What You'll Do
By Sarah Stevenson
Nuclear engineers use their expertise in math, physics and engineering as well as their knowledge of social and environmental issues to tackle the safe, effective design of a number of processes and systems, including nuclear plants for energy generation, nuclear power sources for military or space vehicles, systems for disposal of radioactive waste, and equipment used in nuclear medicine.
Nuclear engineers may also be involved in research and development of new products, monitoring of nuclear power systems, power plant operation, radioactive waste disposal, radiation measurement, and reactor engineering. The application of nuclear medicine techniques, such as x-ray technology and radiation sterilization of equipment, is another exciting area of nuclear engineering.
Employment opportunities for nuclear engineers run the gamut from jobs for those with advanced degrees and lots of experience, such as management or teaching, to entry-level work as technologists or support staff. Nuclear engineering professionals are invaluable in a number of industries, including the following:
- Consumer and industrial power
- Health and medical research
- Food and water safety
The federal government is a major employer in the field, particularly the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Also, universities always need knowledgeable individuals to teach nuclear engineering.
The Future of Nuclear Engineering
With growing interest in nuclear power as a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, the potential for job growth in the energy sector is promising. In the United States, no commercial nuclear power plants have been built for some time, but if nuclear energy catches on, nuclear engineers will be needed to research and design new types of power plants with safety, efficiency and proper waste management in mind. Other areas of nuclear engineering expected to grow in coming years are nuclear medicine, health physics and agricultural techniques such as the development of new crop varieties.
Schools & Degrees
- Associate's Degree in Nuclear Engineering: A nuclear engineering technologist or technician usually holds a 2-year degree. An Associate of Science (AS) degree program includes core courses in nuclear engineering subjects as well as training in math, physics and computer applications.
- Bachelor's Degree in Nuclear Engineering: A Bachelor of Science (BS) degree in nuclear engineering includes the same core courses as the associate's degree, plus more in-depth study of specialties such as health physics, fission systems or radiation imaging. A bachelor's degree prepares you for entry-level employment as a scientist or engineer.
- Master's and Doctoral Degrees in Nuclear Engineering: Laboratory research or university faculty jobs usually require a graduate degree in nuclear engineering: a Master of Science or PhD degree. You can enter a graduate program after earning a 4-year degree in nuclear engineering or a related area such as mechanical or electrical engineering.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2018-19 Occupational Outlook Handbook, the median national annual salary for nuclear engineers is $102,220. Actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience and a variety of other factors. National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.