UC Berkeley News
Press Release

UC Berkeley Press Release

Virgil E. Schrock, thermal hydraulics expert who helped improve safety of nuclear reactors, dies at 81

– Virgil Schrock, professor emeritus of nuclear engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and an internationally recognized expert in thermal hydraulics, died on Monday, Oct. 1.

Virgil Schrock
Virgil Schrock (Katie Jervis Photography)

Schrock died of cancer at home with his family in Santa Rosa, Calif., at the age of 81.

Much of Schrock's research and experimental work throughout his career focused on understanding boiling phenomena, but he also contributed to fundamental advances in areas related to heat transfer in porous media, shock and pressure wave propagation, fission product decay heat generation, two-phase flow reversal, pressurized thermal shock and condensation.

Colleagues say Schrock's research in heat transfer and fluid mechanics helped move nuclear power plants away from powered "active systems" of heat removal that rely upon pumps and other equipment to operate, to gravity-driven "passive systems" for removing the nuclear reactor decay heat.

"One of the most important things for safety in a nuclear power plant is the reliable removal of decay heat even after a plant shuts down," said UC Berkeley professor Per Peterson, former chair of the Department of Nuclear Engineering. "Schrock's contributions helped in the development of a new generation of nuclear reactors that are considerably safer. His understanding and theories of heat transfer are now embodied in existing nuclear power plants, as well as in the designs of the passive safety systems of new reactors now planned for construction in the United States."

Schrock was born on Jan. 22, 1926, in San Diego, Calif., where he grew up and attended high school. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1946 and 1948, respectively.

He joined the faculty at UC Berkeley's Department of Mechanical Engineering as a lecturer in 1948, earning his second master's degree in mechanical engineering here in 1952. He then interrupted his career to serve as an engineering officer in the U.S. Navy in 1952. He returned to UC Berkeley in 1954, but continued his service in the Naval Reserve, rising to the rank of commander.

He became assistant professor in 1954, associate professor in 1960 and professor in 1968. In 1958, he began teaching in the newly formed Department of Nuclear Engineering, where he served as assistant dean in 1968. He retired from UC Berkeley in 1991, but remained active in his field, supervising graduate student and post-doctoral researchers and serving on dissertation committees.

In 1999, he was appointed a Professor of the Graduate School, a designation reserved for retired faculty who are fully engaged in research and who continue to contribute with distinction to the graduate program.

He played a major role in launching the careers of his students and in mentoring junior colleagues who have gone on to careers as university professors, nuclear reactor designers and national laboratory senior researchers.

"He was able to convey difficult material with clarity and commanded our respect," said Karen Vierow, one of Schrock's former graduate students and associate professor of nuclear engineering at Texas A&M University. "I came to UC Berkeley to study under Schrock because he was widely known for his careful and diligent experiments in classic thermal hydraulics, and he had a very solid understanding of physics."

Schrock was elected as a fellow of both the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and the American Nuclear Society, having chaired several national committees for these societies, and received numerous honors, including the ASME Heat Transfer Memorial Award, ASME Heat Transfer Division 50th Anniversary Award and multiple best paper awards.

Schrock and his family traveled widely because of his work, living in Italy, Japan and China. In addition to being an avid hiker, gardener, carpenter and tennis player, Schrock ran cross-country in college, and participated in the San Francisco Bay to Breakers race into his 60s.

Virgil Schrock is survived by his wife of 61 years, Virginia, of Santa Rosa, Calif.; his son, Douglas Schrock of Kenwood, Calif.; his daughter, Nancy "Scout" Wilkins of Hamilton, Mont.; four grandsons; one great-granddaughter; and a brother, Don Schrock of Jefferson, Maine.

A celebration of Schrock's life is scheduled from 12-3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 27, at the Oakmont East Recreation Center, 7902 Oakmont Dr., in Santa Rosa, Calif.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Schrock's memory may be made to an endowment fund being created in his name for graduate student support in nuclear engineering. Checks may be made out to the Virgil E. Schrock Memorial Fund and sent to the College of Engineering, UC Berkeley, 208 McLaughlin Hall #1722, Berkeley, Calif., 94720-1722.