Nuclear Power Reactor Operator
A nuclear power reactor operator could...
|Provide assistance with the loading and unloading of nuclear fuel.||Conduct procedures that start up or shut down nuclear reactors at a power plant.|
|Monitor sensors to ensure that any radiation leaks are detected and addressed quickly.||Operate a specialized naval reactor that can propel a submarine.|
Key Facts & Information
|Overview||One in five United States homes and businesses is powered by nuclear power, and nuclear power reactor operators are the people who ensure that those reactors are operating safely and efficiently at all times. They monitor all equipment continuously, and implement procedures if malfunctions are observed. They also control and adjust the amount of power being generated, and the reactor coolant temperature as power demands change through the day and during weather events, like heat waves.|
|Key Requirements||Observant, organized, and detail-oriented, with strong computer, technical, and communication skills, as well as the ability to focus and to spot patterns|
|Minimum Degree||High school diploma or equivalent|
|Subjects to Study in High School||Chemistry, physics, algebra, geometry, algebra II, English; if available, applied technology, computer science|
|Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)||Decline Rapidly (less than -10%)|
|Interview||Watch this interview to meet Dennis Pacheco, a reactor operator at the James A. Fitzpatrick Nuclear Power Plant for more than 28 years.|
Training, Other Qualifications
Power plant operators generally need a combination of education, on-the-job training, and experience. Candidates with strong computer and technical skills are generally preferred.
Education and Training
Employers often seek recent high school graduates for entry-level operator positions. Workers with college or vocational school degrees will have more advancement opportunities, especially in nuclear power plants. Although it is not a prerequisite, many senior reactor operators have a bachelor's degree in engineering or the physical sciences.
Workers selected for training as power plant operators undergo extensive on-the-job and classroom instruction. Several years of training and experience are required for a worker to become a fully qualified control room operator.
In addition to receiving initial training to become fully qualified as a power plant operator, most workers are given periodic refresher training, especially the nuclear power plant operators. Refresher training usually is taken on plant simulators designed specifically to replicate procedures and situations that might be encountered at the trainee's plant.
In terms of licensure, extensive training and experience are necessary to pass the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) examinations required for nuclear reactor operators and senior nuclear reactor operators. Before beginning training, a nuclear power plant worker must have 3 years of power plant experience. At least 6 months of this must be on-site at the nuclear power plant where the operator is to be licensed. Training generally takes at least 1 year, after which the worker must take an NRC-administered examination. To maintain their licenses, reactor operators must pass an annual practical plant operation exam and a biennial written exam administered by their employers. Reactor operators can upgrade their licenses to the senior reactor operator level after a year of licensed experience at the plant by taking another examination given by the NRC. Training may include simulator and on-the-job training, classroom instruction, and individual study. Experience in other power plants or with Navy nuclear propulsion plants also is helpful.
Power plant operators need to be able to see well and spot patterns—similarities and differences—in data, so that they can detect problems. They also need the ability to really concentrate, to focus without distraction for an extended period of time.
Nature of the Work
Electricity is vital for most everyday activities. From the moment you flip the first switch each morning, you are connecting to a huge network of people, electric lines, and generating equipment. Power plant operators control and monitor the machinery that generates electricity.
Power plant operators control and monitor boilers, turbines, generators, and auxiliary equipment in power-generating plants. Operators distribute power demands among generators, combine the current from several generators, and monitor instruments to maintain voltage and regulate electricity flows from the plant. When power requirements change, these workers start or stop generators and connect or disconnect them from circuits. They often use computers to keep records of switching operations and loads on generators, lines, and transformers. Operators also may use computers to prepare reports of unusual incidents, malfunctioning equipment, or maintenance performed during their shift.
Operators in plants with automated control systems work mainly in a central control room and usually are called control room operators or control room operator trainees or assistants. In older plants, the controls for the equipment are not centralized; switchboard operators control the flow of electricity from a central point, while auxiliary equipment operators work throughout the plant, operating and monitoring valves, switches, and gauges.
In nuclear power plants, most operators start working as equipment operators or auxiliary operators. They help the more senior workers with equipment maintenance and operation while learning the basics of plant operation. With experience and training they may be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as reactor operators and authorized to control equipment that affects the power of the reactor in a nuclear power plant. Senior reactor operators supervise the operation of all controls in the control room. At least one senior operator must be on duty during each shift to act as the plant supervisor.
Operators who work in control rooms generally sit or stand at a control station. This work is not physically strenuous, but it does require constant attention. Operators who work outside the control room may be exposed to danger from electric shock, falls, and burns.
Nuclear power plant operators are subject to random drug and alcohol tests, as are most workers at such plants. Additionally, they have to pass a medical examination every two years and may be exposed to small amounts of ionizing radiation as part of their jobs.
Because electricity is provided around the clock, operators usually work one of three 8-hour shifts or one of two 12-hour shifts on a rotating basis. Shift assignments may change periodically so that all operators share the less-desirable shifts. Work on rotating shifts can be stressful and fatiguing because of the constant change in living and sleeping patterns.
On the Job
- Adjust controls to position rod and to regulate flux level, reactor period, coolant temperature, and rate of power flow, following standard procedures.
- Respond to system or unit abnormalities, diagnosing the cause, and recommending or taking corrective action.
- Monitor all systems for normal running conditions, performing activities such as checking gauges to assess output or assess the effects of generator loading on other equipment.
- Implement operational procedures such as those controlling start-up and shut-down activities.
- Note malfunctions of equipment, instruments, or controls, and report these conditions to supervisors.
- Monitor and operate boilers, turbines, wells, and auxiliary power plant equipment.
- Dispatch orders and instructions to personnel through radiotelephone or intercommunication systems to coordinate auxiliary equipment operation.
- Record operating data, such as the results of surveillance tests.
- Participate in nuclear fuel element handling activities, such as preparation, transfer, loading, and unloading.
- Conduct inspections and operations outside of control rooms as necessary.
- Direct reactor operators in emergency situations, in accordance with emergency operating procedures.
- Authorize maintenance activities on units and changes in equipment and system operational status.
Companies That Hire Nuclear Power Reactor Operators
Do you have a specific question about a career as a Nuclear Power Reactor Operator that isn't answered on this page? Post your question on the Science Buddies Ask an Expert Forum.
- American Public Power Association: http://www.publicpower.org/
- BLS. (2016). Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), 2016 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved July 1, 2017.
- NIH Office of Science Education. (n.d.). LifeWorks. Retrieved March 20, 2014.
- O*Net Online. (2016). National Center for O*Net Development. Retrieved July 1, 2017.
- Entergy. (2009, February 12). Dennis Pacheco - Reactor Operator - Entergy. Retrieved September 2, 2009.
- Idaho National Laboratory. (2008, September 17). INL@ work: Nuclear Reactor Operator. Retrieved September 2, 2009.
- Wikipedia Contributors. (2009, September 1). James A. Fitzpatrick Nuclear Power Plant. Retrieved September 2, 2009.
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