Education and Training: High school plus two years of training
Salary: Median—$28.46 per hour
Employment Outlook: Fair
Definition and Nature of the Work
Nuclear technicians work in the field of nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is produced from the splitting of atoms, a process called nuclear fission. Radioactivity is the spontaneous emission of energy and/or high-energy particles from the nuclei of atoms when they are split. In the United States, uranium-235 (U-235), found in the form of ore, is used as nuclear fuel.
The fission of U-235 releases several particles, which can then penetrate other U-235 nuclei, and so on. If this series of reactions occurs slowly, as it does in nuclear power plants, the energy emitted can be captured for a variety of uses such as providing electricity. In 2005 the United States Department of Energy reported in its Annual Energy Review that nuclear energy supplied 20 percent of America's energy needs in the previous year. The radioactivity emitted during nuclear fission can also be an important tool in fields such as health and manufacturing. However, radioactivity can also damage human tissue. Moreover, if nuclear reactions occur all at once, the energy emitted is explosive, as in a nuclear (atomic) bomb.
There are several kinds of nuclear technicians. Some technicians do more than one type of work. Nuclear reactor operators maintain and control the nuclear reaction process in reactors. They often work at remote-control instrument panels. Nuclear reactor operators also help to load and unload the nuclear fuels used in reactors. Accelerator operators set up and control particle accelerators, such as cyclotrons, that produce artificial radioactivity. Particle accelerators are used in nuclear research. They focus and speed up electrically charged particles of atoms as these particles bombard the nuclei of other atoms. Radiation monitors, who are sometimes called health physics technicians, measure and monitor the radiation levels of work areas and equipment. They keep records and enforce safety regulations to ensure that the amount of radiation at a nuclear facility remains within the limits established by health physicists.
Radiographers use X-ray machines or other sources of radioactivity to make radiographs of metal castings, welds, and other objects. Radiographers process the radioactive film and use it to distinguish cracks and other flaws in the objects that they have radiographed. Hot-cell technicians use remote control equipment to do procedures or tests in hot cells. Hot cells are rooms encased in lead or concrete shields to prevent dangerous radiation from escaping. Technicians often use a "slave manipulator"—a set of mechanical arms and hands—to work by remote control with radioactive materials that are inside the hot cell. Sometimes hot-cell technicians put on special protective suits and enter the hot cell to set up experiments or to reduce the level of radioactivity there.
Decontamination workers use special equipment to measure radioactivity. They decontaminate work areas and materials—that is, they reduce the amount of radioactivity to a safe level. Waste treatment operators and waste disposal workers process and dispose of hazardous radioactive wastes. Radioisotope production operators test radioisotopes and prepare them for shipment. Radioisotopes are radioactive forms of elements. They emit radiation that can be measured with special instruments. They are used in science, agriculture, manufacturing, and medicine.
Nuclear technicians also work in a variety of other jobs. For example, some technicians measure radiation levels in the environment. Others trace radioactive substances in scientific experiments. Still other nuclear technicians work in the health field. Radiation treatment, for example, is often used by hospitals on patients with cancer.
Education and Training Requirements
Most employers of nuclear technicians hire workers who have an associate's degree from a community college or technical school, or a minimum of two years of specialized training in nuclear technology. Most workers need on-the-job training in addition to their formal schooling. Throughout their careers, workers must continue to study new developments, because the field changes rapidly.
Nuclear reactor operators must be licensed by the federal government. It usually takes about a year of job experience to get ready for the government's operating and written tests. You must also pass a medical examination to qualify for licensing. Licenses must be renewed every two years.
Some technicians work on projects that are restricted because they are vital to national security. These workers must obtain a security clearance.
Getting the Job
If you attend a school that offers courses in nuclear technology, the school placement office may be able to help you find a job as a nuclear technician. You can apply directly to government agencies, power companies, laboratories, or factories that make or use nuclear equipment. State employment agencies may also be able to give you information about job opportunities in the field of nuclear energy.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Nuclear technicians can advance by gaining experience and taking on more responsibility. Some become supervisors of other workers. Others get further training and become technical specialists. A few take more advanced college courses and become nuclear engineers. Technicians with the necessary skills can become instructors who train new workers. They can also become technical writers who prepare operating or repair manuals.
The employment outlook in the nuclear energy field is fair. Openings will be concentrated in the defense, medical, and waste management and safety standards areas of the field. However, public concern over the safety of nuclear energy, and the move toward finding alternative energy sources, could result in a slower growth rate in the field.
Nuclear technicians work in modern laboratories, plants, and offices. Since some employees work close to radioactive materials, many precautions are taken to keep them safe from radiation poisoning. The nuclear energy field has an excellent safety record. Many nuclear technicians work thirty-five to forty hours a week. In many cases they must work or be on call on night, holiday, and weekend shifts. Some workers are unionized.
Nuclear technicians must be careful and responsible workers. They should work well as part of an engineering team. They should also have an aptitude for science and mathematics. Due to the possible dangers of radiation, good judgment is an essential quality in this field.
Where to Go for More Information
Nuclear Energy Institute
1776 I St. NW, Ste. 400
Washington, DC 20006-3708
Earnings and Benefits
Earnings for technicians working in the field of nuclear energy depend on education, experience, and place of employment. In 2004 the median hourly wage for nuclear technicians was $28.46 per hour. Benefits generally include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and retirement plans.