Skip to content ↓

MIT Prof. Norman Rasmussen dies at 75; Applied risk assessment to nuclear power

Norman Rasmussen 1978 Photo
Norman Rasmussen 1978 Photo

MIT Professor Emeritus Norman C. Rasmussen, who made pioneering contributions to the field of nuclear energy risk assessment, died July 18 in the Rivercrest Nursing Home in Concord, Mass. of complications from Parkinson's disease. He was 75.

As author of the 1975 Reactor Safety Study, which studied the public risk of nuclear power plant accidents, Rasmussen made history by applying the probabilistic approach to risk assessment to the nuclear industry for the first time. Prepared for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the report received worldwide attention and later came to be called the Rasmussen Report. It became one of the most influential elements in nuclear safety and licensing internationally. The probabilistic risk assessment methods introduced by that report are used routinely today in nuclear power plant safety assessment and in other industries.

But at that time the report was not without detractors. While proponents of nuclear energy cited it as proof that the risk of a nuclear power plant failure was low, opponents of nuclear power criticized the methodology behind the risk assessment and faulted its conclusions. It was not unusual during the 1970s for Rasmussen to participate in debates over the safety of nuclear power with other MIT faculty members, including the late Henry Kendall of physics, who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1990. Rasmussen also made his case regarding the safety of nuclear power in a televised debate with Ralph Nader.

Rasmussen was awarded the Enrico Fermi Award in 1985, one of the oldest and most prestigious science and technology awards given by the United States government. The award cited his "pioneering contributions to nuclear energy in the development of probabilistic risk assessment techniques that have provided new insights and led to new developments in nuclear power plant safety."

Rasmussen was a professor of nuclear engineering at MIT from 1958-94, and was head of MIT's Department of Nuclear Engineering from 1975-81. His classes earned excellent student reviews and he received a School of Engineering Spira Award for teaching in 1992. The Department later endowed a faculty chair in his name. He is co-author of the textbook "Modern Physics for Engineers."

Rasmussen was a consultant to industry and adviser to the U.S. government, and was appointed by President Reagan in 1982 to a six-year term on the National Science Board. He received both the Distinguished Service Award from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Distinguished Achievement Award of the Health Physics Society in 1976.

He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1977 and to the National Academy of Sciences in 1979, was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management and a fellow of the American Nuclear Society. He received honorary doctorates from Gettysburg College and the Catholic University of Leuven.

Born in Harrisburg, Pa., on Nov. 12, 1927, Rasmussen graduated from high school in Gettysburg, and served in the U.S. Navy from June 1945 to August 1946. He earned the B.A. cum laude in 1950 from Gettysburg College and the Ph.D. in physics from MIT in 1956.

He married Thalia Tichenor in 1952 and the couple lived in Sudbury, where they raised a son and daughter. Rasmussen was a woodworker and an avid bird-watcher who loved to spend family time at the summer cottage he built himself on Sand Pond in Marlow, N.H.

Rasmussen is survived by a son, Neil E. (a 1976 graduate of MIT), and his wife, Anna, of Concord; a daughter, Arlene R. Soule, and her husband, Jeffrey, of Littleton, N.H.; five brothers and four grandchildren. Mrs. Rasmussen died in 1999.

Burial will be private. A memorial service will be scheduled in September. Contributions in Rasmussen's memory may be made to the American Parkinson's Disease Association, Massachusetts Chapter, 720 Harrison Ave., Suite 707, Boston, MA 02118.

Visiting hours are Friday, July 25 from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Joseph Dee & Son Funeral Home in Concord.

Related Topics

More MIT News