Nuclear engineers research and develop the processes, instruments, and systems used to derive benefits from nuclear energy and radiation. They design, develop, monitor, and operate nuclear plants used to generate power. They may work on the nuclear fuel cyclethe production, handling, and use of nuclear fuel and the safe disposal of waste produced by nuclear energyor on fusion energy. Some specialize in the development of nuclear power sources for spacecraft; others develop industrial and medical uses for radioactive materials, such as equipment to diagnose and treat medical problems.
Nuclear engineers held about 12,000 jobs in 1998. About 60 percent were in utilities, the Federal Government, and engineering consulting firms. More than half of all federally employed nuclear engineers were civilian employees of the Navy, and most of the rest worked for the Department of Energy or the Tennessee Valley Authority. Most nonfederally employed nuclear engineers worked for public utilities or engineering consulting companies. Some worked for defense manufacturers or manufacturers of nuclear power equipment.
Good opportunities should exist for nuclear engineers because the small number of nuclear engineering graduates is likely to be in rough balance with the number of job openings. Because this is a small occupation, projected job growth will generate few openings; consequently, most openings will result from the need to replace nuclear engineers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.
Employment of nuclear engineers is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2008. Due to public concerns over the cost and safety of nuclear power, there are no commercial nuclear power plants under construction in the United States. Nevertheless, nuclear engineers will be needed to operate existing plants. In addition, nuclear engineers will be needed to work in defense-related areas, to develop nuclear medical technology, and to improve and enforce waste management and safety standards.
Median annual earnings of nuclear engineers were $71,310 in 1998. The middle 50 percent earned between $57,160 and $85,460. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $48,830 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $106,400. In the Federal Government, nuclear engineers in supervisory, nonsupervisory, and management positions averaged $67,100 a year in early 1999.
(See introduction to the section on engineers for information on working conditions, training requirements, and sources of additional information.)