What is a Nuclear Engineer?

Nuclear engineers research and develop the processes, instruments, and systems used to get benefits from nuclear energy and radiation. Many of these engineers find industrial and medical uses for radioactive materials—for example, in equipment used in medical diagnosis and treatment. Nuclear engineers typically work in offices; however, their work setting varies with the industry in which they are employed, For example, those employed by power generation and supply companies work in power plants.

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What does a Nuclear Engineer do?

Nuclear engineers typically do the following:

  • Design or develop nuclear equipment, such as reactor cores, radiation shielding, or associated instrumentation
  • Monitor nuclear facility operations to identify any design, construction, or operation practices that violate safety regulations and laws
  • Examine nuclear accidents and gather data that can be used to design preventive measures
  • Write operational instructions to be used in nuclear plant operation or in handling and disposing of nuclear waste
  • Direct operating or maintenance activities of operational nuclear power plants to ensure that they meet safety standards
  • Perform experiments to test whether methods of using nuclear material, reclaiming nuclear fuel, or disposing of nuclear waste are acceptable
  • Take corrective actions or order plant shutdowns in emergencies.

Nuclear engineers are also on the forefront of developing uses of nuclear material for medical imaging devices, such as positron emission tomography (PET) scanners. They also may develop or design cyclotrons that produce a high-energy beam that the healthcare industry uses to treat cancerous tumors.

What does it take to be a Nuclear Engineer?

Entry-level nuclear engineering jobs require a bachelor's degree. Students interested in studying nuclear engineering should take high school courses in mathematics, such as algebra, trigonometry, and calculus; and science, such as biology, chemistry, and physics.

Bachelor's degree programs typically are four-year programs and encompass classroom, laboratory, and field studies in areas that include mathematics and engineering principles. Most colleges and universities offer cooperative-education programs in which students gain experience while completing their education. Some universities offer five-year programs leading to both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree.

A graduate degree allows an engineer to work as an instructor at a university or engage in research and development. Some five-year or even six-year cooperative-education plans combine classroom study with work, permitting students to gain experience and to finance part of their education.

Nuclear engineers who work for nuclear power plants are not required to be licensed. However, they are eligible to seek licensure as professional engineers. Those who become licensed carry the designation of professional engineer (PE). Licensure is recommended and generally requires the following:

  • A degree from an accredited engineering program
  • A passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
  • Relevant work experience
  • A passing score on the Professional Engineering (PE) exam.

Beginning engineering graduates usually work under the supervision of experienced engineers. In large companies, new engineers may receive formal training in classrooms or seminars. As beginning engineers gain knowledge and experience, they move to more difficult projects with greater independence to develop designs, solve problems, and make decisions.

Eventually, nuclear engineers may advance to become technical specialists or to supervise a team of engineers and technicians. Some may become engineering managers or move into managerial positions or sales work. Nuclear engineers have the background needed to become medical physicists, who work in the relatively new field of nuclear medicine. A master’s degree is necessary for a worker to enter this field.

What is the workplace of a Nuclear Engineer like?

Nuclear engineers typically work in offices. However, their work setting varies with the industry in which they are employed; for example, those employed in power generation and supply work in power plants.

How much does a Nuclear Engineer earn?

The median annual wage of nuclear engineers was $99,920 in May 2010. (The median wage is the wage at which half of the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less.) The lowest 10% earned less than $67,250, and the top 10% earned more than $142,290.

Learn more about being a Nuclear Engineer