Nuclear Engineers Overview

Nuclear engineers enjoy some of the highest starting salaries of all college graduates. Typically a bachelor’s degree in engineering or nuclear engineering is required to start, though some research positions require a masters degree. Continuing education is also important as technology is constantly changing. Employment of nuclear engineers is expected to grow at an average rate with good job opportunities overall.

Nature of the Work for Nuclear Engineers

Nuclear Engineers

Nuclear engineers use mathematics and science to develop economical solutions to technical problems. Their work brings commercial applications and scientific discoveries together to meet consumer and social needs.

Some nuclear engineers develop new products considering several factors along the way. They may specify functional requirements, design and test components, integrate components to produce a final design and evaluate effectiveness, safety, reliability and cost.

Beyond design and development, many nuclear engineers work in maintenance, production or testing. They may supervise production in factories to determine why a component fails or test products to make sure they live up to quality standards. At the supervisory level, nuclear engineers may be in charge of entire projects or major components.

Nuclear engineers use computers to produce and analyze designs, simulate and test operation, generate specifications, monitor quality and control efficiency. Nanotechnology is also bring new principles to the design process for nuclear engineers.

Nuclear engineers research and develop instruments, systems and instrument to derive benefits from nuclear energy and radiation. Nuclear engineers develop, design, operate and monitor nuclear plants to generate power. Often, they work on the development of fusion energy or the nuclear fuel cycle, which is the production, handling and use of nuclear fuel including the safe disposal of waste produced when nuclear energy is generated. Some nuclear engineers specialize in the development of nuclear power for spacecraft or naval vessels, others work on discovering uses for radioactive materials in industrial or medical sectors, such as for equipment that can diagnose and treat medical problems.

Typically, nuclear engineers work in labs, industrial plants or office buildings. However, some may spend time outside at construction or production sites. Some nuclear engineers must travel extensively to worksites across the country or abroad.

A standard 40-hour workweek is typical, but at times, deadlines may bring extra pressure and in turn, longer hours for nuclear engineers.

Training, Other Qualifications and Advancement for Nuclear Engineers

For most entry-level jobs, nuclear engineers need a bachelor’s degree in engineering or a bachelor's degree in nuclear engineering. However, a few jobs go to college graduates of natural science or mathematics programs. Typically, students seek a degree in either mechanical engineering, civil engineering or electrical and electronics engineering. With an engineering degree, they can work in a variety of specialties and have the flexibility to go where the best job opportunities are.

Most nuclear engineers take courses in general engineering, sciences, math, design, computers, laboratories, social sciences and humanities.

While many nuclear engineers earn a 4-year bachelor’s degree, 2 and 4-year engineering technology degrees are also available. These programs provide a more hands-on instruction of the most current engineering applications to prepare graduates for practical design and production work. While many of these graduates find similar jobs to nuclear engineers bachelor’s degree graduates, their skill level is viewed as somewhere between an engineer and a technician.

For some research and development positions and all faculty programs, nuclear engineers must seek a graduate degree. Many nuclear engineers choose to earn an engineering or business administration masters degree to broaden their education or learn new technology as well.

All 50 states require nuclear engineers who offer services directly to the public to be licensed as a professional engineer (PE). To qualify for the license, nuclear engineers must have a degree from a program accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), four years of relevant work experience and the passing of an exam. Recent grads can start right away by taking one part of the exam to become an engineering intern and then with suitable work experience they can take the second part.

Additionally, nuclear engineers should be analytical, detail oriented, intuitive and creative. Teamwork and communication skills are important for the job. Also, nuclear engineers working for the government must be US citizens and often need to hold a security clearance.

At the entry-level most nuclear engineers work under more experience engineers and may receive on the job education and seminar training. As these workers gain experience and knowledge they will gain responsibility in the form of more challenging projects and working independently. Later many nuclear engineers become technical specialists or supervisors. Some even become managers, or take on other managerial or sales jobs.

Many professional certifications are available to nuclear engineers and may be advantageous to those looking to advance to senior technical or managerial positions.

Top 10 Most Popular Nuclear Engineering Schools

1. Purdue University, Main Campus (West Lafayette, Indiana)
2. Pennsylvania State University, Main Campus (University Park, Pennsylvania)
3. University of Wisconsin, Madison (Madison, Wisconsin)
4. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, New York)
5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, Massachusetts)
6. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (Ann Arbor, Michigan)
7. Texas A & M University (College Station, Texas)
8. University of Florida (Gainesville, Florida)
9. North Carolina State University at Raleigh (Raleigh, North Carolina)
10. University of Illinois, Urbana, Champaign (Champaign, Illinois)

See All Nuclear Engineering Schools

Employment and Job Outlook for Nuclear Engineers

Number of People in Profession


Changing Employment (2008-2018)

Employment is projected to grow about as fast as average (increase 7 - 13%).

While about 1.6 million engineers are working only 16,900 of them are nuclear engineers. Top industries employing engineers include manufacturing and the professional, scientific and technical services industries. Government agencies employ about 12 percent of engineers and 3 percent are self-employed.

Overall, engineering jobs are expected to grow at an average rate and nuclear engineers are no exception. The field is expected to have employment growth of about 11 percent. Most of the growth will be in engineering services and research and development. An increased interest in nuclear power as an energy source is projected to spur demand for nuclear engineers to research and develop new reactor designs. That said, there hasn’t been a new commercial nuclear power plant built in the US for many years. Nuclear engineers will also be called upon for defense-related work, to improve and enforce safety and waste management standards and to develop nuclear medical technology. Good employment opportunities are expected for nuclear engineers as well because the small number of graduates with the proper skills will be in balance with the number of job openings.

Throughout their careers, nuclear engineers must stick to continuing education to keep up with the latest technology. Employers rely on nuclear engineers to know the latest advancements to deliver the best solutions and greatest value. Those who don’t stay current in the field will quickly have outdated skills and be at a disadvantage for promotions or new jobs.

Earnings and Salary for Nuclear Engineers

Nuclear engineers earn median annual wages of $96,910. The highest 10 percent earn more than $140,140, the lowest 10 percent earn below $66,590 and the middle 50 percent earn between $81,460 and $114,990. For nuclear engineers just starting out, the average salary is $61,610, which is one of the highest starting salaries among college graduates with bachelor’s degrees.

Annual Salary for Nuclear Engineers

On average, Nuclear Engineers earn $96,910 per year.

10% 25% 75% 90% $66,590/yr $81,460/yr $114,990/yr $140,140/yr

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook