Foulke designed Pitt’s first nuclear engineering program

Larry Foulke, who designed, organized and then oversaw the first decade of Pitt’s nuclear engineering program beginning in 2006 — after a four-decade career in the nuclear industry — died Oct. 26, 2022.

“We wouldn’t have a program without Larry,” said Dan Cole, one of Foulke’s successors as head of the program and today an associate professor in the Swanson School of Engineering’s mechanical engineering and materials science (MEMS) department.

Rather than teaching basic nuclear science and the design of reactor cores, the Pitt program formed by Foulke’s industry experience and expertise was “very focused on all the aspects that the industry needed to operate new power plants,” Cole said. This included the chemical and mechanical engineering knowledge that helps engineers keep nuclear power plants safe. “That is what makes our program strong and unique,” he said.

The academic program Foulke was recruited to spearhead — an undergraduate certificate and a graduate certificate and degree — was designed with industry needs in mind. Foulke had served in management at such local industry leaders as the Bettis Laboratory in West Mifflin and Westinghouse Electric Corp.

“What was remarkable about Larry was his enthusiasm,” said Cole, noting that Foulke’s career encompassed the promise of nuclear energy in the 1960s, the setback of Three Mile Island and the renaissance the industry enjoyed later. “I think the students appreciated that enthusiasm,” Cole added. Foulke’s enthusiasm extended to “getting the message out that nuclear power has a lot of promise and can help us solve some of the problems we have now.

“He was a great guy. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if Larry hadn’t started a nuclear engineering program at Pitt — and what my students are doing. They’re doing great work, impactful work. It wouldn’t have happened without him creating the program.”

Foulke was born April 24, 1937 in Pratt, Kansas. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s of science degrees in nuclear engineering from Kansas State University and his Ph.D. in the same area from MIT in 1967, and was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Oslo and Institute for Atomenergi in Norway (1961-62).

His 40-year career in nuclear technology began in the U.S. Army Reactors Group’s Nuclear Power Field Office in Ft. Belvoir, Va., where he served as a captain in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers through 1968.  He rose through management positions at Bettis and Westinghouse until his retirement in 2006.

During his career in industry, he taught nuclear engineering at the Bettis Reactor Engineering School (1969-1972) and as an adjunct at Penn State (1984-1988) before joining Pitt through 2015. While at the University, he also created and delivered a Massively Open Online Course, “A Look at Nuclear Science and Technology,” taken by more than 30,000 students in 179 countries.

He was a part-time technical judge for the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and a consultant to CRDF Global in the creation of the International Nuclear Education Consortium. He was a fellow of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology and a member of the Engineering Hall of Fame at Kansas State University.

Foulke was also a member of the American Nuclear Society beginning in 1966, serving as its president (2003-2004). He was on the advisory boards for other university nuclear programs and was the 2016 recipient of the Robert L. Long Training Excellence Award.

Brian Gleeson, Harry S. Tack chair and professor of MEMS, recalls Foulke as “a fantastic teacher — very well-spoken and very passionate about nuclear. He was energetic and creative. The guy was a fantastic figurehead but also knew the substance of what had to be put together” to create the program and make it succeed.

Minking Chyu, former MEMS chair and distinguished service professor and associate dean for international initiatives at the Swanson School, helped to hire Foulke and recalls him as “really the pioneer to bring his expertise to the nuclear program and to train the workforce for the industry.”

Foulke enabled the nascent Pitt program to make connections not only with his former industry colleagues but with professional societies and agencies. “He really opened up the opportunity for our faculty to explore research opportunities, which is still going on today,” Chyu said. “He has helped to put Pitt on the map for nuclear education.”

He is survived by his wife, Janice, and children Andrew Lan, Rikke Ralaine and Larra Lisa Omenetto, and five grandchildren.

— Marty Levine