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How to Become a Nuclear Engineer

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Nuclear engineers develop nuclear equipment such as radiation shielding, reactor cores, and the instrumentation needed to operate and monitor nuclear equipment. They may monitor nuclear power plants for quality control and safety management by identifying design flaws, pinpointing construction and operation problems in complex equipment. Nuclear engineers may perform testing to see whether the practices used with nuclear material and waste are acceptable to humans and to the environment. They may also serve in emergency roles such as during and after nuclear accidents—even managing nuclear power plant shutdowns. Other nuclear engineering applications are in food production, submarine propulsion systems, medicine, industrial production, and nuclear weapon development.

Nuclear engineers work with powerful elements that both provide power to much of the world and are simultaneously dangerous to humanity and the environment if not properly controlled and discarded. These professionals must have the proper education and training to succeed in this field. Nuclear engineers need to have a solid foundation of mathematics, science, observational skills, problem-solving, collaboration, and best safety practices. They must also be aware of how the substances they work with affect humans and the environment. Hands-on experience and the proper degrees and licensing are essential, while additional certifications may add to an engineer’s employability and specialized nuclear engineering focus.

This guide provides a step-by-step path to becoming a nuclear engineer, including information about the time each step typically takes to complete, as well as relevant details about educational programs, licensing, and credentialing.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Nuclear Engineering (4 years)

Nuclear engineers must earn at least a bachelor’s degree to secure an entry-level position. Some jobs require a master’s or special certifications. Aspiring nuclear engineering students should look for programs accredited by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET). ABET accreditation plays a key role in ensuring a quality education that meets high standards. ABET accreditation may also be required for some graduate nuclear engineering programs, financial aid opportunities, and even future employers. Students can earn ABET-accredited degrees online or on campus. Those who choose online nuclear engineering programs can usually satisfy hands-on, practical requirements within their home communities or through summer labs on campus.

Nuclear engineering bachelor’s programs provide the foundation students need to secure employment, become licensed, earn certifications, and continue to graduate school. Students can also choose to study in related fields before securing a graduate degree in nuclear engineering. Students should seek programs that offer hands-on, collaborative learning, thus developing skills such as logical thinking, in-depth analysis, exceptional oral and written communication, problem-solving, and mathematics. Some colleges and universities offer combined five-year bachelor’s and master’s degrees, which is an accelerated option for students who can handle the workload, saving money and time.

Admissions Requirements – Nuclear Engineering Bachelor’s Programs

Every nuclear engineering program establishes its own admissions criteria. Typically the more rigorous the program, the more elevated the requirements such as more competitive GPAs, exams, and even admissions interviews with faculty. Here are some examples of typical admission requirements from actual nuclear engineering schools:

  • Minimum high school cumulative GPA of 3.0
  • Successful completion of prerequisite high school courses such as chemistry, physics, algebra, trigonometry, and calculus
  • No deficiencies in certain areas such as mathematics, science, or english
  • SAT or ACT scores
  • Admissions essay or statement of purpose
  • Completion of the FAFSA (financial aid form)

Typical Courses – Nuclear Engineering Bachelor’s Programs

Bachelor’s programs in nuclear engineering usually offer a variety of learning modes including classroom, lab, and field-based learning. Most programs require students to fulfill general education requirement courses, as well as core classes focusing on the field of nuclear engineering. Some typical courses in undergraduate nuclear engineering programs are:

  • Nuclear criticality safety engineering
  • Radiation protection engineering
  • Nuclear radiation detection
  • Nuclear reactor physics
  • Introduction to plasma physics and fusion engineering
  • Radiation physics
  • Reactor engineering
  • Nuclear chemical engineering
  • Nuclear radiological engineering design
  • Nuclear regulatory requirements
  • Light water reactor technology
  • Radiation sources and applications
  • Radiological assessment and waste management

Step 2: Earn a Master’s Degree in Nuclear Engineering (2 years)

Although a master’s degree is not necessarily required to enter the nuclear engineering field, it can broaden one’s access to job opportunities, especially in more advanced positions, academia, and management. Nuclear engineering master’s degree students often specialize in nuclear science and technology, fission nuclear technology, applied plasma physics, or radiation detection and application.

Admissions Requirements – Nuclear Engineering Master’s Programs

The following admission requirements are taken from real schools across the United States. Note that requirements can vary significantly from one program to the next. For example, some master’s programs only admit candidates who have a certain number of years of professional work experience in engineering, while others admit students right from bachelor’s programs:

  • An ABET-accredited bachelor’s of science degree in engineering or a related discipline
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0 on the last 60 hours of undergraduate coursework
  • Official score reports from the GMAT, GRE, or MAT meeting the minimum score requirements
  • Official undergraduate transcripts
  • Professional resume or curriculum vitae with qualifying experience
  • Statement of purpose
  • Required essays

Typical Courses – Nuclear Engineering Master’s Programs

Students earning master’s degrees in nuclear engineering complete a combination of core engineering coursework and electives that reflect their area of interest or formal concentration. Here are some examples of nuclear engineering master’s program courses:

  • Nuclear fuel management
  • Transport fundamentals
  • Plasma physics
  • Radiological safety
  • Reactor physics
  • Advanced nuclear engineering design
  • Design principles of reactor systems
  • Radiation physics
  • Radioactive waste control
  • Reactor engineering

Step 3: Establish State Licensure (timeline varies)

Most nuclear engineers cannot practice independently without being licensed. According to the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES), licensing requirements are set by individual states, which means they can vary. The Council advises students to examine licensing requirements in the state where they intend to secure a position as an engineer. Students can research state requirements through the NCEES.

Some states require nuclear engineering students and recent graduates to earn special Engineer in Training (EIT) or Engineer Intern (EI) licenses by passing the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) Exam, which tests for a minimum level of competency in the engineering field chosen.

Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) Exam for Engineers in Training

The FE exam verifies candidates have the foundational safety and engineering knowledge necessary to work in the field. The NCEES offers FE exams in several concentrations, and nuclear engineers can take the FE – Chemical Engineering or FE – Other Disciplines. According to NCEES official website, these exams explore knowledge in the following areas:

  • Math
  • Probability and statistics
  • Engineering sciences
  • Computational tools
  • Instrumentation and data acquisition
  • Chemistry
  • Materials science
  • Engineering economics
  • Statics
  • Electricity, power, and magnetism
  • Fluid mechanics/dynamics of liquids and gases
  • Material/energy balances
  • Mass transfer and separation
  • Heat and energy transfer
  • Chemical reaction engineering
  • Process design and economics
  • Safety, health and environment
  • Process control
  • Ethics and professional practice

Undergraduate nuclear engineering curricula are often designed with FE exam requirements in mind. Students seeking licensure can usually find this information online or by contacting the academic department overseeing the program.

Step 4: Get Practical Experience in the Field (1 – 4 years)

Nuclear engineering graduates who meet state practice requirements, including those related to EIT or EI licensing, can enter the engineering workforce, but only under the direction of a professional engineers (PE) as discussed below. Work and any practical experience completed in bachelor’s or master’s nuclear engineering programs can prepare new engineers to eventually become PEs themselves. Most board and professional certifications also require a certain number of years in the field.

Step 5: Become a Professional Engineer (PE) in Nuclear Engineering (at least 4 years)

Like master’s degrees in nuclear engineering, a professional engineering license is a voluntary, but valuable credential. Professional engineers (PEs) typically enjoy higher earnings and advancement potential than non-credentialed peers. They can also complete a wider variety of tasks such as starting private businesses, managing major projects, mentoring EIT and EIs, serving the public directly, and bidding on government contracts.

PE Licensing Requirements

Nuclear engineers must meet the following criteria to become licensed professional engineers:

  • A degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program
  • A passing score on the Principles and Practice of Engineering Nuclear Exam
  • Relevant work experience, typically at least four years
  • A passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam for Nuclear Engineers, choosing either the FE – Mechanical or FE – Other Disciplines

Principles and Practice of Engineering Exam for Engineers

This exam is designed for nuclear engineers who have gained a minimum of four years post-graduate work experience. Some details about the exam are:

  • Length: 8-hour exam with 80 questions
  • Pencil-and-paper format
  • Offered once per year in October
  • The exam uses both the International System of units (SI) and the US Customary System (USCS)

Engineers can prepare for the exam by reviewing the PE exam specifications, understanding scoring and reporting, studying the reference materials and supplied guide, and viewing the most up-to-date PE exam passing rates. Students are also encouraged to familiarize themselves with the designated state licensing board’s unique registration procedures before registering for a PE exam. According to NCEES official website, this exam explores knowledge in the following areas:

  • Nuclear power systems design and analysis
  • Nuclear power systems components and systems
  • Nuclear power systems regulations, codes and standards
  • Nuclear fuel cycle fuel design and analysis
  • Nuclear fuel cycle handling, shipping, and storage
  • Interaction of radiation with matter analysis and protection
  • Nuclear criticality, kinetics, and neutronics

Step 6: Consider Board and Professional Nuclear Engineering Certifications (at least 8 years)

Similar to the certification as a professional engineer, board and professional certifications are another way to advance a career in nuclear engineering. These focus on niche areas in the and demonstrate that a nuclear engineer is an expert in the field, whether that be on a broad or narrow scope. The following are the most common types of advanced certifications.

ABSNM Board Certification

The American Board of Science in Nuclear Medicine (ABSNM) offers certifications in the following specialties: nuclear physics and instrumentation; radiopharmaceutical science; radiation protection; and molecular imaging. A certificate from the ABSNM validates that its holder has successfully completed certain requirements of study and professional experience, which the Board deems necessary to holding an adequate foundation in nuclear medicine science. Candidates must pass an exam testifying to this ability and competence in the field. The following requirements are taken from the ABSNM examination and certification outlines.

Requirements Nuclear Physics And Instrumentation Specialty – Candidates must hold a master’s or a doctorate degree in physics, medical physics, engineering, applied mathematics, or other physical sciences from an accredited college or university; and two to three years practical training and/or supervised experience in medical physics under qualifying supervision.

Requirements Radiopharmaceutical Science Specialty – Candidates must hold a master’s or a doctorate degree in physics, nuclear pharmacy, biological science, radiopharmaceutical science, chemistry or other pharmaceutical science from an accredited college or university, and have three years of full-time practical training and/or experience in radiopharmaceutical science under the supervision of an authorized nuclear pharmacist.

Requirements Radiation Protection Specialty – Candidates must hold a master’s or a doctorate degree from an accredited college or university in physical science, engineering, health physics, or biological science with a minimum of 20 college credits in physical science, and have five or more years of professional experience in health physics including at least three years in applied health physics.

Requirements Molecular Imaging Specialty – Candidates must hold a master’s, a professional degree or a doctorate degree from an accredited college or university in physics, medical physics, chemistry, biological sciences, engineering, applied mathematics, or other natural sciences, and have 2-3 years of full-time practical training and/or supervised experience in molecular imaging science under the supervision of an authorized nuclear medicine scientist or certified physician.

Graduate Certificates – Nuclear Engineering

A number of nuclear engineering schools offer graduate certificates or other certificates in the nuclear engineering field. These certifications may give nuclear engineers an edge when competing for jobs or advancements. Examples of some certificates include:

Career and Salary Projections for Nuclear Engineers

PProspective nuclear engineers may be interested in finding out potential earnings and job growth projection for the future. Fortunately for people seeking careers in this field, nuclear engineering is both relatively lucrative and secure with respect to future job opportunities.

Nuclear Engineering Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2016) nuclear engineers earned a mean annual salary of $105,950 with higher wages reaching upwards of $150,000 per year. States with the most positions for nuclear engineers are Washington, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania. In more detailed terms, here’s a breakdown of national salary data in nuclear engineering:

United States (17,680 nuclear engineers employed): $105,950 average

  • 10th percentile: $65,570
  • 25th percentile: $82,770
  • 50th percentile (median): $102,220
  • 75th percentile: $124,420
  • 90th percentile: $152,420

Also, data from PayScale (2017)—a site for self-reported salaries—suggests that nuclear engineers with project management, systems engineering, and nuclear energy/nuclear power skills tend to earn more.

Career Outlook in Nuclear Engineering

The BLS (Oct. 2017) projected that nuclear engineering employment would increase by four percent overall between 2016 and 2026—an expected gain of 700 jobs nationwide. Although positions in electric power generation are projected to decline, increases in the fields of research and development in engineering, as well as scientific, management, and technical consulting services are expected.

Helpful Resources and Professional Organizations

Lastly, professional and educational nuclear engineering organizations support students and professionals throughout their careers. They provide career and training information, professional networking opportunities, continuing education courses, and more. Now-and-future nuclear engineers may find the following agencies helpful:

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