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What is a Nuclear Engineer?

A nuclear engineer might develop new medical techniques.
A nuclear power plant uses fission to heat water into steam that, in turn, drives turbines that generate electricity.
A sign indicating radioactivity.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 25 November 2014
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A nuclear engineer is someone who works with atomic particles. This field is incredibly diverse, encompassing everything from building high powered weapons to developing new techniques in nuclear medicine with the goal of diagnosing disease. Working conditions someone in this position typically include long hours in a laboratory environment and working on teams to solve complex problems. Pay scales in this field vary widely, depending on what type of work a nuclear engineer does and what sort of training he or she has received. As a general rule, most people enter this field out of genuine interest, rather than a desire to make money.

To become a nuclear engineer, someone must generally receive a bachelor's degree in nuclear engineering and then pursue graduate level coursework. In some cases, someone can work as a technician on a nuclear reactor such as one found in a power plant with only a bachelor's degree, but people who are interested in working with innovative nuclear technology should plan on a master's degree at a minimum.

In many cases, a nuclear engineer works for a government, developing defense systems, helping to handle nuclear waste and studying radioactivity. Others work specifically in the defense industry, or for companies which develop new medical equipment, along with utilities. In nations that use nuclear power, nuclear engineers help to keep that power safe, clean, and effective for the nation's citizens. A limited number work in research for various companies in the private sector.

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Among other things, a nuclear engineer may work with nuclear fission, such as that which powers reactors, nuclear fusion in experimental engineering, radioactive materials, weapons, and nuclear fuel. In medicine, these engineers study the effect of radiation on the human body, and develop radiological tools for diagnosis and treatment of various conditions. A nuclear engineer also address issues like handling radioactive materials safely, and disposing of spent fuel and other radioactive products.

Some nuclear engineers prefer more theoretical work in the field of nuclear physics. This branch of physics studies atomic activity at a range of levels, in a controlled laboratory environment where people can observe and experiment with atomic particles. Many nuclear physicists work for educational institutions, pursuing post-graduate work and working with up and comers in the field. Some also work for government-sponsored research centers, in an attempt to learn more about radiation and how it can be harnessed for useful purposes.

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anon211348
Post 5

Nice and informative article. My name is André, and I am an 16 years old Iranian. I am very interested in particle physics and nuclear engineering, but I just want to ask you whether a particle physicist or a nuclear engineer makes a lot of money?

anon131333
Post 3

This is very informative. I would like to know about nuclear engineering. I am doing my senior project on NSE and this was a great starting point. How can I obtain more information on what studies have been conducted and statistics on training rates? --Mea

Alchemy
Post 2

@ GlassAxe- You are right in many respects, but when examining the nuclear engineering field on a global scale the prospects should be good. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates 11% growth in the industry over the next decade. This is mostly because many NATO countries are turning to nuclear power for an energy source, so nuclear engineers will need to develop new reactor technologies. As you stated, the advancements in the nuclear medical and radioactive waste management fields will also be a large contributor to the growth in the field.

The article also pointed out that the nuclear field is a very safety and process oriented one. Most research that aims to develop new technologies will require nuclear engineers with doctorates. This makes nuclear engineers the third highest paid engineering specialists, trailing closely behind computer hardware engineers and petroleum engineers.

GlassAxe
Post 1

Very little of the research done by nuclear engineers is to find advancements and breakthroughs in nuclear technologies. The lack of new nuclear plants and the push for disarmament and non-proliferation have shifted the focus of nuclear research to waste disposal, plant efficiency, and medical devices.

This may change though since nuclear power generation has become a part of the debate over how to reform U.S. energy policy. If the government allows utilities to build new nuclear power plants then there will likely be both private sector and government funding for research and development of better nuclear technologies. Maybe we will see a commercial fast breeder reactor hit the American market.

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