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Career: Nuclear Engineer

A Day in the life of a Nuclear Engineer

Like most engineers, nuclear engineers spend their time working in large, hi-tech environments. Employment in nuclear engineering is divided equally between the Federal Government, utilities companies, and the research and testing units of defense and engineering companies. The Navy, with its fleet of nuclear-powered ships, is a large employer of nuclear engineers, as is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Nuclear engineers conduct research for utility companies to optimize the performance of existing plants, and they are employed in atomic research facilities like the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. Nuclear engineering has become increasingly important in the development of new medical scanning technologies one of the few growing segments of the field. These employers are all large, established operations. The research side of nuclear engineering can be extremely creative, but the field is best suited for those who won't feel confined in large, bureaucratic work environments. Nuclear engineers work in extended teams, and caution and risk control are the bywords of the industry--appropriately so, given the dangers of nuclear radiation. With the exception of radio-medical, nuclear disposal, and theoretical atomic research, a small percentage of total employment in the field, nuclear engineering is not a field marked by breakthroughs. The halt in new power plant construction has ended all but incremental, evolutionary nuclear power research, and atomic weapons design, once a booming experimental field, has lost much of its funding in the 1990s. The field does, however, offer extremely stable, secure, and well-paying professional employment.

Paying Your Dues

Graduate education is a prerequisite for employment as a design or research nuclear engineer. Engineers must have at least a master's degree, which involves significant work in math, physics, and engineering design, while both private and government research jobs often require that the applicant have completed a doctorate in nuclear engineering. Typically, the educational requirements for an operating engineer are less rigorous: A bachelor's degree in nuclear engineering is one qualification, while others with only high school diplomas get their training through the U.S. Navy Nuclear Power Plant Program.

Associated Careers

The skills and training of a nuclear engineer are rather specialized, though there is mobility within the various employers in the field. Military and civilian nuclear power engineers have similar skills, and the government frequently hires nuclear engineers with experience in the various nuclear fields it regulates. Engineers who have risen to positions of significant managerial authority acquire skills and credentials useful in the management of other large enterprises, though there is not significant turnover in the field.

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