How to Become a Nuclear Engineer
- Nuclear engineering involves harnessing the energy created from subatomic reactions.
- Nuclear engineers maintain power plants, design weapon systems, and develop medicine.
- A bachelor's can lead to entry-level jobs, though a master's may be needed for advancement.
- Nuclear engineers may need to become professional engineers and maintain state licensure.
Nuclear engineering is a multidisciplinary field that involves the application of subatomic processes. These engineers combine and breakdown nuclei, harnessing the resulting energy for a variety of purposes.
This guide provides information on a variety of dynamic and lucrative nuclear engineering jobs. Read on to learn about the degrees and professional credentials needed to work as a licensed engineer in this field.
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What Do Nuclear Engineers Do?
Many nuclear engineers work in the energy industry, overseeing the construction, maintenance, and safety procedures of power plants, as well as coordinating the proper disposal of nuclear waste. These professionals can also find employment with the federal government — especially the armed forces — designing weapons and transportation systems powered by nuclear technology.
Healthcare is another popular sector for professionals with a nuclear engineering background, particularly those interested in nuclear medicine, which involves using radiation to diagnose and treat illnesses. Engineers can help design effective imaging technology for medical equipment manufacturers or aid in the fight against cancer by creating powerful radioactive drugs.
These engineers can also work in research positions, studying how radiation causes illness.
Nuclear Engineer Salary and Job Demand
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 13% decline in nuclear engineer positions between 2019 and 2029. This decrease in opportunities stems largely from widespread transitions from nuclear power to less expensive natural gas and sources of renewable energy.
However, nuclear engineering positions in the medical field may see increased demand, especially as the U.S. population continues to age. Professionals who earn medicine-related certificates may be able to expand their employment opportunities.
According to the BLS, nuclear engineers earn a median annual salary of $113,460. These professionals can maximize their salary potential by working for research institutions and engineering firms.
How to Become a Nuclear Engineer in 6 Steps
Most entry-level positions in nuclear engineering require at least a BS in nuclear engineering, which heavily focuses on math and science. For some jobs, you may also need to apply for state-specific licensure and/or earn a graduate degree.
Step 1: Study Chemistry, Physics, and Math in High School
Most engineering fields rely heavily on applying mathematical models and scientific principles. To prepare for a bachelor's in nuclear engineering program, high school students should take calculus during their junior or senior year, which typically requires taking geometry in ninth grade and algebra in middle school.
Chemistry and physics are the most important fields in nuclear engineering. To improve their chances of getting into their first-choice college, high school students should consider taking the Advanced Placement versions of these classes. Aspiring nuclear engineering students who don't complete foundational coursework in high school must fulfill these prerequisite requirements before they can officially declare a major.
Step 2: Earn a Bachelor's Degree in Nuclear Engineering
To qualify for entry-level positions, students must earn a bachelor of science in nuclear engineering. Some employers may also accept applicants from a similar field, such as mechanical engineering.
No matter the specific degree, undergraduate credentials should come from a program that holds accreditation from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). ABET is the primary accrediting authority and professional organization in the field of engineering.
Most bachelor's programs require at least 120 credits. About half of those credits are usually general education courses. The remaining credits are dedicated to major requirements, including core classes like atomic/nuclear physics and the principles of thermodynamics.
Depending on the program, students may be able to pursue concentrations in areas like health physics or reactor safety.
- Differential equations
- Strength of materials
- Computer-aided design and modeling
- Nuclear reactor theory
- Radiation shielding
Step 3: Consider a Master's Degree in Nuclear Engineering
Increasingly, employers — particularly government agencies and affiliated organizations — require candidates to hold a master's degree to access entry-level nuclear engineer jobs. Additionally, professionals typically need a graduate degree if they want to pursue managerial, academic, or research positions.
To help students satisfy these standards, some universities offer dual-degree programs that allow learners to earn a bachelor's and a master's in five years.
Master's in nuclear engineering curricula generally include at least 30 credits, with core coursework covering topics like radiochemistry and nuclear reactor analysis. Students often take advanced, specialized classes, with options like nuclear enterprise management, medical physics, and radiation protection engineering. Many programs culminate in a research-intensive thesis project.
- Reactor engineering
- Heat transfer and fluid mechanics
- Reactor core thermal hydraulics
- Radioactive waste disposal
- Plasma physics
- Radiation detection and measurement
Step 4: Get State Licensure
Although nuclear engineers do not necessarily need professional credentials to find work, most states require professionals who offer services to the public to be licensed as a professional engineer (PE) and hold appropriate security clearances. The process to obtain state licensure varies, so confirm requirements with your local licensing board.
Bachelor's degree-holders can take the first step to become a PE by sitting for the computer-based Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. The FE exam costs $175, lasts up to six hours, and consists of 110 questions. Candidates who pass receive the title of "engineer in training" or "engineer intern," depending on where they live.
Step 5: Gain Practical Experience in the Field
In addition to passing the FE exam, nuclear engineers must accrue at least four years of relevant work experience under the guidance of a licensed engineer in order to qualify to take the PE examination. Entry-level nuclear engineering jobs often begin with a training period that can last from three weeks to six months.
Many employers require nuclear engineers to complete regular professional development activities to learn new skills and stay abreast of trends in their field. Engineers can access these opportunities by joining industry organizations like the American Nuclear Society and the National Society of Professional Engineers.
Step 6: Become a Professional Engineer in Nuclear Engineering
To qualify for many lucrative positions with increased responsibility, nuclear engineers must obtain a PE license. They can sit for the relevant Principles and Practice of Engineering exam after earning an ABET-accredited bachelor's degree and working for at least four years.
Costing $375 and spanning 9.5 hours, the PE Nuclear exam includes 85 questions covering areas like the nuclear cycle, reactor physics and criticality safety, and radiological analysis and consequences. In addition to reviewing content and taking practice tests, candidates should familiarize themselves with the scoring process and current pass rates.
Professional engineers must renew their license every two years. To renew, candidates must complete 30 hours of continuing education during each two-year cycle.
Feature Image: Monty Rakusen / Cultura / Getty Images
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