Education and Training: Bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree
Salary: Median—$84,880 per year
Employment Outlook: Fair
Definition and Nature of the Work
Nuclear engineers use their knowledge about nuclear energy to solve engineering problems. Their work allows for the practical application of many discoveries by nuclear physicists and other scientists. Nuclear engineers have knowledge of the processes that produce nuclear energy and understand the properties of the radiation and radioactive atoms produced in nuclear reactions. They are trained to use this specialized knowledge in design, construction, research, and development.
Many nuclear engineers work in private and governmental research and development laboratories. Some teach in colleges and universities. Other engineers are employed in nuclear power plants and in factories that make nuclear equipment or weapons.
Sometimes nuclear engineers work chiefly in design engineering. They often design and develop new devices used to generate nuclear power, such as nuclear reactors. They also may develop equipment used to process nuclear fuels and dispose of radioactive waste materials. Some nuclear engineers design equipment that makes use of radioactive materials to solve a wide variety of problems in agriculture, medicine, science, and industry. Other engineers work closely with scientists in the development of equipment and methods to be used in nuclear research. Their work may help scientists to gain more knowledge about the structure and dynamics of matter and energy as well as lead to new ways of producing and using nuclear energy.
Sometimes nuclear engineers work in a specific construction project or in on-site engineering. For example, they may work at the construction site of a new nuclear power plant. On-site engineers work closely with other specialists and supervise the part of the construction for which they are responsible. When problems related to the use of nuclear energy arise, nuclear engineers must analyze and solve them quickly. Nuclear engineers may supervise the loading of fuel into a nuclear reactor and the critical steps leading to the generation of nuclear energy.
Other nuclear engineers supervise the operation of nuclear facilities. They may work in nuclear power plants or in plants that make nuclear equipment or fuels. They may be responsible for maintaining safe radiation levels. They may also supervise technicians who use radiation technology in the manufacture of a wide variety of products.
Education and Training Requirements
You generally need at least a bachelor's degree to become a nuclear engineer. You can earn your bachelor's degree in a science, such as physics, or in engineering. There are some bachelor-level programs in nuclear engineering, but many study for a bachelor's degree in mechanical or chemical engineering instead. A master's degree or a doctoral degree is required for many jobs in nuclear engineering. These advanced degrees can be in nuclear engineering or another branch of engineering. Because nuclear engineering incorporates knowledge from different areas of science and engineering, the field is relatively easy to enter from other fields.
On-the-job training is usually an important part of the education of a nuclear engineer. Nuclear facilities work closely with the federal government to provide opportunities for on-the-job training and college programs for people working in this field. Because nuclear engineering is a rapidly changing field, engineers need to study and update their skills throughout their careers.
All states require licensing for engineers who offer their services to the public or whose work may affect life, health, or property. In general, you need a bachelor's degree from an approved college and four years of experience to become licensed. You must also pass a state licensing examination. Some nuclear engineers work on projects that are restricted because they are vital to national security. These engineers must obtain a security clearance.
Getting the Job
If you participate in a work-study program in cooperation with a nuclear facility while in undergraduate or graduate school, you may be able to get a full-time job at that facility. Your school placement office may be able to help you find a job as a nuclear engineer. The federal government can give you information about its research programs in the nuclear field. You can also apply directly to power companies, laboratories, or factories that make or use nuclear equipment. In some cases these facilities place classified ads for nuclear engineers in newspapers, Internet job banks, and professional journals.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Advancement possibilities for nuclear engineers with graduate degrees are very good. Workers who have only a bachelor's degree have less of a chance to advance, but many continue their education on a part-time basis. Since the field of nuclear engineering is changing rapidly, nuclear engineers who want to advance should keep up with new developments by taking additional courses and reading professional journals. Engineers who have the necessary education and experience can become supervisors of other nuclear engineers. They can also move into related fields, such as management, administration, or teaching on the university level.
The employment outlook for nuclear engineers is fair through the year 2014 because employment of nuclear engineers is expected to grow more slowly than average. Due to the high cost of nuclear energy and public concern over its safety, no new commercial reactors have come on line since May 1996. However, the administration of President George W. Bush has been supportive of nuclear expansion, and skilled engineers are needed to operate existing nuclear power plants. In addition, it is likely that there will be new jobs in industries that make use of nuclear energy in ways that are not directly related to generating electricity, such as nuclear medical technology. There should also be new jobs for engineers in the military area.
Working conditions for nuclear engineers vary according to the job. Nuclear engineers involved in design usually work in well-lighted offices and often put in a forty-hour workweek. They may have to work overtime to meet deadlines or handle unforeseen problems. Some engineers need to travel from assignment to assignment. Nuclear engineers employed by nuclear power plants or factories that make or use nuclear equipment sometimes have to work weekends and evening shifts.
Nuclear engineers need to follow special safety measures that keep worksites and workers safe from radiation poisoning. Workers are protected by heavy barriers that seal off the radiation produced by nuclear devices and reactors. Because of these shields and other precautions, the nuclear energy field has an excellent safety record.
Nuclear engineers must be able to analyze and solve problems. They should be able to work well as part of a team. The nature of their work requires that nuclear engineers be careful and responsible workers.
Where to Go for More Information
Nuclear Energy Institute
1776 I St. NW, Ste. 400
Washington, DC 20006-3708
Earnings and Benefits
Earnings vary according to the education and experience of the individual, the location, and the type of job. In 2004 nuclear engineers earned median annual salaries of $84,880. In 2005 beginning salaries for those with bachelor's degrees averaged $51,182 and for those with master's degrees averaged $58,814. Benefits generally include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and pension plans.