Licensed nuclear reactor operators work in nuclear power plant control rooms, where they monitor instruments that record the performance of every pump, compressor, and other treatment system in the reactor unit. Nuclear power plants must have operators on duty at all times. In addition to monitoring the instruments in the control room, the nuclear reactor operator runs periodic tests on equipment at the station. Nuclear reactor operator technicians are in training to become operators; they study nuclear science theory and learn to perform reactor operation and control activities. They work under the supervision of licensed nuclear reactor operators, and later they work as beginning operators. Senior operators, or senior reactor operators, have further training and experience and oversee the activities of nuclear reactor operators and technicians.
Nuclear Reactor Operator and Technician Career History
The potential for nuclear power generation was first demonstrated in 1942, when a group of scientists led by Enrico Fermi conducted the first controlled nuclear chain reaction in a nuclear reactor located under the football stands on Stagg Field at the University of Chicago. After World War II, research continued on peacetime uses of controlled atomic energy. In 1948, researchers increasingly emphasized the design of nuclear power reactors to generate electricity.
By late 1963, the technology for these nuclear reactors was ready for commercial use, and the first nuclear power plants were constructed. Their successful operation and the low cost of the electric power they generated were promising. Further development of technology continued, and the construction of several additional nuclear power plants began.
Since then, the field has learned a great deal about the design and safe operation of nuclear-fueled electric power plants. Quality assurance and control procedures have been developed to ensure that every step of a plant’s construction and operation meets the necessary safety requirements.
Specific procedures are in place to protect against radiation, and special technicians work in each plant to ensure the least possible risk of radiation exposure to workers. Studies show that the safest operation of nuclear plants is directly attributable to carefully selected and thoroughly trained nuclear reactor operators. Since 1963, thousands of people have been trained and licensed by the federal government to work as nuclear reactor operators.
Nuclear Reactor Operator and Technician Job Description
Technicians are trained to learn and perform all the duties expected of licensed operators. Almost all the skills and knowledge, however, are learned outside of the reactor control room.
The nuclear reactor is like an engine providing power, in the form of hot steam, to run the entire nuclear power plant. Nuclear reactor operators are the nuclear station’s driver, in the sense that they control all the machines used to generate power at the station. Working under the direction of a plant manager, the nuclear reactor operator is responsible for the continuous and safe operation of a reactor. Although most nuclear power plants contain more than one nuclear reactor unit, each nuclear reactor operator is responsible for only one of the units.
From the standpoint of safety and uninterrupted operation, the nuclear reactor operator holds the most critical job in the plant. The operator’s performance is considered so essential that any shutdown of an average 1,000-megawatt plant, whether due to an accident or operating error, can result in a minimum loss of the cost of the operator’s salary for 10 years.
Licensed nuclear reactor operators work in the station control room, monitoring meters and gauges. They read and interpret instruments that record the performance of every valve, pump, compressor, switch, and water treatment system in the reactor unit. When necessary, they make adjustments to fission rate, pressure, water temperature, and the flow rate of the various pieces of equipment to ensure safe and efficient operation.
During each 24-hour period, operators make rounds four times. This task involves reviewing the unit’s control board and writing down the parameters of the instruments. Each hour, a computer generates a reading indicating the amount of power the unit is generating.
In addition to monitoring the instruments in the control room, the nuclear reactor operator runs periodic tests, including pressure readings, flow readings, and vibration analyses on each piece of equipment. The operator must also perform logic testing on the electrical components in order to check the built-in safeguards.
Every 12 to 18 months, the nuclear reactor operator must also refuel the reactor unit, a procedure that is sometimes called an outage. During the refueling, the turbine is brought offline, or shut down. After it cools and depressurizes, the unit is opened, and any repairs, testing, and preventive maintenance are taken care of. Depleted nuclear fuel is exchanged for new fuel. The unit is then repressurized, reheated, and brought back online, or restarted.
Auxiliary equipment operators normally work at the site of the equipment. Their work can include anything from turning a valve to bringing a piece of equipment in and out of service. All of their requests for action on any of the machines must be approved by the nuclear reactor operator.
Precise operation is required in nuclear power plants to be sure that radiation does not contaminate the equipment, the operating personnel, or the nearby population and environment. The most serious danger is the release of large amounts of atomic radiation into the atmosphere. Operating personnel are directly involved in the prevention of reactor accidents and in the containment of radioactivity in the event of an accident.
Nuclear reactor operators always begin their employment as technicians. In this capacity, they gain plant experience and technical knowledge at a functioning nuclear power plant. The technician trains on a simulator and studies the reactor and control room. A simulator is built and equipped as an operating reactor control station. Technicians can practice operating the reactor and learn what readings the instruments in the simulator give when certain adjustments are made in the reactor control settings. This company-sponsored training is provided to help technicians attain the expertise necessary to obtain an operator’s license. Even after obtaining a license, however, beginning operators work under the direction of a shift supervisor, senior operator, or other management personnel.
Nuclear Reactor Operator and Technician Career Requirements
Although a college degree is not required, many utilities prefer candidates to have some postsecondary training. More and more nuclear reactor operators have completed at least two years of college, and about 25 percent have a four-year degree. Lack of college experience, however, does not exclude an applicant from being hired. High school graduates are selected based on subjects studied and aptitude test results.
If you wish to enter nuclear technology programs, you should study algebra, geometry, English composition, blueprint reading, and chemistry and physics with laboratory study. In addition, classes in computer science and beginning electronics will help you prepare for the technology program that follows high school.
In the first year of a nuclear technology program at a technical or community college, you will probably take nuclear technology, radiation physics, applied mathematics, electricity and electronics, technical communications, basic industrial economics, radiation detection and measurement, inorganic chemistry, radiation protection, mathematics, basic mechanics, quality assurance and quality control, principles of process instrumentation, heat transfer and fluid flow, metallurgy, and metal properties.
In the second year, you may be required to take technical writing and reporting, nuclear systems, blueprint reading, mechanical component characteristics and specifications, reactor physics, reactor safety, power plant systems, instrumentation and control of reactors and plant systems, power plant chemistry, reactor operations, reactor auxiliary systems, and industrial organizations and institutions.
Upon completing a technical program, you will continue training once you are employed at a plant. On-the-job training includes learning nuclear science theory; radiation detection; and reactor design, operation, and control. In addition, nuclear reactor operator technicians must learn in detail how the nuclear power plant works. Trainees are assigned to a series of work-learn tasks that take them to all parts of the plant. If trainees have been working in the plant as regular employees, their individual training is planned around what they already know. This kind of training usually takes two to three years and includes simulator practice.
The simulator is an exact replica of the station’s real control room. The controls in the simulator are connected to an interactive computer. Working under the supervision of a licensed nuclear reactor operator, trainees experience mock events in the simulator, which teach them how to safely handle emergencies.
During this on-the-job training, technicians learn about nuclear power plant materials, processes, material balances, plant operating equipment, pipe systems, electrical systems, and process control. It is crucial to understand how each activity within the unit affects other instruments or systems. Nuclear reactor operator technicians are given written and oral exams, sometimes as often as once a week. In some companies, technicians are dismissed from their job for failing to pass any one training exam.
Some people in the industry believe that one of the most difficult aspects of becoming a nuclear reactor operator is getting hired. Because electric utilities invest a substantial amount of time and money to train nuclear reactor operators, they are extremely selective when hiring.
The application process entails intensive screening, including identity checks, FBI fingerprint checks, drug and alcohol tests, psychological tests, and credit checks. After passing this initial screening, the applicant takes a range of mathematical and science aptitude tests.
Utility companies recruit most nuclear reactor operator technicians from local high schools and colleges, fossil fuel plants (utilities using non-nuclear sources of energy), and nuclear navy programs. Knowledge of nuclear science and the discipline and professionalism gained from navy experience make veterans excellent candidates. Graduates of two-year programs in nuclear technology also make excellent trainees because they are well versed in nuclear and power plant fundamentals.
The standards and course content for all nuclear training programs are established by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In addition, each nuclear power plant training program must be accredited by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, which was founded in 1979 by industry leaders to promote excellence in nuclear plant operations.
Certification or Licensing
Nuclear reactor operators are required to be licensed, based on examinations given by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The licensing process involves passing several exams, including a physical exam. The first written exam (Generic Fundamentals Examination) covers topics such as reactor theory and thermodynamics. Candidates who pass this exam then take a site-specific exam that includes a written section and an operating test on the power plant’s simulator. Candidates who pass these tests receive their licenses. A license is valid for six years and only for the specific power plant for which the candidate applied.
To maintain their licenses, operators must pass an annual practical, or operating, exam and a written requalification exam given by their employers. Requirements for license renewal include certification from the employer that the operator has successfully completed requalification and operating exams and passed a physical.
Nuclear reactor operators are subject to continuous exams and ongoing training. They must be diligent about keeping their skills and knowledge up to date. A desire for lifelong learning, therefore, is necessary for those doing this work.
Because of the dangerous nature of nuclear energy, the nuclear reactor operator’s performance is critical to the safety of other employees, the community, and the environment. Operators must perform their job with a high degree of precision and accuracy. They must be able to remain calm under pressure and maintain sound judgment in emergencies.
Although nuclear reactor operators must frequently perform numerous tasks at once, they must also be able to remain alert during quiet times and handle the monotony of routine readings and tests.
Responding to requests from other personnel, such as the auxiliary operators, is a regular part of the nuclear reactor operator’s job. The ability to communicate and work well with other team members and plant personnel is essential.
Exploring Nuclear Reactor Operator and Technician Career
High school guidance counselors and advisors at community or technical colleges are good sources of information about a career as a nuclear reactor operator. The librarians in these institutions also may be helpful in directing you to introductory literature on nuclear reactors.
Opportunities for exploring a career as a nuclear reactor operator are limited because nuclear power plants are usually located in places relatively far from schools and have strictly limited visiting policies. Very few commercial or research reactors provide tours for the general public. However, many utility companies with nuclear power plants have visitors’ centers, where tours are scheduled at specified hours. In addition, interested high school students usually can arrange visits to non-nuclear power plants, which allows them to learn about the energy-conversion process common to all steam-powered electric power generation plants.
There are slightly more than 103 commercial nuclear power plants operating at more than 65 sites in 31 states in the United States, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. In addition, there are approximately 36 reactors used for research and training at educational and other institutions, according to the NRC. Nuclear reactor operators, naturally, work at nuclear power plants and are employed by utility or energy companies, universities, and other institutions operating these facilities.
In recent years, nuclear technology programs have been the best source for hiring nuclear reactor operator technicians. Students are usually interviewed and hired by the nuclear power plant personnel recruiters toward the end of their technical college program and start working in the power plant as trainees after they graduate.
Navy veterans from nuclear programs and employees from other parts of the nuclear power plant may also be good candidates for entering a nuclear reactor operator training program.
Many licensed reactor operators progress to the position of senior reactor operator (as they gain experience and undergo further study). To be certified as senior reactor operators (SROs), operators must pass the senior reactor operator exam, which requires a broader and more detailed knowledge of the power plant, plant procedures, and company policies. In some locations, the senior reactor operator may supervise other licensed operators.
SROs may also advance into the positions of field foreman and then control room supervisor or unit supervisor. These are management positions, and supervisors are responsible for an operating crew. Successful supervisors can be promoted to shift engineer or even plant manager.
Licensed nuclear reactor operators and senior reactor operators may also become part of a power plant’s education staff or gain employment in a technical or four-year college, company employee training department, or an outside consulting company. Both operators and SROs may work for reactor manufacturers and serve as research and development consultants. They also may teach trainees to use simulators or operating models of the manufacturer’s reactors. Finally, operators and SROs may work for the NRC, which administers license examinations.
The beginning salary rate for nuclear reactor operator technicians depends on the technician’s knowledge of nuclear science theory and work experience. Graduates of strong nuclear technology programs or former navy nuclear technicians usually earn more than people without this background or training. Salaries also vary among different electric power companies.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2004 the lowest paid reactor operator technicians earned less than $31,380 per year with a median of $61,100. Reactor operators earned an annual median income of $64,090 in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Salaries ranged from less than $49,690 to more than $82,220 a year.
In addition to a base salary, some operators are paid a premium for working certain shifts and overtime. Standard benefits include insurance, paid holidays, vacations, and retirement benefits.
Employers also pay for the continued formal and on-the-job training of nuclear reactor operators. Of licensed reactor operator staff members, 10 to 20 percent are in formal retraining programs at any one time to renew their operator’s licenses or to obtain a senior operator’s license.
Nuclear reactor operator technicians spend their working hours in classrooms and laboratories, learning about every part of the power plant. Toward the end of their training, they work at a reactor control-room simulator or in the control room of an operational reactor unit under the direction of licensed operators.
Operators work in clean, well-lit, but windowless, control rooms. Because nuclear reactor operators spend most of their time in the control room, employers have made great efforts to make it as comfortable as possible. Some control rooms are painted in bright, stimulating colors, and some are kept a little cooler than is standard in most offices. Some utilities have even supplied exercise equipment for their nuclear reactor operators to use during quiet times.
Because nuclear reactors must operate continuously, operators usually work an eight-hour shift and rotate through each of three shifts, taking turns as required. This means operators will work weekends as well as nights some of the time. During their shift, most operators are required to remain in the control room, often eating their lunches at their station. Being in the same environment for eight hours at a time with the same crew members can be stressful.
Although nuclear reactor operators may work at one station of control boards for a long time, they are not allowed to personalize their space because each station is used by more than one person as the shifts rotate.
Although most operators do not wear suits to work, they dress in office attire. Technicians, however, will spend part of their training outside the reactor area. In this environment, appropriate clothing is worn, including hard hats and safety shoes, if necessary.
Operators are shielded from radiation by the concrete outside wall of the reactor containment vessel. If leaks should occur, operators are less subject to exposure than plant personnel who are more directly involved in maintenance and inspection. Nonetheless, technicians wear film badges that darken with radiation exposure. In addition, radiation measurement is carried out in all areas of the plant and plant surroundings according to a regular schedule.
The tough scrutiny of the NRC is an added stress for operators. Plant management, the local community, and the national and local press also watch for compliance with regulatory and safety measures.
A career as a nuclear reactor operator offers the opportunity to assume a high degree of responsibility and to be paid while training. People who enjoy using precision instruments and learning about the latest technological developments are likely to find this career appealing. Operators must be able to shoulder a high degree of responsibility and to work well under stressful conditions. They must be emotionally stable and calm at all times, even in emergencies.
Nuclear Reactor Operator and Technician Career Outlook
Questions regarding the safety of nuclear power, the environmental effects of nuclear plants, and the safe disposal of radioactive waste have been of public concern since the occurrence of major accidents at the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl plants. Nevertheless, the Nuclear Energy Institute reports 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. A joint effort between the federal government and private industry, Nuclear Power 2010, is charged with identifying sites for new advanced nuclear power plants by 2005 and to begin construction by 2010 of new facilities.
Many unresolved questions remain about environmental effects and waste disposal and reprocessing. In addition, construction and maintenance costs of nuclear power plants have increased rapidly due to changes in the requirements for power plant design and safety. Until these issues are resolved, despite programs such as Nuclear Power 2010, the future of the nuclear industry will remain uncertain. Most new job openings will occur as a result of retirements or transfers to other jobs. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment for all power plant operators is expected to decline through 2014.