Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 23
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  • ROBERT E. NICKELL 1935-2015


    ROBERT ERNEST NICKELL died January 21, 2015, in San ­Diego. He was 79 years old and passed away after a battle with cancer.

    Bob was born in Reedley, California, on July 13, 1935, to Ernest and Selma Helen (née Mullen) Nickell of of Sallisaw, Oklahoma. He graduated from Dinuba High School in 1953 and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. Following his military service he attended Fresno State University before transferring to the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his BS (1963), MS (1964), and PhD (1967) degrees in engineering science.

    During the first 10 years of his career Bob conducted and supervised both fundamental and applied research for private industry and government sponsors. He began his professional career as a research engineer at Rohm & Haas, where he carried out thermal and stress analysis applied to solid propellant rocket engines. He then worked at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Whippany, New Jersey (1968–71), where he was supervisor of solid mechanics and directed research and development activity on manufacturing problems of the Western Electric Company.

    He then did an industrial sabbatical assignment at Brown University (1971–73) as an associate professor of engineering, teaching courses on soil mechanics, structural design, advanced structural dynamics, and finite element methods.

    Next Bob moved to Sandia National Laboratories, where he was supervisor of design technology (1973–77). He directed the management of projects on nuclear spent fuel transportation, ASME Code rules and related standards for elevated temperature reactor design, residual stresses in welded aerospace structures, in-service inspection of nuclear pressure vessels and components, seismic loading simulation using explosives and centrifugal accelerations, structural integrity of pressurized water reactor component supports, and scale-model light-water-reactor severe accident experiments.

    In 1977 he founded Applied Science & Technology, in San Diego. Over the next 38 years he provided engineering consulting services to private industry and government.

    During 1980–84 he was also a project and program manager at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto. He managed research projects on repair welding of heavy-section steel vessels and components, residual stresses in boiling water reactor piping, fracture toughness of steam generator and reactor coolant pump support materials, and aging of cast austenitic stainless steel components. In many of his activities he applied finite element analysis to fluid mechanics and the dynamic buckling of structures subjected to blast loading.

    In 1993 Bob was appointed to the National Coal Council by US Secretary of Energy Hazel Reid O’Leary. He was ­reappointed to two subsequent terms that ended in 1999.

    Bob was a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, American Nuclear Society, and ASTM International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials), and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was also recognized as an honorary member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) in appreciation for his active engagement in numerous ASME committees, service as president (1999–2000), and “significant contributions to the development of finite element methods for assessing material fatigue in nuclear reactor pressure vessels and piping, and the development of detonation chambers for the disposal of chemical weapons.”

    In recognition of his technical contributions in the use of finite element analysis to industrial applications and his numerous professional contributions to the power industry, Bob was elected to the NAE in 2007. In addition, he was the 1972 recipient of the Naval Structural Mechanics Award from the Office of Naval Research/American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He was selected to present the Robert D. Wylie Memorial Lecture at the 2000 International Conference on Pressure Vessel Technology.

    Outside his engineering activities, Bob loved sports of all kinds. In early life he played softball, and in later years he enjoyed attending San Diego Padres baseball games with friends and family. In 1964 Bob married the love of his life, Margaret Harrold (d. 2012), in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He is survived by their two children, Steven Dana Nickell and Kristen Elena Nickell, and one granddaughter.

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