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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.

Present and Future

Nuclear physics dates to the 1896 discovery of radiation in uranium by the French physicist Henri Bequerel, but the tools of the modern profession date to the successful creation of a chain fission reaction by Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago in 1942. During the 1940s and 1950s, nuclear progress was largely military, with the development of fusion bombs, ever smaller atomic warheads, and nuclear-powered ships. The first nuclear power plant wasn't built until 1957, in Shippingport, Pennsylvania, but construction then boomed through the 1960s and early 1970s. Nuclear energy is currently America's second largest source of energy, only exceeded by coal, but concerns over its risks and over the environmental damage caused by radioactive waste have led to a complete halt in its expansion. No new nuclear power plants have been built in the United States since 1978, though demand for nuclear engineers to operate and maintain existing plants should remain steady. With the advent of nuclear reduction treaties and lowered military spending, demand for nuclear-weapons designers has also dried up. The navy continues to employ nuclear engineers to operate its nuclear ships, however, and there is increased demand for engineers to dispose of military radioactive waste. In sum, nuclear engineering is not a growing field, but the decreasing supply of trained engineers means that those who are qualified can readily find work.

Quality of Life


Nuclear engineers, whether their specializations are in design or operations, usually work in teams. At this early stage in their careers, nuclear engineers are generally the junior members of their working groups. They have supervisory authority over less educated technicians in their labs, ships, or plants, but their work is in turn supervised by more experienced engineers, and they have little managerial responsibility.


By this stage, nuclear engineers have acquired some managerial authority, whether it be responsibility for an element of a larger research project or supervisory control over a team of engineers and technicians in a power plant or military installation. Pay has increased, and these engineers have some responsibility for training other employees in their operations.


By now, a nuclear engineer has significantly increased authority and responsibility. In research, he is responsible, with other senior engineers, for designing experiment plans and supervising them. As an operations engineer, he will have a voice in setting operational and safety procedures, whether they be for a military or civilian nuclear plant.