What Does a Nuclear Engineer Do?

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Many nuclear engineers work as researchers developing and testing new applications to obtain benefits from nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is used to power submarines, ships, and spacecraft, as well as to produce electricity in power plants. Nuclear research includes finding ways to make reactors more safe and efficient. Some engineers are involved in basic fusion research, with the aim of making it available for the production of electricity and other commercial uses. Notably, nuclear energy has a major role in the development of the instruments and equipment used in the diagnosis and treatment of certain medical conditions, and nuclear engineers are developing more medical applications. Their research in nuclear science includes crossover into bioengineering and environmental science.

Other nuclear engineers maintain systems that are already in use, emphasizing the management and use of nuclear energy. These engineers are responsible for enforcing procedures for the safe operation of nuclear plants and disposal of nuclear waste. Their job includes monitoring facilities for any design or procedure that creates a safety or legal violation. Nuclear engineers have the authority to shut down any facility in an emergency, and in the event of a nuclear accident, these engineers analyze what went wrong and implement preventive measures.

Discover what to expect from the nuclear engineering profession below, including an overview of common responsibilities, specializations, and employers.

Nuclear Engineering Job Overview

Nuclear engineers work almost exclusively for large, established organizations. Their work is often creative, but they have to be able to cope with bureaucracy. Because of the dangers of radiation, caution is always the top priority. Rather than creating breakthrough discoveries or designs, nuclear research typically leads to small, gradual improvements. Nuclear engineers have various job titles, including designations such as nuclear design engineer, nuclear reactor engineer, radiological engineer, and similar descriptions.

These engineering professionals work as part of teams and must be able to get along with others. Their work requires interdisciplinary knowledge in nuclear physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Nuclear engineers today are also computer literate, as they employ computer-aided design software and computer simulations to model equipment and systems. They must also be knowledgeable about computerized control equipment used in the operation of nuclear facilities. Entry-level jobs as nuclear engineers require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. Most positions require a master’s degree, and top leadership positions or professorships generally call for having a PhD. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), nuclear engineers have the ability to:

  • Analyze and identify design elements
  • Communicate effectively in writing and verbally
  • Pay attention to details in the operation of facilities
  • Think logically
  • Use advanced math such as calculus and trigonometry
  • Anticipate problems and implement safeguards

Nuclear engineers undergo training when they are first hired, and must keep their skills updated with continuing education.

Nuclear Engineering Specializations

Several areas of specialization are available to nuclear engineers, some of which overlap. Nuclear occupations accommodate a diversity of niche scientific research interests.

Modeling and Simulation

Modeling and simulation nuclear engineers work with neutron and gamma data. They are also engaged in nuclear safety, including radiation shielding, and engage in research on reactor neutronics and neutron transport.

Nuclear Fusion and Plasma Science

Nuclear fusion and plasma science nuclear engineers research plasma processing and fusion reactors. They are usually part of medical research into nanoscale drug delivery systems or developing thin-film coverings for the storage of nuclear waste is part of their safety research.

Nuclear Materials

Nuclear engineers studying nuclear materials research methods to reduce the degradation of materials in nuclear reactor plants. They analyze fuel cycles and radiation tolerant materials to discover ways to extend the life of reactors. Their research also includes the effects of corrosion, including stress cracking and light water reactor sustainability.

Nuclear Reactors

Nuclear reactor engineers conduct advanced design and analysis, including nuclear fuel design. They are experts in fission technology, thermal hydraulics, and the multiphase flow of substances.

Radiation Detection and Measurements

Radiation detection and measurements nuclear engineers develop new ways to detect radiation, making them responsible for nuclear safeguards and security. One of their goals is the non-destructive examination of materials, and they may apply radiation imaging and signal processing techniques. The latter involves the use of mathematics to make signals more observable.

Thermal and Fluids Sciences

Thermal and fluids sciences are concerned with fluid dynamics and heat transfer processes in medical and non-medical applications. Nuclear engineers working in those fields conduct experiments to improve the delivery of therapeutics in living cells. They are develop biomedical devices for use in cancer treatments, brain cooling, and bacterial disinfection.

Medical Instrumentation

Finally, nuclear engineers are also involved in developing and testing medical instrumentation. Positron Emission Tomography (PET Scan) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) are in common use today. These specialists also may research radioactive tracers, called radiopharmaceuticals, that are used in nuclear medicine to diagnose disease.

It’s worth noting that nuclear engineers are currently studying the use of fiber optics in almost all of the above specialties. For example, engineers are developing fiber optic instruments to take in-core measurements, detect radiation, and transmit data in nuclear power plants. They are also working on better ways to manage nuclear waste, as the safety and reliability of nuclear energy applications permeate all research and development efforts.

Daily Responsibilities for a Nuclear Engineer

These engineers’ specialization determines how nuclear engineers spend their days. Among other duties, they might:

  • Direct and monitor the activities of operating personnel to ensure compliance with safety procedures
  • Write or review instructions for plant operations, including fuel and waste handling
  • Conduct environmental studies
  • Prepare reports for regulatory and other agencies
  • Process, analyze, and evaluate data
  • Communicate with subordinates, peers, and supervisors
  • Coordinate maintenance and repair activities
  • Perform experiments or calculations

Please note that advanced security clearances are required for many of the activities performed by nuclear engineers.

Common Employers of Nuclear Engineers

Nuclear engineering is a slow-growing field, according to the BLS (October 2017). They predict that there will be four percent growth in openings between 2016 and 2026, which is slower than the predicted growth for other occupations. The lack of demand for nuclear engineers can be attributed to:

  • A moratorium on building new nuclear power plants
  • Nuclear restriction treaties

Despite the slow demand for the traditional jobs for nuclear engineers, a stable job market remains for qualified engineers. Nuclear utilities companies employ the majority of nuclear engineers. Although new power plants are not being built, there is demand for nuclear engineers to maintain and operate the existing plants. The United States is home to 103 of the 433 nuclear plants worldwide. The existing plants must undergo periodic inspections and certification to continue operating. The research of nuclear engineers maximizes the life, efficiency, and safety of the aging power plants.

Governmental agencies are the next largest employers of nuclear engineers. The U.S. Navy has an ongoing demand for nuclear engineers to maintain and operate nuclear submarines and ships. The Nuclear Regulation Agency, NASA, and the Department of Energy (DOE) all require the services of experienced nuclear engineers.

Facilities such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center also hire nuclear engineers for research and development of a variety of applications. Much of the research is theoretical. Currently, nuclear energy is produced by fission, which is the splitting of atoms. Developing fusion nuclear energy is one of the major fields (and objectives) for nuclear energy researchers. Much of this research is being conducted at the National Ignition Facility, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and other national laboratories. Researchers at various universities are also involved in fusion experiments and calculations. Research of this type is often in collaboration with, and financed by, agencies such as the DOE and NASA.

Nuclear medicine is currently the fastest growing specialization for nuclear engineers. The National Cancer Institute and similar health organizations hire bio-nuclear engineers to maintain or develop equipment and methods for medical facilities. Universities engaging in nuclear medicine research and companies developing equipment and drugs also hire nuclear engineers to develop new diagnostic and treatment applications.

Radioactive waste management is another growing field. Research includes finding effective ways of transporting and containing the waste. One of the focal points for nuclear engineers is preventing the potential contamination of groundwater near repositories where nuclear waste is stored. Researchers in the federal Reactor and Fuel Cycle Technology Subcommittee of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future are working on disposal and storage alternatives, among other trained professionals.

Overall, nuclear engineers primarily work in offices and laboratories. Those involved in power plant operations spend time at the job site. Most engineers are employed full time, with occasional demand for overtime hours. Although nuclear engineers have conducted extensive research and development for many years, they still have challenges to overcome. Accidents still occur at nuclear reactors. Contamination by radioactive waste remains a problem. Oversight and inspection are needed in weaponry and nuclear proliferation. Nuclear engineers have important roles in finding the solutions needed to meet these challenges.

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