Nuclear engineers are concerned with accessing, using, and controlling the energy released when the nucleus of an atom is split. The process of splitting atoms, called fission, produces a nuclear reaction, which creates radiation in addition to nuclear energy. Nuclear energy and radiation has many uses. Some engineers design, develop, and operate nuclear power plants, which are used to generate electricity and power navy ships. Others specialize in developing nuclear weapons, medical uses for radioactive materials, and disposal facilities for radioactive waste. There are approximately 17,000 nuclear engineers employed in the United States.
Nuclear Engineer Career History
Nuclear engineering as a formal science is quite young. However, part of its theoretical foundation rests with the ancient Greeks. In the fifth century b.c., Greek philosophers postulated that the building blocks of all matter were indestructible elements, which they named atomos, meaning “indivisible.” This atomic theory was accepted for centuries, until the British chemist and physicist John
Dalton revised it in the early 1800s. In the following century, scientific and mathematical experimentation led to the formation of modern atomic and nuclear theory.
Today, it is known that the atom is far from indivisible and that its dense center, the nucleus, can be split to create tremendous energy. The first occurrence of this splitting process was inadvertently induced in 1938 by two German chemists. Further studies confirmed this process and established that the fragments resulting from the fission in turn strike the nuclei of other atoms, resulting in a chain reaction that produces constant energy.
The discipline of modern nuclear engineering is traced to 1942, when physicist Enrico Fermi and his colleagues produced the first self-sustained nuclear chain reaction in the first nuclear reactor ever built. In 1950, North Carolina State College offered the first accredited nuclear engineering program. By 1965, nuclear engineering programs had become widely available at universities and colleges throughout the country and worldwide. These programs provided engineers with a background in reactor physics and control, heat transfer, radiation effects, and shielding.
Current applications in the discipline of nuclear engineering include the use of reactors to propel naval vessels and the production of radioisotopes for medical purposes. Most of the growth in the nuclear industry, however, has focused on the production of electric energy.
Despite the controversy over the risks involved with atomic power, it continues to be used around the world for a variety of purposes. The Nuclear Energy Institute reports that 30 countries currently operate nuclear energy plants to produce electricity. In the United States, approximately 20.3 percent of the country’s electricity is supplied by nuclear plants. In 2006, Vermont received 72.5 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, the highest of all states. Medicine, manufacturing, and agriculture have also benefited from nuclear research. Such use requires the continued development of nuclear waste management. Low-level wastes, which result from power plants as well as hospitals and research facilities, must be reduced in volume, packed in leak-proof containers, and buried, and waste sites must be continually monitored.
Nuclear Engineer Job Description
Nuclear engineers are involved in various aspects of the generation, use, and maintenance of nuclear energy and the safe disposal of its waste. Nuclear engineers work on research and development, design, fuel management, safety analysis, operation and testing, sales, and education. Their contributions affect consumer and industrial power supplies, medical technology, the food industry, and other industries.
Nuclear engineering is dominated by the power industry. Some engineers work for companies that manufacture reactors. They research, develop, design, manufacture, and install parts used in these facilities, such as core supports, reflectors, thermal shields, biological shields, instrumentation, and safety and control systems.
Those who are responsible for the maintenance of power plants must monitor operations efficiently and guarantee that facilities meet safety standards. Nuclear energy activities in the United States are closely supervised and regulated by government and independent agencies, especially the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC oversees the use of nuclear materials by electric utility companies throughout the United States. NRC employees are responsible for ensuring the safety of nongovernment nuclear materials and facilities and for making sure that related operations do not adversely affect public health or the environment. Nuclear engineers who work for regulatory agencies are responsible for setting the standards that all organizations involved with nuclear energy must follow. They issue licenses, establish rules, implement safety research, perform risk analyses, conduct on-site inspections, and pursue research. The NRC is one of the main regulatory agencies employing nuclear engineers.
Many nuclear engineers work directly with public electric utility companies. Tasks are diverse, and teams of engineers are responsible for supervising construction and operation, analyzing safety, managing fuel, assessing environmental impact, training personnel, managing the plant, storing spent fuel, managing waste, and analyzing economic factors.
Some engineers working for nuclear power plants focus on the quality of the water supply. Their plants extract salt from water, and engineers develop new methods and designs for such desalinization systems.
The food supply also benefits from the work of nuclear engineers. Nuclear energy is used for pasteurization and sterilization, insect and pest control, and fertilizer production. Furthermore, nuclear engineers conduct genetic research on improving various food strains and their resistance to harmful elements.
Nuclear engineers in the medical field design and construct equipment for diagnosing and treating illnesses and disease. They perform research on radioisotopes, which are produced by nuclear reactions. Radioisotopes are used in heart pacemakers, in X-ray equipment, and for sterilizing medical instruments. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, approximately 4,000 nuclear medicine departments at hospitals across the country perform, on an annual basis, more than 10 million patient procedures.
Numerous other jobs are performed by nuclear engineers. Nuclear health physicists, nuclear criticality safety engineers, and radiation protection technicians conduct research and training programs designed to protect plant and laboratory employees against radiation hazards. Nuclear fuels research engineers and nuclear fuels reclamation engineers work with reprocessing systems for atomic fuels. Accelerator operators coordinate the operation of equipment used in experiments on subatomic particles, and scanners work with photographs, produced by particle detectors, of atomic collisions.
Nuclear Engineer Career Requirements
If you are interested in becoming a professional engineer, you must begin preparing yourself in high school. You should take honors-level courses in mathematics and the sciences. Specifically, you should complete courses in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus, chemistry, physics, and biology. Take English, social studies, and a foreign language (many published technical papers that are required reading in later years are written in German or French). Be sure to keep your computer skills up to date by taking computer science classes.
Professional engineers must have at least a bachelor’s degree. You should attend a four-year college or university that is approved by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. In a nuclear engineering program, you will focus on subjects similar to those studied in high school but at a more advanced level. Courses also include engineering sciences and atomic and nuclear physics.
These subjects will prepare you for analyzing and designing nuclear systems and understanding how they operate. You will learn and comprehend what is involved in the interaction between radiation and matter; radiation measurements; the production and use of radio-isotopes; reactor physics and engineering; and fusion reactions. The subject of safety will be emphasized, particularly with regard to handling radiation sources and implementing nuclear systems.
You must have a master’s or doctoral degree for most jobs in research and higher education, and for supervisory and administrative positions. It is recommended that you obtain a graduate degree in nuclear engineering because this level of education will help you obtain the skills required for advanced specialization in the field. Many institutions that offer advanced degrees have nuclear reactors and well-equipped laboratories for teaching and research. You can obtain information about these schools by contacting the U.S. Department of Energy (its Web site is http://www.energy.gov/).
Certification or Licensing
A professional engineer (P.E.) license is usually required before obtaining employment on public projects (i.e., work that may affect life, health, or property). Although registration guidelines differ for each state, most states require a degree from an accredited engineering program, four years of work experience in the field, and a minimum grade on a state exam.
Nuclear engineers will encounter two unique concerns. First, exposure to high levels of radiation may be hazardous; thus, engineers must always follow safety measures. Those working near radioactive materials must adhere to strict precautions outlined by regulatory standards. In addition, female engineers of childbearing age may not be allowed to work in certain areas or perform certain duties because of the potential harm to the human fetus from radiation.
Finally, nuclear engineers must be prepared for a lifetime of continuing education. Because nuclear engineering is founded in the fundamental theories of physics and the notions of atomic and nuclear theory are difficult to conceptualize except mathematically, an aptitude for physics, mathematics, and chemistry is indispensable.
Exploring Nuclear Engineer Career
If you are interested in becoming an engineer, you can join science clubs such as the Technology Student Association, which has a chapter in almost every state. Science clubs provide the opportunity to work with others, design engineering projects, and participate in career exploration. If you are a more advanced student, you may want to read materials published by the American Nuclear Society (http://www.ans.org/).
Nuclear engineers work in a variety of settings. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, about 36 percent of the approximately 17,000 nuclear engineers employed in the United States work in the utilities field, 19 percent for professional, scientific, and technical services firms, and 12 percent for the federal government. The rest are primarily employed by architectural and engineering services, and waste treatment and disposal firms. Of those who work for the federal government, many are civilian employees of the navy, and most of the rest work for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Some nuclear engineers work for defense manufacturers or manufacturers of nuclear power equipment.
Most students begin their job search while still in college, collecting advice from job counselors and their schools’ career services centers and using organizations and Web sites to find open positions. For example, the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) offers members the opportunity to post their resumes or find job matches through its Web site. Networking with those already employed in the field is an excellent way to find out about job openings. Networking opportunities are available during meetings of professional organizations, such as the SWE’s annual national conference.
As with other engineering disciplines, a hierarchy of workers exists, with the chief engineer having overall authority over managers and project engineers. This is true whether you are working in research, design, production, sales, or teaching. After gaining a certain amount of experience, engineers may apply for positions in supervision and management.
Because the nuclear engineering field is so young, the time is ripe for technological developments, and engineers must therefore keep abreast of new research and technology throughout their careers. Advancement for engineers is contingent upon continuing education, research activity, and on-the-job expertise.
Advancement may also bring recognition in the form of grants, scholarships, fellowships, and awards. For example, the American Nuclear Society has established a Young Members Engineering Achievement Award to recognize outstanding work performed by members. To be eligible for this award, you must be younger than 40 years old and demonstrate effective application of engineering knowledge that results in a concept, design, analysis method, or product used in nuclear power research and development or in a manufacturing application.
Nuclear engineers earned a median income of $84,880 in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The department also reports that the highest paid 10 percent of nuclear engineers earned more than $118,870, while the lowest paid 10 percent earned less than $51,182 annually. Nuclear engineers working for the federal government had an annual average of $85,080 in 2004. Findings of a 2005 salary survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers show that those with bachelor’s degrees in engineering, including nuclear engineering, averaged starting salaries of $49,672.
Benefits offered depend on the employer but generally include paid vacation and sick days, health insurance, and retirement plans.
In general, nuclear engineering is a technically demanding and politically volatile field. Those who work daily at power plants perhaps incur the most stress because they are responsible for preventing large-scale accidents involving radiation. Those who work directly with nuclear energy face risks associated with radiation contamination. Engineers handling the disposal of hazardous material also work under stressful conditions because they must take tremendous care to ensure the public’s health and safety.
Research, teaching, and design occupations allow engineers to work in laboratories, classrooms, and industrial manufacturing facilities. Many engineers who are not directly involved with the physical maintenance of nuclear facilities spend most of their working hours, an average of 46 hours per week, conducting research. Most work at desks and must have the ability to concentrate on very detailed data for long periods of time, drawing up plans and constructing models of nuclear applications.
Nuclear Engineer Career Outlook
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment growth for nuclear engineers is expected to show little change or grow more slowly than the average through 2014. Most openings will arise as nuclear engineers transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force. However, good opportunities for nuclear engineers should still exist because the small number of nuclear engineering graduates is likely to be in balance with the number of job openings.
The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) reported that in 2005 approximately 70 percent of Americans support the use of nuclear energy and 83 percent feel nuclear energy is important to the country’s future energy needs. Additionally, 74 percent support the construction of new nuclear power plants in the future. The Nuclear Power 2010 program is a joint effort between the federal government and private industry to identify sites for new advanced nuclear power plants by 2005 and begin construction by 2010. According to the NEI, 11 new facilities are expected to apply for construction/operating licenses between 2007 and 2009. Even if new plants are not constructed, nuclear engineers will be needed to operate existing plants. They will also continue to be needed to work in defense-related areas, to develop nuclear-related medical technology, and to monitor and improve waste management and safety standards.