Due to an ageing workforce the nuclear industry is facing a skills gap, creating increased demand for talented graduates. Discover how to qualify to work in this growing sector
Nuclear power plants supply the country with electricity, and it is the job of nuclear engineers to maintain and develop these plants. Other aspects of a nuclear engineer's role may include designing and building new plants and decommissioning existing power stations.
'Nuclear engineering is a diverse and interesting topic that includes elements of physics, chemistry, materials science and engineering,' explains Dr Paul Norman, director of the Birmingham Centre for Nuclear Education and Research (BCNER).
'It's a varied sector where there is plenty of demand for graduates,' adds Alison Jane Russell Robinson, senior lecturer and course leader of BEng Nuclear Engineering Science at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN). 'Jobs are well paid and secure, and employers have a strong tradition of developing their graduates at all stages of their careers.'
Nuclear engineering degrees
The majority of nuclear engineers are educated to degree level. Some begin their career with an engineering or science-based degree, such as chemical, electrical or mechanical engineering or physics, before specialising in nuclear engineering with a postgraduate qualification.
However, if you're set on a career in the nuclear industry a number of institutions provide undergraduate courses in the field. To find out more, see Nuclear Institute - Universities.
Most courses take three years to complete full time (four with a placement year), and require students to have studied and passed A-level mathematics and a physical science subject.
For example, to study the Nuclear Engineering BEng at Lancaster University you'll need to have achieved AAB at A-level. During the first year of the course, which is accredited by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), you'll gain a general understanding of engineering by studying modules such as 'Engineering Mathematics' and 'Fundamentals of Chemistry for Engineers'. During your second year you can choose to specialise in nuclear engineering by opting for modules such as 'Nuclear Chemistry', 'Nuclear Engineering Systems' and 'Nuclear Safety'. In the final year you'll apply your skills to an individual project and study core units including 'Engineering Management', 'Nuclear Medicine' and 'Nuclear Instrumentation'.
At UCLAN you'll need BBC grades for entry on to their BEng Nuclear Engineering Science. 'The course has a strong engineering and scientific focus,' says Alison. 'Engineering-wise you'll cover key areas such as design and computational analysis, materials behaviour and operations, giving you transferable engineering skills.
'For nuclear science we progress from nuclear physics and radiation protection and nuclear chemistry, through to reactor fundamentals, nuclear fuel design and manufacture, nuclear decommissioning and waste management and evolving nuclear technologies.'
Tuition fees for both courses are £9,250 per year.
While a Masters degree isn't essential, studying for a postgraduate qualification will increase your knowledge, help you to gain industry contacts and could make you stand out from the competition when applying for jobs.
For entry onto a postgraduate course you'll generally need a 2:1 or above. This is the case if you want to study the MSc Nuclear Science and Engineering programme at the University of Bristol, where your first degree needs to be in an engineering or physics subject.
'The main aim of the course is to supply the next generation of nuclear scientists and engineers,' says Nicolas Larrosa, lecturer in Structural Integrity, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Bristol. 'The demand for nuclear engineers is projected to grow in the next five to ten years as a result of the commitment of the UK government and private sector in developing new nuclear plants. Our graduates not only have an outstanding competitive advantage when securing roles in the industry, but also gain a range of cross-sectorial skills.'
The programme is built around five key themes:
- the nuclear cycle
- nuclear reactor materials and design
- nuclear structural integrity
- nuclear professionalism and nuclear systems
- infrastructure, hazards and risk.
'Teaching consists of core lecture-based units in science and engineering, as well as industry-focused workshops. The programme also includes an industry-set challenge and a major individual research project, for which the practical work takes place over the summer,' adds Nicolas.
Tuition fees cost £11,000 for UK and European Union (EU) students.
The Nuclear Decommissioning and Waste Management MSc at the University of Birmingham is the only course of its kind in the UK. Accepting 2:2 graduates from relevant disciplines the course provides modules in 'Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Radiation Shielding', 'Processing, Storage and Disposal of Nuclear Waste' and 'Site Decommissioning and Environmental Management.' You'll be assessed through laboratory exercises, written coursework, presentations and exams.
'The programme deals with the legacy of what has been left over once reactors and related facilities close,' says Dr Norman. 'The aim is to deal with any waste left over from a facility and return a site to an acceptable state. Therefore the course includes more legal, managerial, legislative and financial aspects than one might see on a more technically-focused course.'
Search postgraduate courses in nuclear engineering and learn more about available postgraduate funding.
Graduate careers in nuclear engineering
The nuclear industry is expanding rapidly and the demand for talented graduates is set to increase as the government ploughs money into building new reactors (such as the ones being built by EDF Energy at Hinkley Point C in Somerset and by Horizon on the Isle of Anglesey and Oldbury-on-Severn in South Gloucestershire), as well as into decommissioning 17 existing sites across the UK, the most high-profile of which is Sellafield in Cumbria.
These projects are set to create thousands of jobs, so what can graduates do with a nuclear engineering degree?
'A variety of jobs are available, both in the nuclear and non-nuclear sectors as engineering is a highly transferable skill,' explains Alison.
'Within the nuclear sector you could build new power stations or decommission redundant facilities or get involved in project management or design. With experience you could choose to work as a nuclear regulator or work for yourself as an independent consultant. Many employers are international companies, so working abroad is a potential opportunity.'
Recent graduates of the MSc Nuclear Science and Engineering programme at the University of Bristol now work for employers such as Atkins, Dounreay and EDF Energy. Dr Norman adds, 'Every year students from our course go into current reactor operations, new build, fusion research, waste and decommissioning and defence applications.'
If university isn't for you, consider working and studying towards a degree apprenticeship. This is an excellent way to gain relevant skills and qualifications, all while earning a wage.
A number of organisations provide opportunities. For example, EDF Energy runs a four-year Nuclear Engineer Degree Apprenticeship programme, offering a salary of £17,355 and annual pay increases.
In January 2019 the Office for Nuclear Regulation launched its first Nuclear Degree Apprenticeship. Upon completion of the five-year course apprentices work towards becoming nuclear inspectors for the organisation.
The National Nuclear Laboratory offers apprenticeships in a range of areas, from science and engineering to project management and business administration.
Find out more
- Gain an insight into the engineering and manufacturing sector.
- Learn more about the biggest challenges facing the engineering sector.