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Nuclear Eng a good idea?

  1. Dec 3, 2009 #1
    Well right now I'm flip flopping between some majors that I would like to do. Yesterday, Nuclear Engineering popped in my head as a candidate (adding to the list). I thought about it more and more and I thought of some interesting predictions and reasons to go into it. I would like some of your opinions on this matter.

    1. NRG (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NRG_Energy) has shown intent on building new nuclear facilities which I think will be a catalyst in the construction of new facilities thus creating more jobs.

    2. Most of the current engineers will be retiring soon being that they are almost all 45-60 years old. The reason is that no one has wanted to touch nuclear energy after Charnobyl and Three Mile Island until recently. So they will have a massive need of new nuclear engineers in the coming years.

    3. Petroleum Engineers are currently making, on average, the most out of any engineering discipline. Our main source of energy is in petroleum (for now). I'm thinking that within the next decade or two we will make nuclear energy the main source thus making the salary comparable to the Petroleum Engineers'.

    These are my PREDICTIONS made by my current knowledge of the field (not much). If I am wrong about any of these please tell me. One thing I am worried about with going into Nuclear Engineering is that what if it doesn't take off as the main source of energy of the world. I will have forced myself into a field of engineering where I wouldn't be able to do anything else but nuclear. So if that job market collapses, I'll be... well screwed.

    So, please I would your honest opinions on this matter as this will help me decide on what to do with my life.

  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 3, 2009 #2
    I wouldn't take a bet on nuclear based on market projections. Take a look at that BLS site. Mechanical and aerospace, electrical and computer, nuclear, chemical and petroleum... the salaries aren't very different between any of them. I recommend going with whatever you're most interested in studying. The difference this makes to your effectiveness in school and on the job will outweigh the market force variations between specialties.

    I'm not terribly familiar with nuclear, but remember that working with medicine or waste is also part of what nuclear engineers can do. Does anyone know how significant the presence of Navy trained nuclear officers is in the actual operation of nuclear plants? I'd wonder if nuclear officers do any crowding out in that segment (I have no idea).

    Also, I'm not sure how much R&D is done in the US anymore on the actual nuclear part of the chain. I know GE has a joint venture with Mitsubishi for some of the development. Westinghouse looks like they have some jobs in the US for nuclear engineers: http://www.westinghousenuclear.com/Careers/nuclear_careers.shtm. I don't know who else in the US might be involved in designing nuclear power systems at the power plant level.

    A lot of other types of engineering will be required for next generation power plants too, including plenty of mechanical and electrical (turbines and control systems etc).
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 24, 2017
  4. Dec 3, 2009 #3
    Another thing, when it comes to engineering specializations, is that the specialization only helps determine which industries or companies you can work with. If you want to do construction, you probably want to be a civil engineer. The fact that you are in construction will determine your salary and career path, not the fact that you are civil.

    If you go to work for GE or Westinghouse or Siemens etc to do design work in their energy engineering divisions, your career growth will most likely not at all be determined by your specialization. While a nuclear engineer won't always be able to fill a technical mechanical opening and vice versa, they will all compete with each other for raises. The highest performing engineers in each specialty will all get the same size raise, and on down the line. HR won't even look at your specialization for salary purposes unless some serious market imbalances develop that aren't currently there. Similarly, the best engineering manager will run the department, including overseeing all specializations, and it typically won't matter what his specific specialty was back in school.
  5. Dec 3, 2009 #4
    To add to what kote said, most engineers that work in nuclear power are not nuclear engineers. If you look at any nuclear power plant you will find that most engineers are mechanical and electrical with just a maybe a few percent being nuclear.
  6. Dec 4, 2009 #5
    Hi, I'm finishing up my PhD in NE, so I'll try to offer you some insight. I do agree with your assessment of the workforce... getting older all the time, so there should be a lot of positions coming up. It's a subject that is mentioned frequently at conferences I go to. I got in for some of the reasons you mention, i.e., I think nuclear energy is the only mature, non-fossil fuel, energy source we have that can handle all of our energy needs right now. I definitely wouldn't choose a major based on the differences in engineering salaries. NE's are typically paid pretty well, but unless you enjoy the work you don't want to go into the field.

    There is also a wide range of jobs available. Some work for utilities. The NRC hires a lot of nuclear engineers as inspectors, regulators, etc. Criticality safety is a big area in places that work with fissile materials (Y-12 in my area, the PANTEX plant, Los Alamos, etc.) Then there is radiation protection / health physics. They calculate doses, read dosimeters, handle sources, and in a hospital setting they plan radiation treatments. There are a lot of NE's in the policy area that deal with issues like treaty verification, non-proliferation, etc.

    At the national lab level (I do my GRA work at ORNL) we have all sort of NE researchers. Some are programmers who work on codes like SCALE or MCNP. Some work on new fuels. We have a small group that does nuclear forensics (if a nuke goes off, they determine what type/yield it was and try to figure out where the material used to make the bomb came from.) We also have lots of national security jobs.

    One question would probably be what you plan to do with your education and where you would like to work. If you just want to be an engineer for a utility, a BS in nuclear is a good way to go. They tend to have a pyramid structure with their engineers - fewer MS than BS and even fewer PhD's. If you might want to do policy stuff, getting a BS in NE and an MS is political science is probably the smart way to go. If you want to do research, you'll probably need an MS and probably a PhD.

    If you DO want to do research, you'll probably need an advanced degree. My suggestion in that case would be to do an engineering physics undergrad and then transfer into nuclear for grad school. I say this because my experience was that it's easy to get into an NE grad program with a physics degree, but not as easy to go the other way. The undergrad nuke program at my university is pretty light on the math, whereas a physics major has all the math to handle pretty much any engineering major.
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