Nuclear engineering could be for you if you want to work with cutting-edge technology in a field with plenty of room for advancement

As a nuclear engineer, you could be designing, building, running, or decommissioning nuclear power stations. Your work will be carried out in multi-disciplinary teams to come up with technical solutions.

Depending on your role, you could be designing totally new systems, maintaining existing systems, or looking for ways to improve the efficiency, stability and sustainability of nuclear power plants.

Decommissioning (shutting down) facilities is also an important task, as is planning and carrying out safety procedures for the transport, storage and disposal of the radioactive material used in nuclear plants.

You may use mathematical and computer models, and run pilot projects to try out new ideas. Existing systems are continually monitored, and you'll interpret the data and respond to emerging issues to ensure equipment is always working properly.

Types of nuclear engineer

You can choose to specialise in just one part of the engineering field. For example, some reactors are cooled using water systems, so you could develop a career as a specialist hydraulic engineer. Chemical, electrical and mechanical engineers can all find a place in the nuclear industry.

Other specialties include:

  • health and safety specialist;
  • instrumentation and control engineer;
  • process engineer;
  • project manager;
  • quality engineer;
  • reactor operator.

Responsibilities

As a nuclear engineer, you'll need to:

  • understand the science behind how nuclear facilities work;
  • analyse energy transmission, conversion and storage systems;
  • solve design or operational problems with reactor cores and shielding, hydraulic and electrical systems, and complex instrumentation, such as monitoring equipment;
  • manage staff and budgets for complex design, construction, maintenance, expansion, safety and decommissioning projects;
  • always keep the safety of people and the environment in mind, cooperate with local emergency services, and work with national, EU and international industry regulatory bodies;
  • be aware of and address security concerns regarding the use, transport, storage and disposal of radioactive materials;
  • write reports, project plans and other documents that provide information about new facilities, existing processes, problems and solutions, and safety exercises for regulators, energy firms, and co-workers in facility construction and management;
  • discuss engineering issues with people from other fields, such as construction professionals, power grid managers and government officials;
  • plan and assist with the safe decommissioning of facilities that have reached the end of their lifespan, including temporary and long-term disposal of high-hazard radioactive material.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for technicians - the level you might begin at as an apprentice - are between £15,000 and £20,000.
  • If you come in as a graduate trainee, your starting salary is likely to be between £20,000 and £28,000.
  • Experienced nuclear engineers can earn from £30,000 to £60,000, and some earn more.

In the UK, working in nuclear plant construction or in nuclear energy facilities is like working for any big construction company or energy provider. You can expect a good range of employee benefits, including ongoing training opportunities, a pension plan, and health insurance.

Income data from the National Skills Academy Nuclear (NSAN). Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Your hours will depend on which part of the industry you work in. If you're involved in design, research and development, or project management, 9am to 5pm schedules are typical. However, sometimes you may need to attend conferences or travel abroad to meet with partners or visit sites.

Working in a processing or power station is different, since these facilities run on a 24-hour schedule. You might work shifts on a seven-day rota, including weekends, evenings and nights.

Short-term contracts and part-time work are not typical, but large companies are starting to realise the value of job-sharing and flexible hours. It may be possible to negotiate your working hours once you're established.

What to expect

  • Your role could be based in an office, a power station, or involve supervising and checking work on construction sites when facilities are being built or closed.
  • Nuclear science and technology is always moving forward, which can be exciting.
  • Some people have negative opinions about the nuclear industry. You can expect to have to explain or defend what you do at times.
  • There are many opportunities to gain new skills and deeper insights into key issues. If you use these chances, it can help you move up to more interesting and better paid posts.
  • Until recently, the nuclear industry, like other engineering fields, was mostly male and white. This is changing, and major companies in the field are very proactive about recruiting women and minorities. Initiatives are in place such as Women in Nuclear UK and EDF Energy's Diversity and Inclusion policy.
  • Currently, nuclear energy is a crucial part of the world's energy system. This means you will have a good level of job security.
  • There are also opportunities to work abroad as many major companies operate internationally.
  • You'll need to dress appropriately for your role, which could range from office casual to formal (for meetings with major partners) to safety gear when on-site.

Qualifications

Most nuclear engineers begin with a degree in an engineering or science subject. Courses which could improve your chances of gaining entry in to the nuclear engineering industry include:

  • chemical engineering;
  • chemistry;
  • civil engineering;
  • electrical engineering;
  • hydraulic engineering;
  • mechanical engineering;
  • nuclear engineering;
  • physics.

Some universities offer programmes that combine nuclear engineering with another more general engineering discipline. The Nuclear Institute maintains a list of relevant courses in the UK. For further information see Nuclear Institute: University Courses.

You can apply for jobs directly or join a graduate trainee scheme. The trainee scheme route can fast-track you into better roles, and give you a chance to try different aspects of the field.

It is also possible to enter with a foundation degree or HNC/HND in a subject that's relevant to engineering. You could apply directly for some junior roles, or enter a trainee scheme.

There are a few universities that offer specialised MPhil or MEng postgraduate courses in nuclear engineering. Search for postgraduate courses in nuclear engineering. You could also choose to do postgraduate work abroad.

Nuclear engineering is a specialist field, so the level of competition is moderate. If you have a strong record at university and at least some related work experience as a student, prospects are reasonably good. However, as in all specialist fields, a downturn or surge in demand can change the picture quickly.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • good analytical skills for understanding complex operational and monitoring systems;
  • problem-solving skills for dealing with construction issues or repairs;
  • strong aptitude in maths and ICT;
  • a willingness to keep up with fast-moving developments in science and technology;
  • the ability to communicate with colleagues and outside specialists about work issues;
  • communication skills to converse with the general public about the nuclear industry or safety issues.

Work experience

Apprenticeships and trainee schemes are important routes into working as a nuclear engineer. It is possible to start while still a student, by attending open days at nuclear facilities to see what the work is like and to talk to employees.

Another way to get similar experience would be to join a nuclear power company as part of an industrial placement for your degree. Other than formal placements, part-time work is not usually available while you study. However, you may be able to gain work experience or part-time work with the non-nuclear side of a large energy or construction firm that is involved in the industry, which will give you an advantage later on.

Joining the Nuclear Institute while you are studying can help you to gain industry contacts. It runs continuing professional development seminars, and can help you gain Chartered Engineer status.

Employers

In the UK, nuclear power plants are run by private companies, but are subject to strict control by the Office for Nuclear Regulation for safety reasons. Most roles are with major energy or construction companies, although there is some public-sector potential on the regulatory side.

In some other countries, the industry is entirely or partially state-owned and you may need to apply through a Civil Service-style system.

Security clearance may be required for permanent staff and contractors in some jobs.

Look for job vacancies at:

Also check the job vacancy pages of the companies that run reactors in the UK.

Recruitment agencies do handle some vacancies and routes into nuclear engineering may be found through specialist agencies like:

Professional development

All companies in the nuclear sector will expect you to keep up with new developments through continuing professional development (CPD). This may mean formal on-the-job training, attending industry conferences, or taking courses off-site. Popular CPD courses include seminars on new reactor designs and security issues.

The Nuclear Institute holds seminars and conferences, provides professional recognition, and keeps you up to date through publications. Membership is open to students and new entrants, and you can become a Fellow (FNucl) once you gain enough experience.

The Nuclear Institute also works with the Engineering Council to help specialist engineers gain Chartered status. This means gaining recognition for your training and experience through registration with the Engineering Council, the UK's professional regulatory body for engineers. Find out more about the benefits of gaining professional recognition at Nuclear Institute: Chartered Engineer.

CPD opportunities are also provided by the Nuclear Industry Association.

If you enter the field as an apprentice or with an HNC/HND or undergraduate degree, you may want to consider going back to university part-time as your career develops.

Career prospects

It's likely that you will progress within the same organisation, usually a large energy or manufacturing company, for many years or even for your entire career. Starting as a graduate trainee is the most typical way in, and employers have a structured progression path. You're likely to have slow but steady career progress rather than rapid advancement, because there is a lot to learn.

There is also scope to move up by jumping to a higher-level post with a new employer.

You could also make a career shift to related fields, working with radiological materials in medicine or manufacturing, nuclear imaging technologies, space exploration, or non-nuclear engineering.

There is a danger of becoming too specialised to move to a related field, so you should always keep an eye on factors that can protect you in case of an industry downturn. These include gaining Registered, Incorporated (IEng) or Chartered (CEng) Engineer status, and maintaining a broad network in the engineering field as a whole.