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Nuclear or Mechanical Engineering?

  1. Mar 14, 2010 #1
    My school has a BS degree for both. Although Nuclear seems more cool and involves more physics, Mechanical Engineering seems like a more flexible degree. I'm interested in getting a job in the energy sector (not necessarily nuclear power plant design/reactor design), or in technical consulting.

    What is your opinion on this?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 15, 2010 #2
    Nuclear engineering deals primarily with the designing and upkeep of nuclear power systems (ie. nuclear reactors). Mechanical Engineering deals with (typically) smaller scale components of those larger systems and the integration of those components (rather than the design of that large system in its entirety. Again, these are generalizations, and there's always exceptions and ways to move around since an engineering degree in general will enable you as an individual with the ability to make educated assumptions and try to learn about a system if necessary.

    I suppose a few questions to ask are: Why do you think Nuclear is more 'cool'? What defines 'cool' for you as an objective for your future work? I can tell you as an undergraduate in mechanical, there's certainly no lack in applied physics. It's just a different 'kind' of physics. A lot of what you'll get in your later junior year/senior year is where you begin to specialize into your discipline typically. In my intro. modern physics class, we got a brief overview of what nuclear engineering is about. It certainly is interesting, but to me (nuclear engineers speak up and tell me otherwise please!) it felt like the only end-game (which wouldn't be a bad position) would be in plant design/upkeep. I'm just a more mechanical/aerospace oriented sort of guy. That's not to say nuclear physics isn't interesting; again, it's a large portion of the energy we use daily and could grow as a source of power.

    If you're interested in energy, nuclear certainly is an option; but I think 'energy sector' is kind of vague. Have you thought about materials science or chemical engineering? Materials science engineering has plenty of applications directly to energy (think solar cells and materials processing-->designing/implementing less pollutive materials. Chemical engineering (from what I know, which isn't very in depth) is similar to nuclear, but without the nuclear (i.e. like designing chemical processing plants and water treatment facilities, etc).

    I don't know if electrical engineering or some other kind of degree at your university would deal with power transmission, but the distribution of electricity is an incredible problem in the energy sector as well.

    Anyway, just my $0.02. If you're really undecided, most universities will let you take an undecided engineering major for a bit (or let you easily switch up to a year or so into your program; give or take). I recommend e-mailing your academic advisor (if you have one), and getting a better idea of the majors offered and the little spins your university throws on them. You might be surprised at the different courses you can take later on across majors.
  4. Mar 15, 2010 #3
    I'm actually declared mechanical engineering, but the physics involved seems a little bit basic/repetitive of high school (I'm taking an sophomore level engineering mechanics class and a thermo class). While things can get ugly on psets and stuff, they aren't really enlightening-elegant.

    I think nuclear is more "cool" because it would involve more interesting physics topics: Quantum Mechanics, (maybe some special relativity? Cerenkov radiation etc...), Electrodynamics/magnetohydrodynamics, and Statistical Mechanics (as opposed to thermo maybe). I'm just concerned the job prospects aren't as good as MechE. I'm not interested in ChemE, and EE abstracts away too much of the physics.

    Oh, BTW, I greatly enjoyed reading your post, it was very informative.
  5. Mar 15, 2010 #4


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    Nuclear Engineering involves some knowledge of physics, particularly nuclear physics, but the use of 'physics' will depend on one's specialty. Working with cross-section libraries and neutron interaction, or radiation effects would indeed involve quite a lot of physics. On the other hand, doing core design or working in operations will not necessarily involve a lot of physics, and certainly not QM, electrodynamics/magnetohydrodynamics, or Stat Mech.

    Similar, there are specialties in Mechanical Engineering where one would use a lot of physics or chemical physics, and others that don't.

    Besides, Nuclear Engineering typcially includes a fair amount of topics from Mechanical Engineering, e.g., thermodynamics and heat transfer, fluid mechanics, mechanics of materials, . . . . In addition, for either NE or ME, one should probably consider a few courses in materials science/engineering. In addition, one would probably be exposed to introductory topics in EE, e.g., circuit analysis and electromechanics, and control theory.

    Whether one pursues ME or NE, try to be as diverse as possible. One hot area now is 'multiphysics simulation'.
  6. Mar 21, 2010 #5
    Hi, l want to know more on how to calculate members of forces present in truses
  7. Mar 23, 2010 #6
    In my experience nuclear and mechanical engineers take the exact same classes for most of school. In the last two years mechanical engineers will take machine design/vibrations/etc while nuclear engineers will take nuclear physics/core design/effects of radiation on materials/etc.

    Do some research into the class schedules of both degrees, find the syllabus for each course, look in the library for the required text and get a feel for what you will be learning. Choose which path interests you more. If you maintain a decent GPA you will not have any trouble at all finding a job with either degree.

    As for "Electrodynamics/magnetohydrodynamics" I've never heard of those and I recently graduated from with a nuclear engineering degree. "statistical mechanics" I took a class in this but it was an elective and I definitly will never be using it. We had to take an intro to quantum mechanics class, but I don't really think it's important for nuclear engineering.

    IMO the most advanced physics you will learn in NucE is related to neutron transport theory see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neutron_transport

    You will learn how to do simplified scenarios by hand and later how to use computer codes to do the calculations for you for more realistic scenarios.
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