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Nuclear energy plays an important role in industries like electric power generation and medicine. The professionals who research and create ways to use nuclear energy and radiation in industrial and medical purposes are known as nuclear engineers. Nuclear engineering includes many responsibilities. Nuclear engineers devise the processes, equipment and systems used to create and control nuclear energy the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. They are responsible for the development of nuclear reactor cores, the building of nuclear power plants and the invention of medical diagnostic and treatment tools like positron emission tomography (PET) scanners.
In existing nuclear power plants, nuclear engineers oversee plant operations and maintenance for both safety and compliance purposes and write instructions for the safe handling of nuclear waste, the BLS reported. In a nuclear emergency, nuclear engineers are responsible for shutting down hazardous nuclear plants and taking steps to address the problem. After the danger has passed, they investigate what happened to prevent future emergencies.
A career as a nuclear engineer requires a specific knowledge base obtained through a formal college education. Nuclear engineering programs accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) make use of classroom learning, laboratory research and field study experiences to teach students the basics of mathematics and engineering principles, the BLS reported. Even undergraduate programs – the required entry-level education for this career – often offer students cooperative-education opportunities through which they can gain valuable hands-on work experience. Ambitious students can also seek out accredited schools that offer five-year combination bachelor’s and master’s degree programs or those that allow for more extensive co-op experiences over five to six years.
For nuclear engineers who work in power plants, professional engineer licensure is typically optional, according to the BLS. However, many nuclear engineers chose to seek licensure. Those who are interested in attaining a license will need to pass two tests, the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) and Professional Engineering (PE) exams, as well as have a degree from an ABET-accredited program and meet a minimum professional experience requirement. Nuclear engineers can also seek the Senior Reactor Operator Class certification from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
With a median annual salary of $104,270, nuclear engineers earn a salary well above the $86,200 median wage for engineers in all disciplines – and more than three times the median salary across all occupations, the BLS reported. Nuclear engineers have the highest earning potential when they work in industries like scientific research and development services and architectural and engineering services. Despite the exceptionally high rate of pay, the BLS predicts the job outlook for nuclear engineers to be the same as for engineers in all disciplines – favorable, with a nine percent increase in job opportunities expected over a decade. Opportunities are likely to be good in nuclear power plants and nuclear medicine, in particular.
If you are good at math, pay close attention to details and have strong problem-solving, analytical and logical-thinking skills, a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering could put you on the path to this rewarding career and a six-figure annual salary.