Nuclear Power Reactor Operator Careers: Job Description & Salary

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What are the pros and cons of a career as a nuclear power reactor operator? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if this field is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Nuclear Power Reactor Operator Career

Nuclear power reactor operators work in nuclear reactors or power plants where they control, monitor and regulate machinery that generates electricity. By reading the pros and cons of being a nuclear power reactor operator, you can better decide if you should pursue this career choice.

Pros of Becoming a Nuclear Power Reactor Operator
Average annual wages around $82,270*
On-the-job training allows operators to advance to more senior positions*
No mandatory educational prerequisites beyond high school diploma*

Cons of Becoming a Nuclear Power Reactor Operator
May be exposed to danger from burns, electric shock and falls*
May be exposed to small amounts of ionizing radiation*
Work in a high security environment*
Fatigue may result from rotating work schedules*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Essential Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Nuclear power reactor operators monitor and control turbines, generators, boilers and ancillary equipment in nuclear power plants. They are responsible for distributing power among generators, regulating generator output, conducting inspections and monitoring controls and instruments that regulate the flow of electricity from the plant. Operators determine the cause of plant abnormalities, recommend solutions and execute emergency procedures when necessary. In addition, operators are expected to participate in the preparation, transfer and loading of nuclear fuel elements.

Job Growth and Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) asserts that while job growth for operators in non-nuclear power plants is expected to decline, the employment of nuclear power reactor operators is projected to remain about the same between 2012 and 2022. As of May 2014, the mean annual wage for nuclear power reactor operators was $82,270, and the mean hourly wage was $39.55 (www.bls.gov).

What Are the Requirements?

Education and Training

A high school diploma is usually required for entry-level job operator positions. Workers typically undergo extensive on-the-job training in conjunction with classroom learning experiences. After several years of training and work experience, you can be fully qualified as a nuclear power reactor operator. Employers typically require operators to spend a certain amount of time each year taking specialized refresher courses. Plant simulators are also used to train operators to respond to various situations that may occur at a power plant.

Licensure

Nuclear power reactor operators must acquire a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Prior to taking the NRC's licensure exam, you'll need to acquire three years of work experience in a power plant, with at least one year of experience at the specific nuclear plant where you'll be licensed. After the three years of work experience, operators spend at least one year training for the NRC examination. In order to maintain licensure, you'll have to pass biennial and annual examinations given by your employer.

Skills

Nuclear power reactor operators need the following skills and traits: mental endurance, mathematical aptitude, proficiency in using tools, problem-solving skills and mechanical proclivity.

Job Postings from Real Employers

Employers seeking nuclear power reactor operators seek candidates with strong analytical skills and a commitment to safety. While some employers will consider individuals without experience, others desire applicants with education, work experience or a combination of both. Below are some examples of real job positions open during March 2012:

  • A nuclear operating company in Pennsylvania was looking to employ and train a nuclear unit supervisor. Upon earning a Senior Reactor Operator (SRO) license, the employee was expected to be able to supervise other operators in routine plant operations such as testing equipment, responding to abnormal conditions and implementing emergency procedures when necessary.
  • A government organization in California was looking to train individuals for full-time work. No special experience was necessary; a high school diploma was required. This organization offered paid training and supplied funds for education.
  • A nuclear power company in Georgia was seeking experienced individuals to monitor and operate plant mechanical, electrical and reactor systems, inspect equipment and perform special test procedures. This company preferred candidates with a combination of work and educational experience.

How to Stand Out in the Field

Further Education

Individuals who have earned degrees could have an advantage in competing for jobs and may be better equipped to earn job promotions. Aspiring nuclear power reactor operators can earn bachelor's degrees in the physical sciences or in engineering. Work experience in a nuclear power plant in conjunction with relevant educational experiences can make you stand out among nuclear power reactor operators.

Additional Licensure

After a year of licensed experience at a nuclear power plant, reactor operators can upgrade their licenses and earn a senior operator's license. Workers who hold bachelor's degrees in engineering or a related field may be able to obtain senior operator's licenses directly as long as they have three or more years of nuclear power plant experience, with six months of work experience at their particular work sites. If you obtain this higher degree of licensure, you can qualify for more jobs with increased responsibilities.

Alternative Career Paths

Non-Nuclear Plant Operator

While nuclear power plant reactor operators earn good wages and are in demand, you may be uncomfortable with the idea of working in a nuclear power plant. Many of the skills needed to work in a nuclear plant apply to operator work in non-nuclear facilities, and many of the job responsibilities are similar. While you may find a non-nuclear environment more comfortable, wages and employment growth for non-nuclear plant operators are generally lower than in nuclear facilities. According to the BLS, the median annual salary of non-nuclear plant operators in May 2010 was approximately $63,000. Between 2008 and 2018, employment of power plant operators in non-nuclear facilities was expected to decline by two percent.

Nuclear Technician

If you like the idea of working in the nuclear industry, you might also consider a career as a nuclear technician. These technicians operate nuclear equipment and work with devices that control radioactive materials. You might work with nuclear physicists who are conducting research in the field, or you could monitor radiation levels. To work in this field, you'll need postsecondary training, such as an associate's or bachelor's degree in applied science, science technology or a related field. Nuclear technicians were predicted to see average employment growth between 2008 and 2018. The BLS also reported that these technicians earned a median salary of around $68,000 in May 2010.

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Northcentral University

  • PhD in Business Admin - Management of Engineering and Technology
  • Doctor of Business Admin - Management of Engineering and Technology
  • MBA - Management of Engineering and Technology
  • MSTIM - Engineering Management

What is your highest level of education?

Penn Foster High School

  • Penn Foster High School with Early College Courses
  • HS Diploma

What is your age?

Excelsior College

  • BS in Nuclear Engineering Technology (Nuclear Leadership)
  • BS in Nuclear Engineering Technology (Without Concentration)
  • Nuclear Engineering Technology / MBA dual degree
  • AAS in Technical Studies (Nuclear Technologies/Power Plant Technologies)

What is your highest level of education completed?

United States Military Academy

New Mexico Junior College

Montgomery County Community College

Luzerne County Community College