience of Ted’s generosity was in no way unique; he was a mentor and an inspiration to dozens of others.

One of Ted’s many recent projects was serving as the technical editor for a not-yet-completed documentary about Admiral Rickover being produced by Michael Pack. His tireless efforts to share accurate information about nuclear energy technology are a good example for many people in the nuclear energy profession who are normally shy and retiring.

I think it is safe to say that the best tribute we can provide in memory of Theodore Rockwell is to continue his efforts against the spread of false information about radiation and nuclear energy by those who have been doing so for almost as long as Ted worked to correct that misinformation.

Ted Rockwell – Used fuel can be stored almost anywhere for at least 100 years

Ted Rockwell – There is nothing in the same class as nuclear




Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

16 thoughts on “Ted Rockwell, Atomic Pioneer and Tireless Campaigner for Facts

  1. Amelia Frahm


    Thank you for putting into words the admiration and fondness so many of us felt for Ted Rockwell.

    He was kind enough to read, offer suggestions, and an endorsement for my children’s book on nuclear power plants. I know some men of his stature would have felt a mere children’s book beneath them, but he exhibited such delight and enthusiasm regarding what was then just a rough draft. I will forever be grateful for his generosity.

    He had such a spirited intellect that it was easy to forget he was approaching 91 years old! I still have congratulatory email he sent me when the book was published and will always treasure it and the endorsement he wrote for it prior to publishing.

    The nuclear industry lost a hero. I am sad for all of us, and especially those who had the privilege to know him best. My sincere sympathy to his colleagues, friends, and family.

    Amelia Frahm

  2. Mohammed Fadous

    I don’t know Dr. Rockwell in person … but I had a chance to read one of his books. The book provided a big help to me in my study as a nuclear engineering student .
    Dr. Rockwell added a lot to the nuclear technology … I’m sure that he did his role in this life … may he rest in peace.

  3. Alan Waltar

    To any logical thinker among the international nuclear community, Ted Rockwell was a hero among heros. His contributions to nuclear technolgy and to the human race are monumental. From his classic orignal text on radiation shielding, to his inspired writings, and to his unflinching drive to bring realism into nuclear and radiation safety, he is inmatched in our profession. As was said of Abe Lincoln, Ted now belongs to the ages.

  4. John A. Shanahan

    Go Nuclear, Inc. is a non-profit dedicated to bringing nuclear energy and nuclear medicine experts together to work with youth advocates for public education. Ted Rockwell was always there for us since 2010 as we learned from him about many aspects of nuclear energy and radiation. We were hoping to have our Founding Youth Advocate, Mary Claire Birdsong in Augusta, Georgia do a video interview with him this spring. Mary Claire prepared a 90th birthday tribute to Ted and wrote a poem for all the pioneers in nuclear energy in June 2012. The birthday tribute was signed by people from many walks of life around the world who knew Ted and Admiral Rickover, whom Ted worked for in the early days. A surprising signature came from a nuclear engineering student in Jordan who greatly admired Ted and his book on Radiation Shielding. Go Nuclear will continue our mission of public education involving youth and always look up to the wonderful example he created in his life time and leaves as a legacy.

    John Shanahan
    Go Nuclear, Inc.
    Denver, Colorado
    e-mail: acorncreek2006@gmail.com

  5. Ray Jones

    For those that sailed many years on the marvelous nuclear ships owe a great deal to those members of ADM Rickover’s staff like Ted that devoted so much to make it the best program in the world. He will be missed.

  6. Bob Koonce

    Thanks for the tribute to Ted Rockwell. After 22 years in the Nuclear Navy including command and head of the Nuclear Propulsion Examining Board and now here as part of the great team at MPR Associates, I am very proud to be part of the legacy of such men as Rickover and Rockwell. Even though I never met either man, I feel that I learned much from each. The lessons they taught were not always easy or fun to learn, but the discipline of excellence in engineering demands high standards. Our challenge is to carry on in their footsteps and teach the next generation. Thanks again and if you are ever in Old Town Alexandria, VA stop by to see us.

    Bob Koonce
    MPR Associates, Inc
    Alexandria, VA

  7. Gary Duarte

    We just learned of Ted’s passing. We have posted a note a couple clicks down on our website home page and a page link to some our our discussions with Ted. Gary

  8. James Greenidge


    I’m no ad-man and don’t go around promoting blogs, and the following isn’t that case. If nuclear energy is to get a fair shake in the court of public opinion then it needs to be viewed free of tainted, biased, FUD, and often pernicious assertions divorced from fact or study. Rod Adams has vented anti-nuclear activists whose credential pretenses and outright lies has caused great grievous injury to the public perceptive and acceptance of nuclear power. Two such excellent and long overdue ventings can be viewed here:


    I hope more blogs step up to the plate to debunk and expose anti-nuclear zealots and organizations. Nuclear blogs ought have a persona notorious headliner on these types to tip off a clueless web surfer. I implore all nuclear advocates join me, even redundantly, to embedding this above address on as many nuclear sites as possible for a heads-up on the same page on our common unscrupulous nemesis who is almost literally getting away with mass murder in league an unchallenging often sympathetic media. Doing so is not strutting a blog; you are doing a public good by enlightenment for the irresponsible pro-fossil actions of anti-nuclears has cost the health and lives of real-life non-specutalated tens of millions of people worldwide.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  9. A. David Rossin

    Another comment from a “Dave with an A. in his name”:
    My first job at Argonne in 1955 involved using a shielding experiment to teach in the International School. Then designing shielding for a proposed reactor. I was introduced to The Shielding Design Manual. It had a number with a 3 on it. Ted Rockwell was the Editor, and it was Ted who convinced Adm. Rickover to allow it to be declassified so that future reactor designers could learn from the early Naval Reactors experience. And we did!

  10. Robert Margolis

    Rod, a great tribute to one of our giants. I met Ted in 1994 and had the pleasure of correspondence for almost 19 years. Your brief article encapsulated the essence of this extraordinary pioneer of the nuclear age. I also know Michael Pack and his work. I look forward to seeing the Rickover documentary when it makes it to PBS. Thanks for posting this special remembrance.

  11. Gary D. Lewis

    It with great sadness to here of the passing of Ted Rockwell.
    Many of us at “Environmentalist For Nuclear Energy” know of
    Ted Rockwell’s In his pursuit of reason and facts over emotion and disinformation.

    It is now up to all of us to carry on the torch.

    I had paid 25 cents for his book “The Rickover effect” at a used book sale many years ago. Concluding it was the best thing I bought for 25 cents

    Sincerest Regards

    Gary D. Lewis
    member board of directors
    Environmentalist For Nuclear Energy (Canada)

  12. James Greenidge

    Good tribute to a true nemesis of FUD and a champion for a clean energy rich environment. Wish the History Channel did a feature on civilizationally contributive personalities such as Rockwell instead of cruddy pop culture “heroes”.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  13. northcoast

    In the 1950’s zirconium had a dirty name for being involved in explosions. Developing Zircaloy as a safely handled material was one of the accomplishments of the Nautilus reactor, evidently with Mr. Rockwell’s participation.

  14. Dave A.

    Another book worth mentioning is the “Radiation Shield Design Manual” he edited/created. It’s a valuable technical reference and a great resource for all shielding engineers.

  15. Jeff S

    Nice mini-biography Rod. About 2 years ago (or maybe it’s been 3, now – time flies, as they say), I discovered the “Learning About Energy” website – another page I had been visiting, on my quest to learn about nuclear power, I think it was either “Coal 2 Nuclear” website, or “Strong Force”, had linked to a white paper Ted authored, for reasonably educated laymen like myself, called “Nuclear Energy Facts Report” – which is a terrific resource, and I hope someone takes maintenance of it and keeps it updated in the future.

    After reading that paper, I spent a bit of time reading some of his previous blog posts. I’m very grateful he took the time to create those resources, as I found them very educational, and I’m sorry we’ve lost the author of those works.

    My condolences to his friends and, especially, his family.

  16. Gwyneth Cravens

    Rod, what a wonderful essay about Ted! He was an inspiring presence for us all. He was also compassionate. After the earthquake, tsunami, and the Fukushima incident, ignorant anti-nuclear activists campaigned to terrorize the Japanese with warnings that tens or hundreds of thousands of them were going to die because of radiation exposure. Ted was incensed by the cruelty and stupidity of this falsehood and its psychological impact upon a frightened population already suffering from two natural disasters.

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