Nuclear Engineer

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Nuclear Engineer


Since the first nuclear power plant opened in the late 1950s, nuclear energy has become a significant energy source in our high-powered world. Although nuclear power is still a new field, it serves as an alternative to fossil fuels that burn polluting greenhouse gases and is used as a medical tool for research. Many people now relate nuclear power plants with the image of Homer Simpson working at Mr. Burns' plant in Springfield. However, nuclear engineers hardly sit around all day eating donuts -- they are involved in the handling, control, and application of nuclear materials and reactors that generate useful energy.

Nuclear engineers perform a number of design and research roles. They may design and construct nuclear reactors, equipment and power plants, conduct research on the environmental and ecological effects of nuclear energy and radiation and work on industrial safety in the industry. Some engineers work as test engineers running tests on machinery and equipment. Accordingly, some nuclear engineers may act as inspectors or monitors of power plants in order to ensure they are running in accordance with safety, environment and health standards. Therefore, they must be up to date on new developments in government legislation and changing environmental laws in the nuclear field.

Most nuclear engineers work in teams with scientists and technicians in order to pool their knowledge and skills on a project. They also meet with professionals from other industries such as government officials, manufacturers and lawyers and make sure that design plans will withstand a number of conditional variables. They create engineering plans on computers which test and predict possible errors and problems with a mechanism and in this, they generate workable solutions. Although most work takes place on the computer, many nuclear engineers travel to factories or plants to see their work in progress.

Nuclear engineers use traditional and high-tech tools, such as computer-aided design (CAD) to solve problems and meet challenges such as machine malfunction and breakdown and providing power from a plant. They research and evaluate each project to find the most cost-effective solutions to problems while still maintaining recognized standards. They are required to constantly update their skills and knowledge in order to keep up with technological advancements in this quickly changing field.
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  Interests and Skills  
Nuclear engineers should have a natural affinity for mechanics, mathematics and electronics. Since imprecise calculations could cause major disasters and expensive mistakes, they must be 100 percent accurate in their calculations. Their jobs are extremely technical therefore they should be organized and methodical in their working habits. They must be good problem solvers and be able to come up with innovative and creative solutions to potential problems and design work.

Nuclear engineering is a career for people who can identify hazards, are dedicated to safety and who understand the balance of risks and benefits. They must also have strong communication skills. Nuclear engineers constantly deal with people from both sides of the professional spectrum therefore they must be able to communicate ideas and give orders in a clear, concise fashion.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Research, design and develop machinery and systems for nuclear power plants and reactors
  • Prepare material, cost and timing estimates, reports and design specifications for machinery and systems
  • Prepare plans and drawings of machines or machine parts
  • Study the energy, environmental and safety aspects of the planned and existing work
  • Supervise and inspect the installation, modification and commissioning of mechanical systems at nuclear sites or in industrial facilities
  • Investigate mechanical failures or unexpected and potentially dangerous maintenance problems
  • Supervise technicians, technologists and other engineers
  • Work closely with scientists and technicians and pool ideas together, gaining new knowledge and skills
  • Most nuclear engineers spend the majority of their working hours in research laboratories, industrial power plants or educational institutions in large offices. Some, however, travel to plants, test laboratories or installation sites to supervise technicians and inspect facilities. Nuclear engineers who specialize in nuclear power plant design and construction may work outdoors from mobile offices on the work site. The average workweek is normal, however longer hours may be required when deadlines are coming due or if an emergency strikes.
  • Engineers who work with reactor fuels and radioisotopic materials must take special precautions. They are required to wear thermoluminescent dosimeters, film badges, or other devices used for recording cumulative radiation exposure time and, in some areas, must wear protective clothing and face wear. Electronic warning systems and alarms are used in work areas to warn of any possible hazards. The job may be stressful in the case of an emergency. Nuclear engineers must quickly repair defective equipment in order to prevent the loss of radioactive materials into the atmosphere.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Nuclear engineers work in many different positions in both the public and private sectors. Some work for nuclear power plants or other power generating utilities, engineering consulting firms, government agencies and universities and colleges. Many nuclear engineers are self-employed and contract their services out on freelance projects.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Nuclear engineers can advance to supervisory and senior management positions within their companies. Some may decide to open up their own consulting businesses or engineering companies. Many engineering experts say that nuclear engineers could work as salespeople in energy or power companies since they already have strong technical backgrounds. There are many environmental issues that will keep nuclear engineers on their toes, to ensure that nuclear power is not harming the environment. For example, if there is a nuclear leak, radiation could be harmfully emitted into the atmosphere, causing serious atmospheric damage. Therefore, there is constant new research to be conducted and many nuclear engineers can become pioneers and inventors in their growing field.

Rapid advancement to senior engineering positions is possible for those willing to pursue post-graduate study in nuclear science. Those with master's and PhDs in nuclear engineering can always teach at the university or college level and share their experience and knowledge with students. Also, with experience, one can sit on a governmental commission.

  Educational Paths  
High school students considering a nuclear engineering career should take courses in mathematics (geometry and calculus), physics, machine shop and even English. Drafting and mechanical drawing skills must also be developed, but students will learn these skills in university.

Nuclear engineers require a bachelor's degree in nuclear engineering or in a related mechanical engineering field. Then, they must also become registered as a professional engineer (PEng) within an territorial association of professional engineers to secure employment and practice in their field. Some engineers also get master's degrees in a specific area, such as nuclear engineering.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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