Nuclear Engineers

Summary

nuclear engineers image
Nuclear engineers direct operating or maintenance activities of operational nuclear power plants to ensure that they meet safety standards.
Quick Facts: Nuclear Engineers
2015 Median Pay $102,950 per year
$49.49 per hour
Typical Entry-Level Education Bachelor's degree
Work Experience in a Related Occupation None
On-the-job Training None
Number of Jobs, 2014 16,800
Job Outlook, 2014-24 -4% (Decline)
Employment Change, 2014-24 -700

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, and this can be gained through cooperative-education engineering programs.

Pay

The median annual wage for nuclear engineers was $102,950 in May 2015.

Job Outlook

Employment of nuclear engineers is projected to decline 4 percent from 2014 to 2024. Employment in several of the industries that employ nuclear engineers is projected to decline, including electric power distribution, research and development in engineering, and the federal government.

State & Area Data

Explore resources for employment and wages by state and area for nuclear engineers.

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 About this section

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 power plants 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

In addition, nuclear engineers are 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 About this section

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

Nuclear engineers held about 16,800 jobs in 2014. The industries that employed the most nuclear engineers were as follows:

Electric power generation, transmission and distribution 41%
Federal government, excluding postal service 17
Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences 16
Engineering services 9
Manufacturing 6

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 power plants. Many also work for the federal government and for consulting firms.

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 about 1 in 3 worked more than 40 hours per week in 2014. Their schedules may vary with the industries in which they work.

How to Become a Nuclear Engineer About this section

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, and this can be gained through cooperative-education engineering programs.

Education

Entry-level nuclear engineering jobs in private industry require a bachelor’s degree. Some entry-level nuclear engineering jobs may require at least a master’s degree, or even a Ph.D.

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 consist of 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.

Master’s and Ph.D. programs consist of classroom, laboratory, and research efforts in areas of advanced mathematics and engineering principles. These programs require successful completion of a research study usually conducted in conjunction with a professor on a government or private research grant.

Programs in nuclear engineering are accredited by ABET.

Important Qualities

Analytical skills. Nuclear engineers must be able to identify design elements in order 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 engineers and technicians. They need to be able to communicate effectively, both in writing and in person.

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 hazard posed by nuclear materials and by accidents at facilities, nuclear engineers must be able to anticipate problems before they occur and safeguard against them.

Training

A newly hired nuclear engineer at a nuclear power plant must usually complete training onsite, in such areas as safety procedures, safety practices, and regulations, before being allowed to work independently. Training lasts from 6 weeks to 3 months. 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

Licensure is not required for entry-level positions as a nuclear engineer. A Professional Engineering (PE) license, which allows for higher levels of leadership and independence, can be acquired later in one’s career. Licensed engineers are called professional engineers (PEs). A PE can oversee the work of other engineers, sign off on projects, and provide services directly to the public. State licensure generally requires

  • A degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program
  • A passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
  • Relevant work experience, typically at least 4 years
  • A passing score on the Professional Engineering (PE) exam

The initial FE exam can be taken after one earns a bachelor’s degree. Engineers who pass this exam are commonly called engineers in training (EITs) or engineer interns (EIs). After meeting work experience requirements, EITs and EIs can take the second exam, called the Principles and Practice of Engineering.

Nuclear engineers can obtain licensing as a Senior Reactor Operator, a designation that is granted after an intensive, 2-year, site-specific program. The credential, granted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, asserts that the engineer can operate a nuclear power plant within federal government requirements.

Advancement

New nuclear engineers 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 also can become medical physicists. A master’s degree in medical or health physics or a related field is necessary for someone to enter this field.

Pay About this section

Nuclear Engineers

Median annual wages, May 2015

Nuclear engineers

$102,950

Engineers

$90,060

Total, all occupations

$36,200

 

The median annual wage for nuclear engineers was $102,950 in May 2015. 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 $66,650, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $152,220.

In May 2015, the median annual wages for nuclear engineers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences $116,190
Engineering services 105,040
Electric power generation, transmission and distribution 103,500
Manufacturing 93,770
Federal government, excluding postal service 92,030

The majority of nuclear engineers work full time, and about 1 in 3 worked more than 40 hours per week in 2014. Their schedules may vary with 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 2014.

Job Outlook About this section

Nuclear Engineers

Percent change in employment, projected 2014-24

Total, all occupations

7%

Engineers

4%

Nuclear engineers

-4%

 

Employment of nuclear engineers is projected to decline 4 percent from 2014 to 2024. Employment in several of the industries that employ nuclear engineers is projected to decline, including electric power distribution, research and development in engineering, and the federal government.

Traditionally, utilities that own or build nuclear power plants have employed the greatest number of nuclear engineers. Recent events might cause the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to issue guidelines for upgrading safety protocols at nuclear utility plants. The upgrades could raise the cost of building new nuclear power plants, limiting new plant construction.

Developments in nuclear medicine, diagnostic imaging, and cancer treatment also will drive demand for nuclear engineers in engineering services, who will be needed to develop new methods for treatment.

Job Prospects

Job prospects are expected to be relatively limited; however, there will be job openings due to retirements. Openings also will stem from operating extensions being granted to older nuclear power plants. Those with training in developing fields, such as nuclear medicine, should have better prospects.

Employment projections data for nuclear engineers, 2014-24
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2014 Projected Employment, 2024 Change, 2014-24 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

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

Nuclear engineers

17-2161 16,800 16,200 -4 -700 [XLSX]

State & Area Data About this section

Occupational Employment Statistics (OES)

The Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) program produces employment and wage estimates annually for over 800 occupations. These estimates are available for the nation as a whole, for individual states, and for metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas. The link(s) below go to OES data maps for employment and wages by state and area.

Projections Central

Occupational employment projections are developed for all states by Labor Market Information (LMI) or individual state Employment Projections offices. All state projections data are available at www.projectionscentral.com. Information on this site allows projected employment growth for an occupation to be compared among states or to be compared within one state. In addition, states may produce projections for areas; there are links to each state’s websites where these data may be retrieved.

Career InfoNet

America’s Career InfoNet includes hundreds of occupational profiles with data available by state and metro area. There are links in the left-hand side menu to compare occupational employment by state and occupational wages by local area or metro area. There is also a salary info tool to search for wages by zip code.

Similar Occupations About this section

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

Occupation Job Duties ENTRY-LEVEL EDUCATION Help 2015 MEDIAN PAY Help
Civil engineers

Civil Engineers

Civil engineers design, build, supervise, operate, and maintain construction projects and systems in the public and private sector, including roads, buildings, airports, tunnels, dams, bridges, and systems for water supply and sewage treatment.

Bachelor's degree $82,220
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. They are also involved in the manufacture and deployment of equipment for automation.

Associate's degree $61,130
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 (GPSs).

Bachelor's degree $95,230
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 damage to buildings.

Bachelor's degree $84,600
Mechanical engineers

Mechanical Engineers

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

Bachelor's degree $83,590
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. Some physicists design and perform experiments with sophisticated equipment such as particle accelerators, electron microscopes, and lasers.

Doctoral or professional degree $110,980

Contacts for More Information About this section

For more information about general engineering education and career resources, visit

American Nuclear Society

American Society for Engineering Education

Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information

Health Physics Society

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, 2016-17 Edition, Nuclear Engineers,
on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/nuclear-engineers.htm (visited June 27, 2016).

Publish Date: Thursday, December 17, 2015

What They Do

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Work Environment

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Pay

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State & Area Data

The State and Area Data tab provides links to state and area occupational data from the Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) program, state projections data from Projections Central, and occupational information from the Department of Labor's Career InfoNet.

Job Outlook

The Job Outlook tab describes the factors that affect employment growth or decline in the occupation, and in some instances, describes the relationship between the number of job seekers and the number of job openings.

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Contacts for More Information

The More Information tab provides the Internet addresses of associations, government agencies, unions, and other organizations that can provide additional information on the occupation. This tab also includes links to relevant occupational information from the Occupational Information Network (O*NET).

2015 Median Pay

The wage at which half of the workers in the occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. Median wage data are from the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics survey. In May 2015, the median annual wage for all workers was $36,200.

On-the-job Training

Additional training needed (postemployment) to attain competency in the skills needed in this occupation.

Entry-level Education

Typical level of education that most workers need to enter this occupation.

Work experience in a related occupation

Work experience that is commonly considered necessary by employers, or is a commonly accepted substitute for more formal types of training or education.

Number of Jobs, 2014

The employment, or size, of this occupation in 2014, which is the base year of the 2014-24 employment projections.

Job Outlook, 2014-24

The projected percent change in employment from 2014 to 2024. The average growth rate for all occupations is 7 percent.

Employment Change, 2014-24

The projected numeric change in employment from 2014 to 2024.

Entry-level Education

Typical level of education that most workers need to enter this occupation.

On-the-job Training

Additional training needed (postemployment) to attain competency in the skills needed in this occupation.

Employment Change, projected 2014-24

The projected numeric change in employment from 2014 to 2024.

Growth Rate (Projected)

The percent change of employment for each occupation from 2014 to 2024.

Projected Number of New Jobs

The projected numeric change in employment from 2014 to 2024.

Projected Growth Rate

The projected percent change in employment from 2014 to 2024.

2015 Median Pay

The wage at which half of the workers in the occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. Median wage data are from the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics survey. In May 2015, the median annual wage for all workers was $36,200.