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How to become a nuclear engineer

  1. Sep 24, 2009 #1
    I am a mechanical engineering student still working on my bachelors.
    I have taken a great interest in the development of the fusion reactor in France (ITER).

    I have decided to gear my education in such a way that I will eventually be qualified to work at ITER and in the nuclear fusion field. I still want to receive my mechanical engineering degree before I move on to nuclear engineering specifically.

    Many of you already have your degrees and many of you are probably already working in your field. If you could give me any direction as to the courses to take and the people to talk to in order to become the "perfect fusion engineer" I would really appreciate it.

    If you could let me know where I could look to find work in the fusion field as a graduate intern that would also help me out a lot.

    I have been searching the inter-net and trying to get in touch with people already in the field, but it seems once you get this specific you really limit your options.

    I appreciate any comment you may have.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 24, 2009 #2


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    Normally, a nuclear engineering degree involves some courses in some introductory course work in modern and nuclear physics, and nuclear (fission) reactor theory, and nuclear plant design. A nuclear engineer will also take courses in various mechanical engineering, e.g. thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, solid mechanics/structural engineering (this could be in civil engineering depending on the university), and electrical engineering, e.g., circuit analysis, electro-mechanics (transformers/generators/alternators/motors), perhaps control theory, and perhaps network analysis. There are optional courses in materials. Fusion engineering is usually an upper level elective.

    At the moment, fusion is still in R&D phase, and there are not fusion power plants, so there is no major in fusion engineering.

    If one was to specialize in fusion, the one would need to do courses in plasma physics in addition to the core nuclear engineering program.
  4. Sep 24, 2009 #3
    Thank you, for your answer I was beginning to think I had asked the wrong question.

    I think I've started to get ahead of myself, I haven't even gotten my bachelors yet.
    Most probably won't take me seriously until I make it to that point.
  5. Sep 24, 2009 #4


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    Now is a good time to ask - at least one is looking ahead rather than behind (as in, what one should have done). :smile:
  6. Sep 25, 2009 #5


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    If you want to do research specifically in nuclear fusion, you will probably want to take as many physics courses as you can. Most nuclear engineering courses are related to nuclear fission engineering and don't have a lot in common with fusion research. If you just want to work at ITER because you like the idea of fusion power technology, then there are many paths open to you (mechanical, electrical, material science, etc etc...)
  7. Sep 25, 2009 #6
    I have been looking at the different paths offered by most of the universities that specialize in fusion and plasma physics. The Princeton plasma physics department discusses the potential of further use of plasma physics for fusion research, but it is almost a side note.

    I think for me I don't want to struggle as much with the theoretical research as much as removing the physical limitations we encounter as we try to make this work with what we know now. The more I study, the more like I feel that we have most of the pieces we need to make it work, we just haven't perfected a technique. If I could help "make it work" I think I will have accomplished what I want to do.

    Even the Princeton curriculum seemed to lack what I am really looking for, they are looking more from the research for the academic advancement of plasma physics rather than a pure application approach.
    I would like to be able to fully understand the technology behind ITER and the theories behind it so that I can help them find ways to create the efficiency that is needed to make fusion as a power source a reality.

    I guess I'm trying to find the best starting school to really understand the tokamak and how to make it work the way we want it to. I have gathered from what I have read so far that to specialize will def. require grad study which doesn't bother me. I just like to lay out a plan so I can make sure I am meeting all the requirements as I learn to avoid road blocks. I don't want to start looking at my chosen grad school and find out that I have missed some critical courses that I did not anticipate.
  8. Sep 27, 2009 #7
    I guess I can understand this concern, but please keep in mind that the most important thing you can learn in school is how to learn. Once you figure this out, there is nothing you cannot study on your own. I may be generalizing too much, but I do see an increasing emphasis on schools as training academies (where you check off required courses) and less emphasis on training your mind to learn new things...

    I just can't see the prospective university telling you, "Well, Pattonias, everything looks in order, wait, wait, hold on - I see you're missing linear algebra 312. Sorry, move along now..."
  9. Sep 28, 2009 #8
    I think the "training academy" outlook is really what I am worried about. When I look at the different courses that I have to take in order even be considered for this field it can be quite depressing. Most of the universities that do research in the fusion field have a very tight criteria that you must follow in order to be accepted into the program. I am generally rather critical of the current academic model followed by most universities as to picking applicants. As a student with a 3.2 average I feel that I am well rounded and although I am still a fledgling engineer I think that I will be able to serve my field well once I have finished my schooling. I am just worried that those qualifications that you mentioned will hold me back once I am trying to enter the field. Not having a 4.0 or not winning a national scholarship could put me on the back burner. I guess that I should just keep trying.
  10. Sep 28, 2009 #9


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  11. Sep 28, 2009 #10
    For those jobs, your degree isn't important. I had the same aspirations, but unless you manage to get the appropriate experience in engineering or know someone that can give an important recommendation there's small chance of getting a job with ITER. I can only suggest looking for any internship with them that you can and maybe learning French to give yourself a small boon.

    To the OP, your ME degree may help if you go into the cryogenics and pellet injection, I believe there's still work in that area that needs to be done.
  12. Oct 1, 2009 #11
    So far I have found several references that seem to indicate that a specialist in the following:

    Physics--> a concentration in Plasma physics

    would have a good starting base for a career in fusion engineering.
  13. Oct 1, 2009 #12


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    The three key goals in fusion by magnetic confinment are

    1. heating the plasma (putting energy in as efficiently as possible)

    2. confining the plasma (generate as much energy as efficiently as possible, which usually implies maximizing the power density and duration)

    3. getting useful energy out (as much or efficiently as possible)

    ICF is more or less the same.
  14. Oct 2, 2009 #13
    How long were yall in college?
  15. Oct 3, 2009 #14
    I guess that question was a little much. : )
  16. Oct 30, 2009 #15


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    4 years for an undergrad (BS) degree, 2 years MS, 2+ yrs for PhD program is typical. In my case it was 3 years of physics at one uni, 3 years in an NE program at a different uni, then 2 yrs for MS and 2.5 yrs for a PhD program before leaving before dissertation finished and getting a job at a small company that consulted internationally.
  17. Nov 2, 2009 #16
    Do you think you enjoy working at a small company as opposed to a larger one?

    Would you do anything differently?
  18. Nov 2, 2009 #17


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    Well I work for a big company and can tell you it can be very bureaucratic and grindy at times. But on the good side, it is predictable and stable.
  19. Nov 2, 2009 #18


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    In my particularly case, we provide a service as an independent third party, so I've had the opportunity of working with fuel suppliers and utilities in the US, Europe and Asia. I also get involved in non-nuclear power systems as well. I wouldn't necessarily have had the same opportunities at a large company.

    I agree somewhat with QuantumPion's assessment, although I don't necessarily agree with the stability. Large companies have consolidated and downsized over the past two decades, and in some cases have sold off whole divisions. R&D has been decimated. Now some companies have realized that they let too many people go, so they are hiring new employees. I prefer the stability that I've had.
  20. Nov 2, 2009 #19
    Have yall had much opportunity for travel?
    I think that I would enjoy trying to fill a niche helping to further large international projects.

    Eventually, I would like to have a hand in helping international cooperation for projects like the International Space Station, ITER, (one day) space elevators, etc. Somehow I feel like all these things are going to become much more closely related as the fields develop.

    I am kind of looking at the hazards of being a "jack of all trades and master of nothing" guy.
  21. Nov 2, 2009 #20
    That position can be hazardous, especially in the middle part of a career. At the beginning, nobody really expects you to be a master, and if you move around doing 'entry level' work at several different departments or companies, it is OK because you're looking to see what you like best, or what you're best at. Later on (after the middle part) if you have shown that you really do have the 'big picture' and no matter what they throw at you, you can handle it, then you will be seen as a pretty valuable guy. It is in the middle part that the hazard comes in, where people may see you as the perpetual new guy, you're not the top pick for *any* given task. You could be vulnerable then to layoffs or downsizing.

    I was able to get around this pitfall by also volunteering for travel assignments. Eventually my “mastery” was to be the guy to go to the customer’s plant or office, and make sure they got what the needed from us.

    A couple of other things: 1) you will probably find that most of the ‘masters’ are reluctant to take on tasks outside their area; but to be a successful ‘jack’ you can’t be afraid to do things you haven’t tried before. And (2) you need to recognize the tasks that really do need the master. There are plenty of those out there and you won’t last long if you pretend to be an expert when you aren’t.

    It all comes down to a question of temperament. Would you like to know more and more about less and less, or would you rather be a jack of all trades and master of nothing?
  22. Nov 2, 2009 #21
    Thank yall for your input, you are helping way more than you may realize.

    I think my fear is that I don't want to be confined. I want to be able to really have an impact in any field that interests me without being confined to only that field.

    If I manage to work for ITER, I don't want to do only that for the rest of my life. I want to be able to put a hand into the developments in space exploration as well.

    Will I be able to learn what I need to work on both? Will I be able to find other serious people who are working on both and really contribute?

    I feel like I only have so many years to work with in my life, and I don't want to flounder or waste them.

    It depresses me when I see projections for fusion power to be a workable reality in 50 years. I think I can have a hand in making it commonly available in much less. It bothers me that NASA has 30 to 50 year plans for traveling to Mars and beyond. I think that with international cooperation we could be much more ambitious.
  23. Nov 2, 2009 #22
    You can accomplish a lot if you work hard, but I think you're underestimating the problems that need to be solved - not to mention how things are going to be limited both politically and financially. If you're worried about being confined to a project, perhaps that is a field you shouldn't venture into in the first place.
    I've been told that the average worker today will have over 22 jobs in their lifetime - the big ones averaging about five years. People are starting to think more about themselves and not about the company for whom they work. I'm not sure if this carries over to the field they work in, but I personally think to get things done you have to stick with them. You might get lucky and be in the right field at the right time to make a significant breakthrough, but it's more likely to happen if you stick with one thing.
  24. Nov 2, 2009 #23
    I don't think I could give up the field over my indecision. If my time finally limits me to a choice I'll have to try to pick the one I am most suited for. I just don't have the experience I need to know which that may be. Perhaps, I might run into someone in PFs that has similar interests.
  25. Nov 2, 2009 #24


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    The first company at which I worked had about 1/3 of business in US, Europe and Asia, so I traveled throughout the US, most of Europe and parts of Asia.

    Realize that ISS and ITER are two different technologies. Much of ISS is already determined and it is operational, and ITER is still being constructed, but most of the technology is decided. There is a chance ITER will fail to fulfull is goal of sustained fusion, or economical fusion.

    If one wants to look at fusion systems, then one should look for programs in plasma physics and nuclear engineering programs with options in fusion engineering.
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