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Life of a Nuclear Engineer

  1. Mar 17, 2010 #1
    Where does a nuclear engineer work? At a nuclear plant? Out of an office? There have not been any new nuclear plants built in the US in many, many years. So is there any new designing/innovation going on or is it just maintaining day-to-day operations (checking dials, running diagnostics and whatnot)?

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  3. Mar 17, 2010 #2


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    Most nuclear engineers at a utility would work in the engineering offices, which are not necessarily at the plant(s), although the engineering offices could be sited to allow NEs to visit the plants. That's a typically scenario for a utility that has multiple plants/units. If a utility has on plant, then more likely that most of the engineering staff is at the plant site.

    Nuclear engineers at the vendors work in engineering offices, most of which are on site where fuel and components are manufactured.

    Site preparation is going on at Vogtle for two new PWR units. There is work going on at South Texas project for two new ABWRs.

    There is a lot of work on new plant designs and new reactor concepts.

    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 24, 2017
  4. Mar 17, 2010 #3
    Ok. So there are new plants being made *now*. But what about over the course of a 40 yr career? There have been many times in US history when there were long times between construction of nuclear plants. Is it possible to have one's main work (over the course of a career) be based on designing new, more efficient plants even when there are no new plants being made? Or will there undoubtably be down times when all one does is basic day-to-day maintainence? Also, if specific companies have the rights to design the plants wont it be hard to get on design teams consistently?
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  5. Mar 18, 2010 #4


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    Well, there has been only one period of time when there were no new plants being contructed in the US, and we're still in that period until someone starts pouring the basemat and foundation of a new unit. The core sizes of current plants are fixed, and many plants are as near as possible to equilibrium, which means there is a small variation in batch size (number of feed assemblies) and enrichment distribution. There is a handful of core designers at most utilities, and they usually do preliminary core designs on one or two units, and the vendor then does the final design. More of that work is performed off-shore, because foreign engineers are lower cost.

    The new Gen 3/3+ plants have been in the design phase since the 1980's. Even though no new plants were under construction, new plants were being designed. Of course, there were a lot of plant modifications after TMI-2 failure and the Browns Ferry fire, but they were more to do with redundancy and retrofitting than improvements in plant efficiency.

    Siemens introduced more efficient steam turbine technology in the 1990's, and that was retrofitted to a number of German plants. Mitsubishi has introduced a more efficient steam turbine system in the last decade.

    In a large corporation, one's work can and will change according to the needs of the company and changes in the market. I've known quite a few people who have made careers at utilities and vendors, but they tend to be in the minority. Many people change change jobs (companies) or leave industry.

    Getting a spot on a design team is very challenging. One has to be very good and have the right skill set.

    The DOE is sponsoring more advanced Gen 4 plants.
  6. Mar 18, 2010 #5
    So I guess my main question is what is day-to-day life like for a nuclear engineer. Is it based on trying to make old reactors more efficient? Is it based on making new reactors? Or is it just running tests?
  7. Mar 18, 2010 #6


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    Other than core design, nuclear engineers work on a variety of reactor or plant related issues. Day-to-day operation is handled by reactor operators and plant staff. Engineers get called in if there is a problem.

    If one is working on a new plant, then one might do design work or testing. Then there is writing long reports.

    For a new plant design, one has to comply with Federal Regulations.

    Technical requirements

    So there is a lot of work just understanding and making sure that one's design application complies with all the mandatory requirements.

    And there's more - http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/cfr/part052/

    and more generally http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/cfr/
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  8. Mar 18, 2010 #7
    That's right, but it is hard to really grasp this when you're studying in school. You could get your NE degree and start doing core design (working for one of the utilities, or one of the fuel vendors - Westinghouse or Areva or GE). You don't have to spend 40 years at it, though - most people move around. Maybe you get interested in the thermal hydraulics and move into fuel mechanical design, or LOCA safety analysis. Or maybe you have a more philosophical bent, and move into Licensing. Or maybe you like the operational aspects and get into procedures. Or non-LOCA safety analysis... Or maybe you do ALL those things over your 40 years. The degree is just the entry ticket, you don't have to do the same work for 40 years. Tho there are guys like that around, who get to know more & more & more about a specific aspect of the design or analysis. You can do that if you want to, but nobody has to if they don't want to.
  9. Mar 18, 2010 #8
    lets see... come in, sit at my desk and drink a cup of coffee, work on calculations related to room heat up, head loss through pipes, tank level set points, etc. Browse PH on lunch break, continue calcs, go home, repeat ;P.

    Usually the offices that engineers work at at nuclear plants are connected to the plant (you can walk out of the office door onto the turbine deck). There are different engineering departments at a plant. Some engineers do analysis calculations, some deal with regulatory issues, some do design type stuff for implementation of new equipment. Some engineers are assigned specific systems and equipment to become experts in and are usually the first point of contact if something starts to go wrong with it. They will also perform inspections/tests on the system/equipment.

    Keep in mind that engineers do not manipulate plant equipment, it is almost entirely a "pencil pusher" job as they say.
  10. Mar 19, 2010 #9
    I thought that not a single new nuclear power plant has been built in the United States since the Three Mile Island incident.
  11. Mar 19, 2010 #10


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    One plant started construction in 1983 (Skagit, near Richland Washington), but it had been ordered in 1973. The last one was ordered in 1978, a year before TMI. Only 10 units were ordered from 1975 on. Bascially the costs of nuclear power were increasing with inflation in the mid 1970's and the economy was slowing down.

    The last unit finished was Vogtle 2 (1 Q89), but it had been ordered in 1974. Most operating plants were ordered before 1975.
  12. Mar 19, 2010 #11
    As astronuc elucidates above this is incorrect. Further, note that the plants in the US were typically licensed to operate for 40 years (so even taking 1979 as the license date, the plant will operate until 1979+40 = 2019). Many have been relicensed for a 60 year life (1979+60 = 2039). I got my masters in nuclear engineering in 1980. I've been busy ever since (never out of work) and I expect to keep busy as long as I choose to.

    More importantly, these units are durable, long-lived, substantial facilities. A point often neglected when the 'price tag' of new construction is discussed.
  13. Mar 19, 2010 #12


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    It is true that new plants haven't been built, but most existing plants have been upgraded. In addition to plant life extension (by an extra 20 years), most units have also been uprated, and many have been uprated 20%!

    New Gen 3 plants are being designed for at least 60-year lifespans, with the potential for 80 years.
  14. Aug 17, 2010 #13
    There are many things that nuclear engineers do, ranging from medicine to oil exploration, but nuclear power is their primary job function. Nuclear engineers can do almost any job at a nuclear power plant from reactor operator, to senior reactor operator, to system engineer. However, the 3 most typical jobs are reactor engineer, core design engineer, and licensing engineer.

    The reactor engineer is the system engineer for the nuclear core. If you consider the reactor operator and senior reactor operator as the copilot and pilot, the reactor engineer is the navigator. Reactor engineers provide guidance to operators on how to maneuver and operator the core.

    Core design engineers design fuel bundles and cores to meet plant cycle energy needs. Someone said in an earlier post that plants basically operate on an equilibrium cycle now. This is not true, at least not for BWRs. New more efficient and more complex fuel bundles are being designed all the time. We are now operating 'plants much longer and at higher power on less fuel than we did 20 years ago.

    Licensing engineers are experts on the laws and regulations governing operation of reactors.

    Mark Laris
    Chief Nuclear Engineer
  15. Aug 17, 2010 #14


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    Equilibrium cycle my butt! I'm a core designer for a PWR and every cycle is significantly different from the previous. We design to meet specific energy targets and have other considerations to deal with to get the most for our (customer's) money.
  16. Aug 17, 2010 #15


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    :rofl: I think it's easier to approach equilibrium in a BWR than a PWR, at least that's my experience. Having smaller (and more) bundles is a benefit.

    Of course, no unit gets to equilibrium, but some are closer than others, at least in terms of batch size and EFPH.

    Unplanned outages and/or derates are a complication.

    And cycle extension and uprates change the equation.

    Twenty years ago, the industry was transitioning from annual cycles to 18-mo cycles, and some started looking at 24-mo cycles. Moderately rated PWRs (14x, 15x, 16x) can do 24-month cycles relatively easy, but high duty (heat flux / boiling limited) 17x plants really can't do 24-month cycles. An interesting cycle management approach for 17x17 plants is the one used by Diablo Canyon with cycles of 19-20-21 months repeated. So an assembly can go through discharge in 5 years and three cycles. That's probably unique to their market though. Their neighbor to the south, SONGS, uses 24-mo cycles.

    Interestingly, the new plants, particular EPR and US-APWR (both 17x17 cores, but 13.8 feet (4.2 m) core height) are looking at 24-month cycles. They have moderate core average LHGRs though.
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