Nuclear Engineers

Summary

nuclear engineers image
Many nuclear engineers monitor nuclear facilities to identify any practices that violate safety regulations.
Quick Facts: Nuclear Engineers
2012 Median Pay $104,270 per year
$50.13 per hour
Entry-Level Education Bachelor’s degree
Work Experience in a Related Occupation None
On-the-job Training None
Number of Jobs, 2012 20,400
Job Outlook, 2012-22 9% (As fast as average)
Employment Change, 2012-22 1,900

What Nuclear Engineers Do

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.

Work Environment

Nuclear engineers typically work in offices; however, their work setting varies with the industry in which they are employed. Most nuclear engineers work full time.

How to Become a Nuclear Engineer

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.

Pay

The median annual wage for nuclear engineers was $104,270 in May 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.

Similar Occupations

Compare the job duties, education, job growth, and pay of nuclear engineers with similar occupations.

More Information, Including Links to O*NET

Learn more about nuclear engineers by visiting additional resources, including O*NET, a source on key characteristics of workers and occupations.

What Nuclear Engineers Do

Nuclear engineers
A principal job of nuclear engineers is to design and operate nuclear power plants.

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
Nuclear engineers design equipment that may be used at nuclear power plants.

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 distribution32%
Federal government, excluding postal service14
Scientific research and development services11
Architectural, engineering, and related services9

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.

How to Become a Nuclear Engineer

Nuclear engineers
Nuclear engineers write operational instructions to be used in nuclear plant operations or in handling and disposing of nuclear waste.

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

Nuclear Engineers

Median annual wages, May 2012

Nuclear engineers

$104,270

Engineers

$86,200

Total, all occupations

$34,750

 

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 services108,340
Electric power generation, transmission and distribution99,050
Federal government, excluding postal service90,310

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

Nuclear Engineers

Percent change in employment, projected 2012-22

Total, all occupations

11%

Engineers

9%

Nuclear engineers

9%

 

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.

Employment projections data for Nuclear Engineers, 2012-22
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2012 Projected Employment, 2022 Change, 2012-22 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Nuclear engineers

17-2161 20,400 22,300 9 1,900 [XLS]

Similar Occupations

This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of nuclear engineers.

Occupation Job Duties ENTRY-LEVEL EDUCATION 2012 MEDIAN PAY
Civil engineers

Civil Engineers

Civil engineers design, construct, supervise, operate, and maintain large construction projects and systems, including roads, buildings, airports, tunnels, dams, bridges, and systems for water supply and sewage treatment.

Bachelor’s degree $79,340
Electrical and electronic engineering technicians

Electrical and Electronics Engineering Technicians

Electrical and electronics engineering technicians help engineers design and develop computers, communications equipment, medical monitoring devices, navigational equipment, and other electrical and electronic equipment. They often work in product evaluation and testing, using measuring and diagnostic devices to adjust, test, and repair equipment.

Associate’s degree $57,850
Electrical and electronics engineers

Electrical and Electronics Engineers

Electrical engineers design, develop, test, and supervise the manufacturing of electrical equipment, such as electric motors, radar and navigation systems, communications systems, and power generation equipment. Electronics engineers design and develop electronic equipment, such as broadcast and communications systems—from portable music players to global positioning systems (GPS).

Bachelor’s degree $89,630
Health and safety engineers

Health and Safety Engineers

Health and safety engineers develop procedures and design systems to prevent people from getting sick or injured and to keep property from being damaged. They combine knowledge of systems engineering and of health and safety to make sure that chemicals, machinery, software, furniture, and other consumer products will not cause harm to people or buildings.

Bachelor’s degree $76,830
Mechanical engineers

Mechanical Engineers

Mechanical engineering is one of the broadest engineering disciplines. Mechanical engineers design, develop, build, and test mechanical and thermal devices, including tools, engines, and machines.

Bachelor’s degree $80,580
Physicists and astronomers

Physicists and Astronomers

Physicists and astronomers study the ways in which various forms of matter and energy interact. Theoretical physicists and astronomers may study the nature of time or the origin of the universe. Physicists and astronomers in applied fields may develop new military technologies or new sources of energy, or monitor space debris that could endanger satellites.

Doctoral or professional degree $106,360

Contacts 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

O*NET

Nuclear Engineers

Suggested citation:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Nuclear Engineers,
on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/nuclear-engineers.htm (visited October 25, 2014).

Publish Date: Wednesday, January 8, 2014