Nuclear engineers research and develop the processes, instruments, and systems used to derive benefits from nuclear energy and radiation.
Many of these engineers find industrial and medical uses for radioactive materials—for example, in equipment used in medical diagnosis and treatment.
Many others specialize in the development of nuclear power sources for ships or spacecraft.
For that, many nuclear engineers earn a 6-figure salary. In 2018, half of all nuclear engineers in the United States earned more than $107,600.
What Do Nuclear Engineers Do?
Nuclear engineers typically perform the following job duties:
- Design or develop nuclear equipment, such as reactor cores, radiation shielding, and associated instrumentation
- Direct operating or maintenance activities of operational nuclear power plants to ensure that they meet safety standards
- Write operational instructions to be used in nuclear plant operation or in handling and disposing of nuclear waste
- Monitor nuclear facility operations to identify any design, construction, or operation practices that violate safety regulations and laws
- Perform experiments to test whether methods of using nuclear material, reclaiming nuclear fuel, or disposing of nuclear waste are acceptable
- Take corrective actions or order plant shutdowns in emergencies
- Examine nuclear accidents and gather data that can be used to design preventive measures
In addition, nuclear engineers are at the forefront of developing uses of nuclear material for medical imaging devices, such as positron emission tomography (PET) scanners.
They also may develop or design cyclotrons, which produce a high-energy beam that the healthcare industry uses to treat cancerous tumors.
Is Being a Nuclear Engineer Dangerous?
Working in a nuclear power environment involves risks.
Nuclear engineers must adhere to a variety of safety procedures administered by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Even with procedures in place, equipment malfunctions can be catastrophic and potentially endanger the lives of staff and surrounding residential and commercial areas. Nuclear engineers are often responsible for taking corrective actions, ordering shutdowns and evacuations as a result of nuclear emergencies.
Although nuclear engineering is a rewarding career, the work requires meticulous attention to detail to ensure accuracy and safety.
Where Nuclear Engineers Work: Most Work For Power Companies
Nuclear engineers held about 17,700 jobs in 2018. The largest employers of nuclear engineers were:
|Electric power generation||35%|
|Federal government, excluding postal service||16%|
|Scientific research and development services||15%|
Nuclear engineers typically work in offices. However, their work setting varies with the industry in which they are employed.
For example, those employed in power generation and supply work in power plants. Many work for the federal government and for consulting firms.
Entry-level nuclear engineering jobs in private industry require a bachelor’s degree. Some entry-level nuclear engineering jobs may require at least a master’s degree or even a Ph.D.
Students interested in studying nuclear engineering should take high school courses in:
Bachelor’s degree programs consist of classroom, laboratory, and field studies in subjects such as mathematics and engineering principles.
Most colleges and universities offer cooperative-education programs in which students gain work experience while completing their education.
Some universities offer 5-year programs leading to both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. A graduate degree allows an engineer to work as an instructor at a university or engage in research and development.
Some 5-year or even 6-year cooperative-education plans combine classroom study with work, permitting students to gain experience and to finance part of their education.
Master’s and Ph.D. programs consist of classroom, laboratory, and research efforts in areas of advanced mathematics and engineering principles.
These programs require the successful completion of a research study, usually conducted in conjunction with a professor, on a government or private research grant.
Programs in nuclear engineering are accredited by ABET.
Purdoe University School of Engineering is home to Reactor 1 or PUR 1, the first and only nuclear reactor in Indiana.
A newly hired nuclear engineer at a nuclear power plant usually must complete training onsite, in such areas as safety procedures, practices, and regulations, before being allowed to work independently.
Training lasts from 6 weeks to 3 months, depending on the employer. In addition, these engineers must undergo continuous training every year to keep their knowledge, skills, and abilities current with laws, regulations, and safety procedures.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Licensure is not required for entry-level positions as a nuclear engineer. A Professional Engineering (PE) license, which allows for higher levels of leadership and independence, can be acquired later in one’s career.
Licensed engineers are called professional engineers (PEs). A PE can oversee the work of other engineers, sign off on projects, and provide services directly to the public. State licensure generally requires
- A degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program
- A passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
- Relevant work experience, typically at least 4 years
- A passing score on the Professional Engineering (PE) exam
The initial FE exam can be taken after one earns a bachelor’s degree. Engineers who pass this exam are commonly called engineers in training (EITs) or engineer interns (EIs).
After meeting work experience requirements, EITs and EIs can take the second exam, called the Principles and Practice of Engineering.
Each state issues its own licenses. Most states recognize licensure from other states, as long as the licensing state’s requirements meet or exceed their own licensure requirements. This site gives you links to the state licensing board and will let you know if and how to register for the FE and PE exams.
Several states require continuing education for engineers to keep their licenses.
Nuclear engineers can obtain licensing as a Senior Reactor Operator, a designation that is granted after an intensive, 2-year, site-specific program. The credential, granted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, asserts that the engineer can operate a nuclear power plant within federal government requirements.
New nuclear engineers usually work under the supervision of experienced engineers. In large companies, new engineers may receive formal training in classrooms or seminars.
As beginning engineers gain knowledge and experience, they move on to more difficult projects with greater independence to develop designs, solve problems, and make decisions.
Eventually, nuclear engineers may advance to become technical specialists or to supervise a team of engineers and technicians. Some may become engineering managers or move into sales work. For more information, see the profiles on architectural and engineering managers.
Nuclear engineers also can become medical physicists. A master’s degree in health physics, radiological sciences, or a related field is necessary for someone to enter this field.
What is a Nuclear Engineer Salary?
As stated earlier, nuclear engineers made a median annual wage of $107,600 in May 2018. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $68,560, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $162,360.
Location also has a lot to do with earning potential. The top states for nuclear engineer salaries were:
- New Mexico, where the median was $136,940 and the high was $180,110
- California, where the median salary was $136,000 and the high was $169,480
- New Hampshire, where the median salary was $131,140 and the high was $164,820.
The cities with the highest median salary for nuclear engineers were:
- Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA Metro Area $144,220
- Northern New Mexico $140,790
- San Diego-Carlsbad, CA Metro Area $139,990
- Boston-Cambridge-Nashua, MA-NH Metro Area $128,660
In May 2018, the median annual wages for nuclear engineers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
|Scientific research and development services||$121,410|
|Electric power generation||$109,910|
|Federal government, excluding postal service||$91,890|
Are Nuclear Engineers in Demand? The Short Answer is No.
Employment of nuclear engineers is projected to show little or no change from 2018 to 2028. This means there is no new demand for these workers. Traditionally, utilities that own or build nuclear power plants have employed the greatest number of nuclear engineers.
However, utilities often are opting for cheaper natural gas in power generation. In addition, the increasing viability of renewable energy is putting economic pressure on traditional nuclear power generation.
Job prospects are expected to be relatively limited. Openings should stem from operating extensions being granted to older nuclear power plants. Those with training in developing fields, such as nuclear medicine, should have better prospects.
For more information about general engineering education and career resources, visit
Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information
Technology Student Association
For more information about licensure as a nuclear engineer, visit
National Society of Professional Engineers
For more information about accredited engineering programs, visit
For more information about engineering summer camps, visit
For more information about federal government education requirements for nuclear engineer positions, visit
Job description and salary information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Nuclear Engineers.
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