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Nuclear Engineers Careers: Employment & Salary Trends for Aspiring Nuclear Engineers

Nuclear Engineers at a Glance

Nuclear engineers are responsible for everything from finding solutions to nuclear engineering problems to conducting research. These professionals deal with problems associated with the control, utilization, and release of nuclear waste disposal and nuclear energy. On any given day, nuclear engineers will monitor nuclear facilities, perform experiments, oversee construction of nuclear reactors, conduct tests of nuclear fuel behavior and cycles, design and direct nuclear research projects and prepare construction project proposals.

Nuclear engineers work in many different industries including utilities, federal, state and local government; professional, scientific, and technical services, and fabricated metal product manufacturing. Most nuclear engineers work 40+ hours per week, but around 14.3% work part-time.

Schools to consider:

Employment Trends

Job Outlook: Below average
Annual Openings: 1,046
Percent Growth: 7.2%
Total Jobs Held: 15,000
Projected Employment: 16,000
The Best 500 Jobs Overall Ranking: 401

Source: “Best Jobs for the 21st Century,” JIST Publishing 2009. Farr, Michael and Shatkin, Laurence, Ph.D.; “Salary Facts Handbook,” JIST Publishing 2008. Editors @ JIST.

Although job growth is expected to be slow moving over the next several years, there are several areas that show promise. Research and development, power plants (utilities), and government departments, specifically defense. A number of job openings will become available as a result of retirement and professionals that leave the field or move into other positions.

In addition, according to The American Nuclear Society, 700 nuclear engineers need to graduate every year to support the potential demand. Currently, only a third of that number is available.

Salary Trends

In 2009, nuclear engineers earned an average salary of $94,420 per year. This figure represents a 2.5% increase over 2008 ($92,040). Nuclear engineers in the 90th percentile can expect to earn around $124,510 per year, while 75th percentile nuclear engineers can expect to earn $105,710 per year. At $65,220 per year, entry-level nuclear engineers can expect to earn one of the highest starting salaries among all professions.

Degrees and Training Programs

A bachelor’s degree or higher is preferred for entry into this field. A small percentage of nuclear engineers have an associate degree, but this 12.8% is the exception, not the rule. Most associate degree holder’s work in entry-level positions until they have received a bachelor’s degree. Currently, 1.1% of all nuclear engineers have a first professional degree, 4.5% have a doctoral degree, 20.2% have a master’s degree, and 36.6% have a bachelor’s degree. Doctoral degree holders currently earn roughly 37.4% most than other degree holders and master’s degree holders earn around 12.1% more than bachelor’s degree holder’s.

Aspiring nuclear engineers must enroll in an accredited engineering program. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc. (ABET) must accredit the program. More than 1,830 accredited programs are available at colleges and universities across the U.S. Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), Inc. accreditation is based on a program's curriculum, facilities, and faculty.

In addition to a degree from an accredited program, aspiring nuclear engineers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia must obtain a license in order to work with the public. Licensed engineers receive the "PE" designation, which stands for "professional engineer."  

Coursework Required

Nuclear science and engineering majors should be proficient in math, science, physics, statistics, chemistry, and English. Major courses will include but are not limited to microelectric circuits, electronic techniques, nuclear reactor theory, nuclear reactions and radiation, engineering thermodynamics, nuclear design, fission power engineering, and risk, safety, and systems analysis.

Master’s students typically specialize in fission reactor technology, applied plasma physics or nuclear science and technology. Courses in these areas may include modern physical metallurgy, fusion energy, electromagnetic interactions, and radiation biophysics, to name a few.

Did you know that there are about 100 nuclear power plants currently operating in the U.S.? These power plants represent a total investment of more than $200 billion. This is only one of the many industries with an increasing need for nuclear engineers, despite below average job growth.