Nuclear engineers work alongside nuclear scientists and technicians on projects that involve the design and construction of nuclear reactors and power plants, development and production of weapons, evaluation of environmental and ecological research, health physics or industrial safety. Some are responsible for overseeing the operation of nuclear power plants and ensuring that the plants conform to safety and efficiency standards. Nuclear engineers solve problems by applying their knowledge of mathematics, economics, and engineering principles, often in conjunction with computers and simulation techniques. Safety plays an vital role in all aspects of their work.
Nuclear engineers may also be responsible for performing administrative duties, directing projects, supervising other workers, and preparing budgets. Some work as sales representatives, teachers, consultants, or members of government commissions. They keep up-to-date in their field by reading technical journals and through independent study and research.
Nuclear engineers must have both mathematical and mechanical aptitudes. Their work often requires high degrees of patience and precision. They need to be able to work effectively as part of a team, and they should have the ability to communicate in writing and orally. These communication skills are vital in the field of nuclear engineering because nuclear engineers interact so often with many non-engineering specialists in a wide variety of fields. Nuclear engineers should be analytical, creative, detail-oriented, and inquisitive.
In 2002, nuclear engineers earned a median annual salary of $81,350. Earnings ranged from the lowest 10%, who earned less than $58,350, and the highest 10%, who earned more than $111,260. Those who worked for the Federal Government earned an average of $73,769 a year. According to a 2003 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, bachelor’s degree candidates in nuclear engineering received starting offers averaging $50,104.
Training and Education
High school students interested in becoming nuclear engineers should take classes in higher mathematics, including geometry, trigonometry, and calculus, as well as the physical sciences, machine shop, and English. Other useful classes include drafting and mechanical drawing, electronics, business administration, computer science, and the social sciences.
A bachelor’s degree is required for all entry-level nuclear engineering positions. Most programs include study in the nuclear specialty, as well as courses in mathematics and science. Many programs include a design course, along with a computer or laboratory class. Many colleges offer students the option of earning a 2- or 4-year degree in engineering technology, which include hands-on laboratory courses that prepare students for practical design and production work, as opposed to more theory-based jobs. While graduates of these programs may obtain the same kinds of jobs as graduates with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, they are not qualified to register as professional engineers.
Faculty positions and many research and development programs in nuclear engineering require graduate training. Some engineers earn degrees in business administration to enhance their education and give themselves more career options. In fact, many high-level executives in government and business started their careers as engineers. Engineers in the United States are required to be licensed if they offer their services directly to the public. When engineers become licensed, they are designated Professional Engineers (PE). PE requirements include a degree from an engineering program accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), 4 years of relevant work experience, and successful completion of a State examination. Entry-level engineers usually work under the supervision of experienced engineers, and may advance to become technical specialists or to supervise a staff of engineers and technicians.
In 2002, nuclear engineers held about 16,000 jobs.
Between 2002 and 2012, employment of nuclear engineers is expected to experience little or no growth. This is mainly due to public concerns over the cost and safety of nuclear power. However, job opportunities for nuclear engineers are expected to be good because the number of graduates is expected to roughly equal the number of job openings.
For more information on how to pursue this profession, please see our Computer Training and Technology Education directory.