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Professor Emeritus David Lanning, nuclear engineer and key contributor to the MIT Reactor, dies at 96

Remembering the research contributions of a nuclear engineering expert and passionate teacher.
Black and white 1950s-era portrait of David Lanning wearing a suit and tie against a curtained background
Professor Emeritus David Lanning was a founding member of the MIT Reactor and an early contributor to nuclear research, with a career spanning from the 1950s through the 1990s.
Photo courtesy of the Department of Nuclear Engineering.
Black and white photo of David Lanning seated and leaning on a table in a room lined with bookshelves filled with books; speaking with one make and one female student standing in a doorway to the room on the left.
Described as making his point clear while remaining soft-spoken, he would state what he felt was needed, pull his glasses down over his nose, then peer over them. Former students and colleagues termed it the "Lanning Look” and say there was no arguing with it.
Photo courtesy of the Department of Nuclear Engineering.

David Lanning, MIT professor emeritus of nuclear science and engineering and a key contributor to the MIT Reactor project, passed away on April 26 at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Massachusetts, at the age of 96.

Born in Baker, Oregon, on March 30, 1928, Lanning graduated in 1951 from the University of Oregon with a BS in physics. While taking night classes in nuclear engineering, in lieu of an available degree program at the time, he started his career path working for General Electric in Richland, Washington. There he conducted critical-mass studies for handling and designing safe plutonium-bearing systems in separation plants at the Hanford Atomic Products Operation, making him a pioneer in nuclear fuel cycle management.

Lanning was then involved in the design, construction, and startup of the Physical Constants Testing Reactor (PCTR). As one of the few people qualified to operate the experimental reactor, he trained others to safely assess and handle its highly radioactive components.

Lanning supervised experiments at the PCTR to find the critical conditions of various lattices in a safe manner and conduct reactivity measurements to determine relative flux distributions. This primed him to be an indispensable asset to the MIT Reactor (MITR), which was being constructed on the opposite side of the country.

An early authority in nuclear engineering comes to MIT

Lanning came to MIT in 1957 to join what was being called the “MIT Reactor Project” after being recruited by the MITR’s designer and first director, Theos “Tommy” J. Thompson, to serve as one of the MITR’s first operating supervisors. With only a handful of people on the operations team at the time, Lanning also completed the emergency plan and startup procedures for the MITR, which achieved criticality on July 21, 1958.

In addition to becoming a faculty member in the Department of Nuclear Engineering in 1962, Lanning’s roles at the MITR went from reactor operations superintendent in the 1950s and early 1960s, to assistant director in 1962, and then acting director in 1963, when Thompson went on sabbatical.

In his faculty position, Lanning took responsibility for supervising lab subjects and research projects at the MITR, including the Heavy Water Lattice Project. This project supported the thesis work of more than 30 students doing experimental studies of sub-critical uranium fuel rods — including Lanning’s own thesis. He received his PhD in nuclear engineering from MIT in fall 1963.

Lanning decided to leave MIT in July 1965 and return to Hanford as the manager of their Reactor Neutronics Section. Despite not having plans to return to work for MIT, Lanning agreed when Thompson requested that he renew his MITR operator’s license shortly after leaving.

“Because of his thorough familiarity with our facility, it is anticipated that Dr. Lanning may be asked to return to MIT for temporary tours of duty at our reactor. It is always possible that there may be changes in the key personnel presently operating the MIT Reactor and the possible availability of Dr. Lanning to fill in, even temporarily, could be a very important factor in maintaining a high level of competence at the reactor during its continued operation,” Theos J. Thompson wrote in a letter to the Atomic Energy Commission on Sept. 21, 1965

One modification, many changes

This was an invaluable decision to continue the MITR’s success as a nuclear research facility. In 1969 Thompson accepted a two-year term appointment as a U.S. atomic energy commissioner and requested Lanning to return to MIT to take his place during his temporary absence. Thompson initiated feasibility studies for a new MITR core design and believed Lanning was the most capable person to continue the task of seeing the MITR redesign to fruition.

Lanning returned to MIT in July 1969 with a faculty appointment to take over the subjects Thompson was teaching, in addition to being co-director of the MITR with Lincoln Clark Jr. during the redesign. Tragically, Thompson was killed in a plane accident in November 1970, just one week after Lanning and his team submitted the application for the redesign’s construction permit.

Thompson’s death meant his responsibilities were now Lanning’s on a permanent basis. Lanning continued to completion the redesign of the MITR, known today as the MITR-II. The redesign increased the neutron flux level by a factor of three without changing its operating power — expanding the reactor’s research capabilities and refreshing its status as a premier research facility.

Construction and startup tests for the MITR-II were completed in 1975 and the MITR-II went critical on Aug. 14, 1975. Management of the MITR-II was transferred the following year from the Nuclear Engineering Department to its own interdepartmental research center, the Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, where Lanning continued to use the MITR-II for research.

Beyond the redesign

In 1970, Lanning combined two reactor design courses he inherited and introduced a new course in which he had students apply their knowledge and critique the design and economic considerations of a reactor presented by a student in a prior term. He taught these courses through the late 1990s, in addition to leading new courses with other faculty for industry professionals on reactor safety.

Co-author of over 70 papers, many on the forefront of nuclear engineering, Lanning’s research included studies to improve the efficiency, cycle management, and design of nuclear fuel, as well as making reactors safer and more economical to operate.

Lanning was part of an ongoing research project team that introduced and demonstrated digital control and automation in nuclear reactor control mechanisms before any of the sort were found in reactors in the United States. Their research improved the regulatory barriers preventing commercial plants from replacing aging analog reactor control components with digital ones. The project also demonstrated that reactor operations would be more reliable, safe, and economical by introducing automation in certain reactor control systems. This led to the MITR being one of the first reactors in the United States licensed to operate using digital technology to control reactor power.

Lanning became professor emeritus in May 1989 and retired in 1994, but continued his passion for teaching through the late 1990s as a thesis advisor and reader. His legacy lives on in the still-operational MITR-II, with his former students following in his footsteps by working on fuel studies for the next version of the MITR core. 

Lanning is predeceased by his wife of 60 years, Gloria Lanning, and is survived by his two children, a brother, and his many grandchildren.

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