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Engineering and hands on work? (nuclear)

  1. Apr 27, 2007 #1
    Im a little over a month away from my BS in nuclear engineering and have been accepted into grad school. Im not sure Im all that thrilled with it right now though. When I started studying NE, I pictured myself working in a big nuclear facility, being amongst the equipment, working in hotcells, suiting up and all the like - or at a national lab, tinkering with high tech gadgets, working with large radioactive sources, handling exotic actinides, tinkering with a critical assembly, etc. In reality, everybody wants to just put me at a desk running software all day (both industry and national labs). The idea of sitting at a desk all day crunching numbers for the rest of my career is terrifying! Dont get me wrong, I expect there will be a certain amount of computer and paperwork, but like 98-100%? The few jobs I found that looked interesting, they were all like "oh thats a technician job, you only need a highschool diploma for that." I keep telling people where I intern that I want hands on work but it appears they dont listen to me which makes me not want to work for them when Im done.

    So whats the deal? Is this how most engineering careers are? Am I doomed to be behind a desk if I decide to stay in engineering? Im worried I just put in 5 years of hard labor (with another 2 lined up) for something that does not sound very enjoyable. Its a bummer too because I really love learning about it all.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 28, 2007 #2


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    My experience is in aerospace not nuclear, and sure you get involved with real hardware.

    For example I've been involved with jet engine tests, where the "planning" stage consists of maybe 10 people spending a year mostly sitting in front of computer terminals. Then the technicians and measurement specialists spend a few weeks or months actually building the test equipment. After all that, the test finally gets done, which takes..... about 5 seconds.

    And it had better behave the way it was supposed to, since those 5 seconds destroyed about $20m of hardware, whether it worked or not.

    Squeezing the last drop of information of of the results might take another 12 months of computer analysis. Then repeat the cycle...

    The point is, real world projects aren't done by people "tinkering" with stuff. Anything serious is going to be a big team effort. The testing isn't done "to find out what happens", it's done to verify that the right things DO happen. That's a completely different mindset.

    As for "technician jobs" - there's no way I would want to fly in a plane where I had built the engine myself. I want the guy who torques up the bolts to be an expert in using a torque wrench, not an expert in engineering design. Likewise, I want the guy in the left hand seat on the flight deck to be an expert at flying planes, not an expert in theoretical fluid dynamics!
    Last edited: Apr 28, 2007
  4. May 2, 2007 #3
    Yeah, you better brush up on your technical writing skills :D
    unless your plan is to be an overqualified rad-worker. Kidding, but chances are if you work for a National Lab you will find yourself at a desk setting up experiments and letting qualified workers perform the actual work if there is any work to be performed.

    There are typically two routes to go in engineering... management and technical, both of which are mostly spent behind a desk. Don't let that deter you, the field of engineering can be very rewarding. I, personally, design nuclear equipment for LANL and although I don't get to be there for the actual building or operation of the stuff I design, there is great satisfaction creating something in your mind and seeing it take form.
  5. May 2, 2007 #4
    I'm in the graduate nuclear engineering program at Ohio State, and from what I've been told, the technicians are the ones doing the tasks, whereas the engineers are analyzing, designing and creating the tasks to be performed (usually under the direction of a senior engineer who has many years of experience). Most analysis and design, such as criticality, PRA or the like is done with codes such as MCNPX or the like.

    If you want to be a "hands on" engineer, I would venture a guess that you'll have to wait many years doing the tasks assigned to you by your supervisors, or else become a researcher at a university. From what I understand, researchers at National Labs don't do a lot of the hands on work, and delegate that to specialized technicians. Of course I could be misinformed about that.
  6. May 9, 2007 #5


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    Whether or not one gets one's hand dirty depends on the factility/location and tasks. Certainly engineers spend a lot of time doing analysis and writing reports, but if one gets involved in manufacturing, e.g. nuclear fuel, one will spend time on the shop floor or in the lab. However, it's not just nuclear engineers, but there are mechanical engineers, ceramics engineers, materials engineers, industrial/manufacturing engineers, who might do more hands on work than nuclear analysis.

    Most of the nuclear engineers with whom I interact are doing analysis, e.g. core design, fuel design and performance, or something related to reactor operation. Only a handful do experimental work. As for hotcells, in the US there are two locations, INEL and ORNL. INEL also has the ATR (test reactor) at which one does irradiation experiments. Even at INEL or ORNL, one has to be in the right group in order to experimental work. One might want to look at the Advanced Fuel Cycle program if one wishes to do hands on work.

    As for commercial companies like Toshiba/Westinghouse, AREVA, or GNF, they have fuel inspection groups that go to reactor sites and do examinations and measurements on the fuel in order to assess performance, or examinations on failed fuel. There are only a few people who do that.
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