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Working in a nuclear power plant

  1. Mar 28, 2007 #1
    Australia is going to move to nuclear power over the next decade. I would like to work in this area but don't have a degree. I have a particular interest in physics and have done a year of university maths/physics befor giving up. At the time I was getting average scores and had no prospect of work outside of teaching but if we move towards nuclear power I would be much more likely to get work so my scores wouldn't seem so bad. Question is, do I even need a degree to move into this field and if so what kind? Would I be better off with an engineering degree or a math degree. If not, what should I be doing to better prepare my resume?

    Only one nuclear reactor exists in Australia at the moment and it's not a power producing reactor so they can't tell me much.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 29, 2007 #2
    In the USA I have a friend who got a job at a nuclear plant after getting an undergraduate degree in physics. Mostly his work involves knowledge of electromagnetism and designing components with AutoCAD . He was a C average in the physics major, but the place that hired him hardly cared because he is well able to do practical work.

    I think you could work there at any education level, but of course the work and rewards get better as you move through the educational ladder. Don't let test scores discourage you, and get used to working with computers.
  4. Mar 29, 2007 #3
    Thanks, I have an excellent grasp of computers and a wide variety of EM texts available to me. Sounds like a great job! I'm going to try and head this off at the pass and focus my learning on the nuclear power industry.
  5. Mar 30, 2007 #4
    well in the end u can always sell yourself to Iran..they would take u :P
  6. Mar 31, 2007 #5


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    If the goal is to work in a nuclear power plant, I would recommend an engineering degree.

    A large power reactor has a staff of about 800-1000 persons, who do a myriad of jobs. However, some utilities have reduced staff as much as possible, which means there is a huge pressure on the remaining staff to 'do it right'.

    Like any large power plant, which is a huge mechanical system, there are a lot of activities related to operation and maintenance. There are large primary systems, e.g. turbine and generator, and a plethora of supporting subsystems.

    Add to this the use of nuclear fuel, and it becomes much more complicated. The control of a nuclear power system is different than that of a fossil fired plant, and the consequences of faulty operation can be much more significant, particularly if it involves the core (nuclear fuel) or primary system.
  7. Apr 2, 2007 #6
    I have got the impression through casual observation that to an extent, the generation machinery doesn't give a damn where its water/steam/whatever comes from, so the people who work on the generation end probably wouldn't need to know much nuclear physics at all. Is this much onto the mark or am I misunderstanding?
  8. Apr 2, 2007 #7
    Maybe not.
    I know that Homer Simpson works in a nuclear power plant but graduated only from a high school.
  9. Apr 2, 2007 #8
    I'd also imagine it depends on what your going to do in the plant, they probably hire people who don't even know what nuclear means to be janitors.

    however if you wanted to become an inspector then you would probably need some sort of degree in nuclear engineering for some parts of the plant, wheeras if your inspecting the turbines mechanical engineering would probably be more suited.

    however I'm sure both would be relatively interchangeable in practice depending on the employee
  10. Apr 2, 2007 #9
    Engineers, managers and control room operator positions generally require degrees and are salaried. Instrument techs, electricians, welders, boilermakers, etc are all skilled laborers while a maintenance worker may start as an unskilled laborer (janitor) and work up. Many of the techs and electricians are prior enlisted Navy, so while they have much specialized training most were hired without degrees. There are also health physics or "rad tech" positions which may or may not require degrees.
  11. Apr 2, 2007 #10


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    There are some jobs, e.g. technician that require at least a high school education and technical training that one could obtain at a technical college or in the military as jammidactyl indicated. Supervisors and the engineering support staff and management have BS or MS in engineering, and some managers and upper level engineering will have MS or even PhD.

    Engineers are degreed and are required to have professional engineering licenses.
  12. Apr 2, 2007 #11
    If Homer Simpson could do it, so can you
  13. Apr 3, 2007 #12


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    Instrumentation and controls is a promising field in nuclear power. Both engineers and technicians are in demand.
  14. Apr 3, 2007 #13


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    GE and Westinghouse (now part of Toshiba) are hiring hundreds of engineers for new plants. They need Nuc E's, Mech E's and EE's.

    Utilities are strapped - they try to get by with the minimum staffing level in order to keep costs down. The environment can be very stressful, especially when there is a technical matter to be resolved very quickly.
  15. Apr 5, 2007 #14
    First off, don't count your reactors before they are built. They have been trying to sell many of the mechanical engineering majors in my school (US) on focusing on nuclear power because there are so few nuclear engineers and all fo these reactors are going to be built. It all sounds good but to date, no one has broken ground, don't confuse appplying for a permit with actually building a reactor. I wish they would focus on solar PV over there with all of that sun but I think cheap coal is getting in th eway.

    Second, I work as an engineer for a coal power plant. Many of the functions of a coal plant are the same or similar to those of a nuclear plant, only the regulations and inspections are much more intense at the nuclear plant of course. What is it that you want to do at the plant? There are lots of pumps, motors, and mechanical things and of course they are mostly controlled electronically. So EE's and ME's are needed evrywhere. If you want to be involved dorectly with the reactor you will probably need a NE degree. If you want ot be a laborer, it might be tough because most of those guys come from the navy with good experience.

    So I can't anwser your question w/o knowing what you want to do but I can tell you that if you go ME or EE you can work at a nuclear plant; but also find work if the whole nuclear revolution never actually arrives.

    P.S. most of those plants take 3-7 years to build and they haven't even broken ground.
  16. Apr 5, 2007 #15
    Are those hires for the anticipated plants in Asia and Europe? Not Austrialia right? I have a feeling that once we build one plant in China they will kick us out and copy the design.

    I have found that staffing cost is not really a big part of the cost for coal plants, fuel is but that may be different for nuclear since their fuel cost is so low.

    It was my understanding that regulations were the biggest contributer to nuclear energy cost and I don't see them getting any lighter, quite the opposite I imagine.
  17. Apr 5, 2007 #16


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    GE/GNF and Westinghouse/Toshiba are staffing up in anticipation of the US market. At the moment, W/T is working on entering the market - but yes, there is a technical exchange arrangement, which IMO is counterproductive in the long term. Both W and ABB/CE had technical exchange agreements with their corresponding Korean industrial corporations. Now the Koreans design/manufacture/construct their own power plants and nuclear fuel - which is fine for Korea - but doesn't provide huge returns to W or ABB/CE (now part of W), nor does it provide jobs in the US.

    China already has access to western technology from AREVA.

    A certain staffing level is necessary for a nuclear power plant since there is a level of safety not found at non-nuclear power plants.

    The new plants are supposedly much safer with much less piping and fewer components, so in theory maintenance will be much less. However, none has been built or operated so we can't say with great confidence that they will perform as expected. There will be a learning curve, just as we have learned after 40-50 years of experience that the designers/engineers could not forsee some of the technical problems the industry has experienced during the last 20 years. Fortunately, the GEN-III+ plants are designed and will be built with 40-50 years of knowledge gained.

    The Gen-IV plants are a different story - they are pushing back the envelope and represent new areas of operation and performance. We need to do a lot of research on the materials and how they perform in a high rad/high temperature reactive environment for the intended design life.
  18. Apr 6, 2007 #17
    Are you sold on any plants being completed in the US within the next 10 years? That would be a concern for anyone considering entering the field rigth now IMO. I would recommend that he study ME or EE so he will have other options if public opinion stalls the nuclear energy movement. He can always minor in NE and finish his degree if he gets into the business.

    I still don't know what to think about the nuclear future. On one hand I find it hard to believe that we won't make better use of it especially seeing the environmental regulations for coal driving the price up to make nuclear more compeditive.

    On the other people are still afraid. Last year there were nuclear power protesters at the plant I work at (coal plant they mistakenly thought was nuclear) because we use hyperbolic natural-convection cooling towers like you see at the nuclear plants and people assume that its spewing nuclear radiation everywhere! Its funny at first then you realize how ignorant people are on the technology. Then its sad.

    Have you ever heard of the whole Peak Oil Theory?

    I browse another message board on that subject and people there are convinced that oil will soon, or already has peaked and will start to effect the rest of our economy and energy infastructure in the near furure. I have already heard about a few Coal to Liquid (CTL) plants being considered to produce liquid fuel (at a horrible turnover cost in energy) out of coal, which you might expect would drive up coal prices and maybe give nuclear and renewables a window of opportunity.

    Of course the argument there us that its too late by that point so it will never be done. What are your thoughts?
  19. Apr 6, 2007 #18


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    From what I hear, the first licenses or COL applications will be submitted this year. I have been told that two pressure vessels have been ordered, but I don't know the production status. If that's the case, someone has already committed tens of millions of dollars. That is likely NRG's order for two ABWRs at S. Texas Nuclear Project. They seem furthest along.

    There are at least two consortia which are serious about new nuclear plants. The new plants would likely be GE's ABWR, Westinghouse AP-1000, or AREVA's EPR.

    Like others, I am waiting to see.

    I think there are still more oil reserves, but I don't know how much. That oil is deeper and probably off-shore. Also, I think demand has increased faster than the discovery and development of new oil fields. Demand for energy has increased in China and India.

    Synthetic fuel (petroleum products derived from coal) was tried. I don't know the current status, but apparently its still more costly than extracting oil from underground.
  20. Jun 4, 2010 #19
    What about ME's with MS or phD degrees?

    so nuclear engineering involves lots of E&M and quantum mechanics? What about heat transfer and fluid mechanics?
  21. Jun 5, 2010 #20
    Are you sure that Aus. is going nuclear?


    Solar might be a better bet. If you don't get to design new photovoltaics at least you can install water heaters... If there's no new nuclear plant you can't sell 'em door to door.

    If solar gets cheap you will have at last found a use for all that outback :)
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