Nuclear Engineers

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What Nuclear Engineers Do[About this section] [To Top]

Nuclear engineers research and develop the processes, instruments, and systems used to derive 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. Many others specialize in the development of nuclear power sources for ships or spacecraft.

Duties of Nuclear Engineers

Nuclear engineers typically do the following:

  • Design or develop nuclear equipment, such as reactor cores, radiation shielding, and associated instrumentation
  • Direct operating or maintenance activities of operational nuclear power plants to ensure that they meet safety standards
  • Write operational instructions to be used in nuclear plant operation or in handling and disposing of nuclear waste
  • Monitor nuclear facility operations to identify any design, construction, or operation practices that violate safety regulations and laws
  • 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
  • Examine nuclear accidents and gather data that can be used to design preventive measures

In addition, nuclear engineers are at 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, which produce a high-energy beam that the healthcare industry uses to treat cancerous tumors.

Work Environment for Nuclear Engineers[About this section] [To Top]

Nuclear engineers held about 16,800 jobs in 2014. The industries that employed the most nuclear engineers were as follows:

Electric power generation, transmission and distribution 41%
Federal government, excluding postal service 17
Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences 16
Engineering services 9
Manufacturing 6

They 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. Many also work for the federal government and for consulting firms.

Nuclear engineers work with others, including mechanical engineers and electrical engineers, and they must be able to incorporate systems designed by these engineers into their own designs.

Nuclear Engineer Work Schedules

The majority of nuclear engineers work full time, and about 1 in 3 worked more than 40 hours per week in 2014. Their schedules may vary with the industries in which they work.

How to Become a Nuclear Engineer[About this section] [To Top]

Get the education you need: Find schools for Nuclear Engineers near you!

Nuclear engineers must have a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering. Employers also value experience, and this can be gained through cooperative-education engineering programs.

Nuclear Engineer Education

Entry-level nuclear engineering jobs in private industry require a bachelor’s degree. Some entry-level nuclear engineering jobs may require at least a master’s degree, or even a Ph.D.

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 consist of 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 5-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 5-year or even 6-year cooperative-education plans combine classroom study with work, permitting students to gain experience and to finance part of their education.

Master’s and Ph.D. programs consist of classroom, laboratory, and research efforts in areas of advanced mathematics and engineering principles. These programs require successful completion of a research study usually conducted in conjunction with a professor on a government or private research grant.

Programs in nuclear engineering are accredited by ABET.

Important Qualities for Nuclear Engineers

Analytical skills. Nuclear engineers must be able to identify design elements in order to help build facilities and equipment that produce material needed by various industries.

Communication skills. Nuclear engineers’ work depends heavily on their ability to work with other engineers and technicians. They need to be able to communicate effectively, both in writing and in person.

Detail oriented. Nuclear engineers supervise the operation of nuclear facilities. They must pay close attention to what is happening at all times and ensure that operations comply with all regulations and laws pertaining to the safety of workers and the environment.

Logical-thinking skills. Nuclear engineers design complex systems. Therefore, they must be able to order information logically and clearly so that others can follow their written information and instructions.

Math skills. Nuclear engineers use the principles of calculus, trigonometry, and other advanced topics in math for analysis, design, and troubleshooting in their work.

Problem-solving skills. Because of the hazard posed by nuclear materials and by accidents at facilities, nuclear engineers must be able to anticipate problems before they occur and safeguard against them.

Nuclear Engineer Training

A newly hired nuclear engineer at a nuclear power plant must usually complete training onsite, in such areas as safety procedures, safety practices, and regulations, before being allowed to work independently. Training lasts from 6 weeks to 3 months. In addition, these engineers must undergo continuous training every year to keep their knowledge, skills, and abilities current with laws, regulations, and safety procedures.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Licensure is not required for entry-level positions as a nuclear engineer. A Professional Engineering (PE) license, which allows for higher levels of leadership and independence, can be acquired later in one’s career. Licensed engineers are called professional engineers (PEs). A PE can oversee the work of other engineers, sign off on projects, and provide services directly to the public. State licensure generally requires

  • A degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program
  • A passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
  • Relevant work experience, typically at least 4 years
  • A passing score on the Professional Engineering (PE) exam

The initial FE exam can be taken after one earns a bachelor’s degree. Engineers who pass this exam are commonly called engineers in training (EITs) or engineer interns (EIs). After meeting work experience requirements, EITs and EIs can take the second exam, called the Principles and Practice of Engineering.

Nuclear engineers can obtain licensing as a Senior Reactor Operator, a designation that is granted after an intensive, 2-year, site-specific program. The credential, granted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, asserts that the engineer can operate a nuclear power plant within federal government requirements.

Advancement for Nuclear Engineers

New nuclear engineers 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 sales work. For more information, see the profiles on architectural and engineering managers and sales engineers.

Nuclear engineers also can become medical physicists. A master’s degree in medical or health physics or a related field is necessary for someone to enter this field.

Nuclear Engineer Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

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Entry Level Experienced

The median annual wage for nuclear engineers was $100,470 in May 2014. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $66,890, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $151,710.

In May 2014, the median annual wages for nuclear engineers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences $108,490
Engineering services 103,330
Electric power generation, transmission and distribution 101,390
Manufacturing 95,380
Federal government, excluding postal service 91,440

The majority of nuclear engineers work full time, and about 1 in 3 worked more than 40 hours per week in 2014. Their schedules may vary with the industries in which they work.

Union Membership

Compared with workers in all occupations, nuclear engineers had a higher percentage of workers who belonged to a union in 2014.

Job Outlook for Nuclear Engineers[About this section] [To Top]

Employment of nuclear engineers is projected to decline 4 percent from 2014 to 2024. Employment in several of the industries that employ nuclear engineers is projected to decline, including electric power distribution, research and development in engineering, and the federal government.

Traditionally, utilities that own or build nuclear power plants have employed the greatest number of nuclear engineers. Recent events might cause the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to issue guidelines for upgrading safety protocols at nuclear utility plants. The upgrades could raise the cost of building new nuclear power plants, limiting new plant construction.

Developments in nuclear medicine, diagnostic imaging, and cancer treatment also will drive demand for nuclear engineers in engineering services, who will be needed to develop new methods for treatment.

Nuclear Engineers Job Prospects

Job prospects are expected to be relatively limited; however, there will be job openings due to retirements. Openings also will stem from operating extensions being granted to older nuclear power plants. Those with training in developing fields, such as nuclear medicine, should have better prospects.

Employment projections data for Nuclear Engineers, 2014-24
Occupational Title Employment, 2014 Projected Employment, 2024 Change, 2014-24
Percent Numeric
Nuclear engineers 16,800 16,200 -4 -700

*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Used by permission.

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