March 20, 2018, Vol. 24, No. 14

Professor Daavettila and the Nuke Program

Don Daavettila

Editor’s note: Continuing our series of chats with emeritus faculty living locally, we caught up with Don Daavettila recently.

Physics Faculty Emeritus Don Daavettila fondly recalls the days of the nuclear engineering master’s program at Michigan Tech. And the fact that nuclear power seems to be coming back in vogue after nearly fifty years doesn’t surprise him.

“Nuclear is the way to go,” says the former chemistry and physics professor. “It’s a solid 20 percent of where we get our power today.”

Back in the heyday of the master’s program, Daavettila, who was trained in nuclear at Argonne National Laboratory, would take students on trips to visit Argonne, Zion Nuclear Station, and the University of Michigan reactors.

“It helped students get good jobs in the nuclear industry,” he says.

So why did the master’s in nuclear engineering end?

“It was more of an investment than the University wanted to do,” Daavettila says. “We did have two subcritical reactors in the basement of the old Koenig Hall. We used to be able to run some neat experiments, with enriched uranium fuel plates. We could show how the neutrons are absorbed into the fuel and release neutrons. The unit wasn’t big, not bigger than this table,” he says pointing to a small table in the corner of the room.

He also fondly recalls his colleagues, the legendary chemistry professor Doc Berry, Tom Ellis (ME-EM), Dave Bredekamp (Chemical Engineering), and Walt Anderson (School of Technology). Anderson worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb.

“Royal Makens was the department chair and was very supportive of the nuclear engineering program,” Daavettila says.

He misses those friends at Tech, and he misses the teaching.

“It never really goes away,” he says. “I loved telling students how what they learn fits into the big picture. I used to hear from a lot of the kids after they graduated.”

Today, Don spends his days taking care of his wife, Charlotte, and enjoying his 20 acres overlooking the Pilgrim River outside of Houghton. He also remains a great Tech hockey fan, after spending forty-plus years running the clock and scoreboard at Huskies games in the MacInnes Student Ice Arena.

He also sees more interest in nuclear engineering from some present-day Tech faculty members. The tide is turning.

“It [nuclear engineering] is quietly doing its job,” he says. “It’s staying out of the news.”