Nuclear Engineer Job Description:
I work as an assistant or lead engineer on various projects that include: irradiating materials that will later be used as nuclear medicines or industrial isotopes, shielding calculations for containers that will move radioactive materials around the facility, and performing safety analysis for materials that will go in the reactor.
My job is a little different than most nuclear engineers in that I don't work for a national lab or a utility. The MU Research Reactor is the largest university-run reactor in the U.S. and we make a large percentage of the cancer-fighting medicines used in treatments for bone cancer, prostate cancer, etc.
What was your career path, did you go to a nuclear engineer college?
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I had an odd path to this job. I spent 6 years as a computer programmer in the finance industry. For a number of reasons, I became convinced that if the U.S. was going to be able to sustain growth and provide reliable electricity to the country without continuing to spew filth into the atmosphere from coal plants, nuclear power was going to have to play a large role.
I decided I wanted to play a part in that. I quit my job and went to school for 3.5 years at the University of Missouri-Rolla (UMR), a campus of the University of Missouri System that focuses on engineering and one of the few schools left in the U.S. that offers a nuclear engineering undergrad degree.
At UMR, I took a lot of math, physics, basic engineering and many nuclear engineering courses such as reactor physics, radiation laboratories, thermodynamics for nuclear power plants, etc. I had already earned an undergraduate degree (in History, of all things) which helped cut down on the hours I had to take each semester.
Every summer I made sure I had an internship lined up. I worked at Argonne National Laboratory (outside of Chicago), for a major industry-academic partnership in Denver, and for Westinghouse Nuclear (outside of Pittsburgh). I also made sure that I read widely on the industry in general and joined the American Nuclear Society - a major professional group for the industry.
Beyond a nuclear engineer's necessary skills, what career advice would you give?
Nuclear engineers do require a college degree. Some colleges offer dual degrees, such as mechanical engineering with an emphasis in nuclear. Other options include getting an engineering undergrad degree in mechanical or electrical and then getting a masters in nuclear engineering.
I strongly recommend the profession. That said, be prepared to work and work hard. Also, don't focus solely on the math, physics and engineering topics. Read widely on a variety of topics, including waste disposal issues, power generation, the history of science and politics (a huge factor in our industry).
Nuclear energy and nuclear science are poised for a great comeback. Young men and women will be able to make long-term, profitable careers both as workers and as entrepreneurs. Not only are utilities hiring, but National Laboratories that do basic research need nuclear engineers.
Also, universities need people to teach the classes and a huge variety of jobs are available in support work, such as transportation, waste disposal, outage services, etc. Keep your eyes open and learn as much as you can - and you could wind up starting a business that could employ many people and make you very rich.
What is the future of nuclear engineering careers?
I'd say moderately good, with the chance to become great in the next five years; moderately good just because the industry and labs are facing a huge wave of retirees and not enough people to fill their shoes. Potentially great because if we see a new wave of nuclear power plants built, the sky's the limit in opportunities to have an exciting and lucrative career.
It's not just utilities that will need skilled people. Reactor designers such as Areva or Westinghouse will need your skills, engineering firms such as the Shaw Group or Bechtel will come calling, as will fuel fabricators, fuel enrichment facilities such as USEC and manufacturers of specialty steels, piping, chemicals, etc.
One interesting aspect of nuclear engineering is health physics. This branch deals with monitoring radiation at nuclear facilities, hospitals and industrial facilities. HP's help clean up contamination and implement programs to make sure operators of everything from reactors to X-ray machines to PET scanners handle the radiation utilized in that equipment in a safe and efficient manner.
Also, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in desperate need of nuclear engineers to handle the coming wave of retirements and the coming wave of plant applications. And they pay well.
And in niche industries, such as the one I occupy, we could see expansion of opportunities as well. At the MU Research Reactor, we make radioactive materials for medicines and industrial use, not power. But we still need nuclear engineers, nuclear operators and skilled safety and shipping personnel, etc.
What factors can affect the typical nuclear engineer salary?
Mainly your experience and the part of the industry you choose. Most entry-level nuclear engineers can expect a starting salary somewhere in the mid-$50,000 range, though the trend has been higher recently. If you are competent and work hard, in the nuclear power part of the industry you can expect significant raises early in your career and bonuses each year-end.
Nuclear jobs tend to cluster around nuclear power plants, nuclear reactors, engineering firms in Pennsylvania and Virginia, at national laboratories such as Los Alamos in New Mexico and the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho. Many opportunities will be in rural areas, as most facilities were built away from urban centers.
If you are flexible and willing to move, you can work for major multi-national engineering companies such as Bechtel, live all over the world and get paid well to do it. All in all, I work in a very exciting industry that has a very positive benefit to people all over the country.
Finding a job in nuclear engineering is best done while as a student. I strongly encourage students to find summer internships or co-op jobs with either labs or industry to actually work at the facilities. This allows employers to evaluate students and students to evaluate employers.
I would suggest the same for nuclear design companies like Westinghouse or Areva. In addition to working at a place, networking through professional societies is a good way to find out about jobs. And, since demand is so high at the moment, traditional job sites such as Monster provide a platform to find openings as well.
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