The nuclear industry is expanding and the demand for talented graduates is high as the government invests in building new reactors and decommissioning existing sites
Nuclear power plants supply the country with electricity, and it's the job of nuclear engineers to maintain and develop these plants. Other aspects of a nuclear engineer's role 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's 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.
Courses take three years to complete full time (four with a placement year), and require 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 ABB at A-level. During the first year of the course you'll gain a general understanding of engineering. In the 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.
Tuition fees 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 £11,300 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 Radiation, Dosimetry and Shielding and the Nuclear Fuel Cycle', '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 demand for talented graduates is set to increase in the coming years as the government builds 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 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.'
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 £17,821 and annual pay increases.
The Office for Nuclear Regulation also runs a 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.
Other organisations that run nuclear engineering degree apprenticeships include Energus, Royal Navy, The Nuclear Institute and Westinghouse.
Find out more
- Gain an insight into the engineering and manufacturing sector.
- Learn more about the biggest challenges facing the engineering sector.