Becoming a Nuclear Engineer: Job Description & Salary Information

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What are the pros and cons of a career as a nuclear engineer? Get real job duties, career outlook and salary information to see if becoming a nuclear engineer is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Career as a Nuclear Engineer

Nuclear engineers play a vital role in the research and development of methods to utilize nuclear energy for medicine, military defense and energy fuel. If you are interested in a career as a nuclear engineer, check out the pros and cons of the field to find out if it's the right career path for you.

Pros of Being a Nuclear Engineer
Ability to participate in cutting-edge energy and healthcare technology*
Opportunity to use scientific training and expertise for national defense*
Job growth in the field (9% between 2012 and 2022)*
High income potential ($104,630 mean salary)*

Cons of Being a Nuclear Engineer
High level of education required*
Potential exposure to radiation*
Extensive travel may be required*
Pressure from deadlines*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Nuclear engineers are engaged in scientific research, production and oversight of nuclear energy produced from radionuclides, which emanate from either background elements in the atmosphere or geological elements, such as uranium. Nuclear engineers have expertise in the safe handling and production of nuclear energy. In this job, you utilize advancing technologies and equipment in monitoring and testing radioactive levels of materials. Job duties are typically dependent on the work field. For example, nuclear engineers assist in the operation of nuclear reactors at power plants, producing energy fuel. They participate in the waste disposal necessary to prevent public exposure to radiation and ecological damage.

A growing number of nuclear engineers are engaged in scientific research for medical diagnostic and treatment techniques using radiation. Those hired by the U.S. government may develop nuclear technology for naval vessels or spacecrafts.

Career Outlook and Salary Information

Nuclear engineering is a smaller engineering field that only expects an increase of 1,900 jobs from 2012-2012, which is fast as average for this field, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Although new advancements in medicine and the continued need to dispose of nuclear waste should produce increased demand for qualified engineers, there have been no new plans to continue nuclear power plant construction, limiting the production of nuclear energy and the need to hire nuclear engineers in the energy industry. Most nuclear engineers made between $66,890 and $151,710 in May 2014. The industries with the highest employment were electrical power generation and scientific research and development services.

What Are the Requirements?

To become a nuclear engineer, you need to complete an ABET-approved nuclear engineering program. You explore concepts in reactor systems, radiation safety and energy conversation that are needed to succeed in the field. You can complete advanced education through graduate programs that offer research opportunities and specializations, such as reactor analysis or waste management.

Real Career Opportunities for Nuclear Engineers

You may seek work in national defense, laboratory research or waste disposal through private contracting firms. Many career opportunities require professional experience and a minimum of a bachelor's degree. Here are some real examples of job postings for nuclear engineers in March 2012:

  • A government agency seeks a science, technology and weapons analyst with a bachelor's or master's degree in nuclear engineering. The agency is looking for engineers to analyze issues in weapons development. Applicants must pass a rigorous screening and be a U.S. citizen.
  • A consulting company in Ann Arbor, MI, seeks a senior nuclear engineer with a minimum of a bachelor's degree (master's degree ideal) and five years of relevant experience. The ideal candidate will must be proficient in nuclear licensing and willing to travel.
  • A Virginia staffing company seeks a nuclear engineer to develop specifications and licensing documents. The prospective candidate must hold a bachelor's degree and five years of experience, as well as have knowledge of NRC regulations.

How to Get Ahead

If you want to get ahead in the field of nuclear engineering, you may want to consider completing research opportunities in your graduate studies. Research opportunities offer hands-on application in radiological engineering, risk assessment, maintainable energy, fuel recycling, materials fatigue and public policy analysis. Additionally, the American Nuclear Society recommends becoming licensed through your state. To become a licensed engineer, you must complete a set of two exams including the Fundamentals of Engineering and the Principles and Practice of Engineering. The first exam can be completed after graduation from an engineering program; however, the final exam is completed after four years of work experience.

Alternative Careers in Nuclear Technology

Nuclear Physicist

While nuclear engineers often need a strong background in physics, the role of the nuclear physicist is generally in high-level research. In order to pursue a career as a nuclear physicist, you'll typically need to obtain a Ph.D. The BLS projected a 16% increase in employment for physicists from 2008-2018, slightly above average among all occupations. This positive job growth will be dependant mainly on federal funding, which is expected to increase due to 2007 congressional budget allocations. The median wages for all physicists, including nuclear physicists, was $106,370 in May 2010.

Nuclear Technician

Another career avenue if you're interesting in nuclear engineering is becoming a nuclear technician. Nuclear technicians assist physicists and engineers in laboratory research or production settings. As a nuclear technician, you may be in charge of monitoring radiation levels during research or production. You'll most likely need to obtain an associate's or bachelor's degree in fields such as engineering technology, depending upon the specific job duties and your level of responsibility. The BLS projected a nine percent increase in employment for nuclear technicians over the coming years, with the main areas of opportunity coming in the fields of medicine and waste disposal. Nuclear technicians earned a mean salary of about $67,000 in May 2010.

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