By Ann D. Winters
August 10, 2018, marks the 100th birthday of one of the great men in nuclear power: Vice Admiral Eugene P. “Dennis” Wilkinson USN. He passed away in July 2013, a month before his 95th birthday.
I was privileged to call Dennis Wilkinson friend for more than 33 years. He left an enduring impact on everyone who knew him. I was honored that he trusted me to write his authorized biography, UNDERWAY ON NUCLEAR POWER, The Man Behind the Words, Eugene P. “Dennis” Wilkinson, Vice Admiral USN. The book was published in 2016 by the American Nuclear Society (available from ANS and Amazon). The world is a better place because of Dennis Wilkinson, and I am a better person for having known him.
A Navy submariner during World War II, he received the Silver Star—among other awards—for heroic actions during battle. After the War, he began decades-long collaborations with then-Captain Hyman G. Rickover. He was a key contributor to designing the first nuclear reactor for the first nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN-571). He later became the Nautilus’ first commanding officer (CO), sending the historic message, Underway on Nuclear Power, at 11:00 am on 17 January 1955. What an accomplishment!
Dennis Wilkinson commanded four submarines, and later was the first CO of the first nuclear-powered surface ship, the cruiser USS Long Beach (CG[N]-9). He became the first and youngest (at that time) nuclear submariner achieving Admiral rank; and went on to establish standards for developing and maintaining safe and reliable nuclear operations for Navy submarines and surface ships. Along the way, he earned four Distinguished Service Awards prior to retiring in 1974. In the 1990s, the Navy named a new 50,000 square foot submarine training building Wilkinson Hall in his honor.
After the accident at TMI in March 1979, Dennis Wilkinson was persuaded to serve as the first CEO of the newly-established Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO). He was 61. He didn’t expect or solicit his involvement in INPO, yet it became the capstone of his nuclear career, and over time became the service for which he was most proud. He spent four grueling years putting INPO in place, including development of criteria and objectives for evaluating nuclear power plant operations that are still in place today to help ensure worldwide nuclear power plant safety and reliability. It was his unique abilities that established a viable INPO and resulted in significant improvements for the commercial industry. His brilliance, dedication, and commitment to the highest standards became his legacy in this new arena.
Dennis Wilkinson was a remarkable man. In addition to his technical and intellectual brilliance, he was warm, friendly, and compassionate. He stressed the highest standards of professionalism and integrity in all his actions and expected the same from those who worked for him. One of his favorite sayings was, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.” He never lost sight of the importance of the people around him and constantly provided positive reinforcement and wise counsel.
This story originally posted on the author’s LinkedIn page. In celebration of the Vice Admiral’s 100th birthday, ANS is having a 20% off sale on this author’s book from 8/10 thru 8/17. Use the code 100years.