How to Become a Nuclear Engineer
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 or a related field of engineering. Employers also value experience, which can be gained through cooperative-education engineering programs.
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 subjects such as mathematics and engineering principles. Most colleges and universities offer cooperative-education programs in which students gain work 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 the 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.
Analytical skills. Nuclear engineers must 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 engineers and technicians. They must 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 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 anticipate problems before they occur and safeguard against them.
A newly hired nuclear engineer at a nuclear power plant usually must complete training onsite, in such areas as safety procedures, practices, and regulations, before being allowed to work independently. Training lasts from 6 weeks to 3 months, depending on the employer. 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.
Each state issues its own licenses. Most states recognize licensure from other states, as long as the licensing state’s requirements meet or exceed their own licensure requirements. Several states require continuing education for engineers to keep their licenses.
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.
During high school, students can attend engineering summer camps to see what these and other engineers do. Attending these camps can help students plan their coursework for the remainder of their time in high school.
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 on 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 health physics, radiological sciences, or a related field is necessary for someone to enter this field.