Argonne researchers discuss one of their nuclear reactor turbulent flow simulations in the data visualization lab at the ALCF

A nuclear engineer could...

Design X-ray and MRI machines, as well as PET scanners, to help diagnose illness or disease. patient in MRI machine Develop star power or nuclear fusion, an alternative energy source with unlimited potential and little waste. sun
Help deliver power to homes and offices by designing and overseeing the construction of nuclear power plants. woman at nuclear plant Simulate nuclear reactions on a computer to avoid the hazards and expense of physical experiments. virtual explosion
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Key Facts & Information

Overview Nuclear engineers harness the power of the atom to help solve large and difficult problems facing humanity. They design power plants that create energy to power homes and businesses without producing greenhouse gases. They develop machines that image the human body and destroy cancer cells, sterilize food and medical equipment, and create new pest or drought-resistant seeds. They work to make the world a better place.
Key Requirements Creative, imaginative, precise, and logical, with excellent math and communication skills, and knowledge of both the biological and physical sciences
Minimum Degree Bachelor's degree
Subjects to Study in High School Biology, chemistry, physics, geometry, algebra II, pre-calculus, calculus, English; if available, computer science, statistics, physiology
Median Salary
Nuclear Engineer
U.S. Mean Annual Wage
Min Wage
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) Decline Rapidly (less than -10%)
  • Watch this video to meet Heather MacLean, a nuclear engineer at the Idaho National Laboratory who is working on recycling spent fuel from existing nuclear reactors, and using it to make new fuels, thereby reducing nuclear waste.
  • Read this interview to meet Michael Flagg, who took an unusual educational path to becoming a nuclear engineer.
Related Occupations
Source: O*Net

Training, Other Qualifications

You generally need at least a bachelor's degree to become a nuclear engineer.

Education and Training

You can earn your bachelor's degree in a science, such as physics, or in engineering. There are some bachelor-level programs in nuclear engineering, but many study for a bachelor's degree in mechanical or chemical engineering instead. A master's degree or a doctoral degree is required for many jobs in nuclear engineering. These advanced degrees can be in nuclear engineering or in another branch of engineering. Because nuclear engineering incorporates knowledge from different areas of science and engineering, the field is relatively easy to enter from other fields.

On-the-job training is usually an important part of the education of a nuclear engineer. Nuclear facilities work closely with the federal government to provide opportunities for on-the-job training and college programs for people working in this field. Because nuclear engineering is a rapidly changing field, engineers need to study and update their skills throughout their careers.

All states require licensing for engineers who offer their services to the public or whose work may affect life, health, or property. In general, you need a bachelor's degree from an approved college and four years of experience to become licensed. You must also pass a state licensing examination. Some nuclear engineers work on projects that are restricted because they are vital to national security. These engineers must obtain security clearance.

Other Qualifications

Engineers should be creative, inquisitive, analytical, and detail oriented. They should be able to work as part of a team and to communicate well, both orally and in writing. Communication abilities are becoming increasingly important as engineers frequently interact with specialists in a wide range of fields outside engineering.

Watch this video to see how nuclear engineers and scientists are working to fight hunger, malaria, global warming, and cancer.

Nature of the Work

Nuclear engineers research and develop the processes, instruments, and systems used to derive benefits from nuclear energy and radiation. They design, develop, monitor, and operate nuclear plants to generate power. They may work on the nuclear fuel cycle—the production, handling, and use of nuclear fuel and the safe disposal of waste produced by the generation of nuclear energy—or on the development of fusion energy. Some specialize in the development of nuclear power sources for naval vessels or spacecraft; others find industrial and medical uses for radioactive materials, as in equipment used to diagnose and treat medical problems.

Work Environment

Nuclear engineers work in offices, research laboratories, and power plant control centers, either on land or aboard nuclear-powered ships and submarines.

Working conditions for nuclear engineers vary according to the job. Nuclear engineers involved in design usually work in well-lit offices and often put in a 40-hour work week. They might have to work overtime to meet deadlines or to handle unforeseen problems. Some engineers need to travel from assignment to assignment. Nuclear engineers employed by nuclear power plants or factories that make or use nuclear equipment sometimes have to work weekends and evening shifts.

Nuclear engineers need to follow special safety measures that keep worksites and workers safe from radiation poisoning. Workers are protected by heavy barriers that seal off the radiation produced by nuclear devices and reactors. Because of these shields and other precautions, the nuclear energy field has an excellent safety record.

On the Job

  • Examine accidents to obtain data that can be used to design preventive measures.
  • Monitor nuclear facility operations to identify any design, construction, or operation practices that violate safety regulations and laws or that could jeopardize the safety of operations.
  • Keep abreast of developments and changes in the nuclear field by reading technical journals and by independent study and research.
  • Perform experiments that will provide information about acceptable methods of nuclear material usage, nuclear fuel reclamation, and waste disposal.
  • Design and oversee construction and operation of nuclear reactors and power plants and nuclear fuels reprocessing and reclamation systems.
  • Design and develop nuclear equipment such as reactor cores, radiation shielding, and associated instrumentation and control mechanisms.
  • Initiate corrective actions or order plant shutdowns in emergency situations.
  • Recommend preventive measures to be taken in the handling of nuclear technology, based on data obtained from operations monitoring or from evaluation of test results.
  • Write operational instructions to be used in nuclear plant operation and nuclear fuel and waste handling and disposal.
  • Conduct tests of nuclear fuel behavior and cycles and performance of nuclear machinery and equipment, to optimize performance of existing plants.
  • Direct operating and maintenance activities of operational nuclear power plants to ensure efficiency and conformity to safety standards.
  • Synthesize analyses of test results, and use the results to prepare technical reports of findings and recommendations.
  • Prepare construction project proposals that include cost estimates, and discuss proposals with interested parties such as vendors, contractors, and nuclear facility review boards.
  • Analyze available data and consult with other scientists to determine parameters of experimentation and suitability of analytical models.
  • Design and direct nuclear research projects to discover facts, to test or modify theoretical models, or to develop new theoretical models or new uses for current models.

Source: BLS

Companies That Hire Nuclear Engineers

Explore what you might do on the job with one of these projects...

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Science Fair Project Idea
When you have your X-rays taken at the dentist's or doctor's office, do you ever wonder how the X-ray machine works? Or better yet, how you could make one yourself to use for experiments? This how-to guide provides detailed instructions for high school students and adult do-it-yourself (DIY) enthusiasts to construct and use a homemade X-ray machine safely. Read more
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Science Fair Project Idea
Space exploration, living, and working in space exposes space travelers and their equipment to radiation not present on Earth. The study of how we can protect ourselves and our equipment is an essential part of space exploration. Although you will not be able to test at levels equivalent to what you might encounter in space, you can test with lower and safer levels of radiation in the lab or at your home. There are many types of radiation. This project concentrates on ionizing radiation, or… Read more
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Science Fair Project Idea
Have you ever seen amazing, colored images of objects in space, like stars or even entire galaxies? Some of these images were originally taken with forms of radiation that the human eye cannot actually see, like x-rays. In order to create the beautiful pictures you see in the news or online, scientists have to use an image-editing program to add color to them. In this astronomy science project, you will use raw x-ray data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory telescope to create amazing… Read more
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Science Fair Project Idea
Are you fascinated by radioactivity and the emission of particles caused by the disintegration of an atom? This science project enables you to observe safely a spectacular display of radioactive decay. Following the instructions in the Procedure, you will be able to isolate a safe radioactive source and build a cloud chamber to watch the radioactive decay. Then you will use your cloud chamber to discover if a plastic lid can shield you from this type of radioactive decay particles. Read more
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Science Fair Project Idea
Do you realize that you are constantly bombarded by particles? You do not feel them, you cannot see, hear, or smell them, but they are always there! These particles — collectively called background radiation — might even travel through you without ever interacting with the molecules in your body. In this science project, you will build your own cloud chamber to prove the existence of background radiation. You will then use your cloud chamber to determine if the background… Read more
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Science Fair Project Idea
Have you ever wondered how X-rays affect living organisms? You have probably had X-rays taken at the dentist's or doctor's office. These X-rays are considered to be relatively safe, but every X-ray exposes a person to some radiation, specifically electromagnetic radiation. Radiation is energy that travels through space as either waves or high speed particles. Watch this video to learn more about electromagnetic radiation. … Read more

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