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

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 powerplants 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

Nuclear engineers are also 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

Nuclear engineers held about 20,400 jobs in 2012. 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 powerplants. Many also work in National Laboratories operated by the Department of Energy, and in consulting firms.

The industries that employed the most nuclear engineers in 2012 were as follows:

Electric power generation, transmission and distribution 32%
Federal government, excluding postal service 14
Scientific research and development services 11
Architectural, engineering, and related services 9

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.

Work Schedules

The majority of nuclear engineers work full time, and some work overtime. These schedules may vary according to the industries in which they work.

Education and Training

Nuclear engineers must have a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering. Employers also value experience, so cooperative-education engineering programs at universities are also valuable.

Education

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 4-year programs and include 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.

Programs in nuclear engineering are accredited by ABET.

Important Qualities

Analytical skills. Nuclear engineers must be able to identify design elements 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 professional engineers and technicians. They need to be able to communicate effectively, both in writing and face to face, with technicians and engineers from other fields.

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 potential hazard posed by nuclear materials and by accidents at facilities, nuclear engineers must be able to anticipate problems before they occur and suggest remedies.

Training

A newly hired nuclear engineer at a nuclear power plant must usually complete as many as 8 months of training on site, in such areas as safety procedures, safety practices, and regulations, before being allowed to work independently. 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

Nuclear engineers who work for nuclear powerplants 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 engineering program accredited by ABET
  • A passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
  • Relevant work experience
  • A passing score on the Professional Engineering (PE) exam

The initial Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam can be taken right after graduating. Engineers who pass this exam commonly are called engineers in training (EITs) or engineer interns (EIs). After gaining work experience, EITs or EIs can take the second exam, called the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam.

Several states require engineers to take continuing education to keep their license. Most states recognize licenses from other states, as long as the other state’s licensing requirements meet or exceed their own licensing requirements.

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

Advancement

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

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

Pay

The median annual wage for nuclear engineers was $104,270 in May 2012. 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 $68,940, and the top 10 percent earned more than $149,940.

In May 2012, the median annual wages for nuclear engineers in the top four industries employing these engineers were as follows:

Scientific research and development services $112,560
Architectural, engineering, and related services 108,340
Electric power generation, transmission and distribution 99,050
Federal government, excluding postal service 90,310

The majority of nuclear engineers work full time, and some work overtime. These schedules may vary according to 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 2012.

Job Outlook

Employment of nuclear engineers is projected to grow 9 percent from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Employment trends in power generation may be favorable because of the likely need to upgrade safety systems at powerplants. These engineers also will find work in creating designs for powerplants to be built abroad and in the growing field of nuclear medicine.

Utilities that own or build nuclear powerplants have traditionally employed the greatest number of nuclear engineers. Recent events might cause the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to issue guidelines for upgrading safety protocols at nuclear utility plants. Those upgrades may spur employment. However, the upgrades also could raise the cost of building new nuclear powerplants, and that might limit new plant construction. Nuclear engineers will be in demand to design and help build nuclear power plants outside the United States.

Developments in nuclear medicine and diagnostic imaging will also drive demand for nuclear engineers. These engineers will be needed to develop new methods of radiologic imaging. In addition, these engineers will be called upon to help build and operate cyclotrons, which produce a high-energy beam that the healthcare industry uses to treat cancerous tumors.

Job Prospects

Job prospects are expected to be relatively favorable in this occupation because many older engineers will retire over the next decade. Training in developing fields, such as nuclear medicine, should help to improve a person’s chances of finding a job.

For More Information

For more information about general engineering education and career resources, visit

American Society for Engineering Education

Technology Student Association

For more information about licensure as a nuclear engineer, visit

National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying

National Society of Professional Engineers

For more information about accredited engineering programs, visit

ABET

For more information about federal government education requirements for nuclear engineer positions, visit

U.S. Office of Personnel Management

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2014–2015 Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh.