Nuclear Engineer

The Job and What's Involved

Nuclear engineers work with nuclear technology in the large-scale production of energy, in medicine, and in some industrial processes.

They research, design and develop processes involved with nuclear energy, and could be involved in any of the following:

  • Operating nuclear power stations.
  • Nuclear waste management.
  • Manufacturing components and equipment for nuclear plants.
  • Dismantling nuclear plants and machinery.
  • Operating nuclear material processing systems for fuel or weapons production.
  • Managing the construction of new projects, or altering existing ones.
  • Designing nuclear plant and systems.
  • Licensing and regulation.
  • Research.
  • Lecturing and training.

The exploitation of nuclear technology is hazardous. Nuclear engineers have to be aware of the hazards involved with nuclear radiation, and understand the risks and benefits. They have to place the highest importance on safety.

Nuclear engineers usually work 37 hours a week, but this may vary depending on the particular project and deadlines. Work in nuclear power stations is usually indoors, often on a seven-day shift system.

Engineers also work in laboratories, offices, factories and workshops.

Some aspects of the job may involve working in hot, cramped conditions, and engineers may need to wear special protective clothing. People who work with radiation receive regular medical checks.

The starting salary for newly-graduated engineers may be around £24,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

The threat of global warming has resulted in an increased interest in nuclear power. It is likely that existing reactors may operate for longer than previously thought. The government is reviewing the possibility of new nuclear power, as well as continued nuclear operation, on the grounds of helping to meet climate change targets.

Thirty-five per cent of the European Union's electricity comes from nuclear power stations, making it the largest single source of electricity in Europe. The industry is growing, and employment prospects, both in the UK and overseas, are excellent.

Britain has 23 operating power reactors (although four are to close at the end of 2006) at 10 power station sites. These supply around a fifth of the electricity in the UK. Two of these stations are operated by the British Nuclear Group, and eight are operated by British Energy. A fusion research centre is run by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) at Culham in Oxfordshire.

There are also major nuclear fuel sites at Capenhurst in Cheshire, Preston in Lancashire and Sellafield in Cumbria. There is a nuclear weapons production site at Aldermaston in Berkshire.

British Nuclear Group has around 13,000 employees, and British Energy employs 5,000. Details of vacancies, graduate career programmes and placements appear on the websites of both companies.

Education and Training

The usual route to becoming a nuclear engineer is through full-time study at university or college, leading to a degree, foundation degree or an HNC/HND in a relevant engineering or science subject.

For HNC/HND courses, candidates need one A level/two or three H grades, or a BTEC national diploma or certificate in a relevant subject. Entry to a degree course is with at least five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3) and two A levels/three H grades, normally including maths and physics, or the equivalent.

Lists of suitable university courses are available on the websites and

By far the most common entry qualifications are BEng and MEng degrees in mechanical, electrical or control system engineering. Other related engineering, science and technology subjects may also be suitable as the industry draws on many different engineering skills.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

There is a structured route for progress towards full membership of INucE, involving practical training within the nuclear industry. Further details are available on INucE's website.

British Energy and The British Nuclear Group operate graduate training schemes. The British Nuclear Group's two-year graduate development programme - Elements - involves being assigned a personal mentor to give expert one-to-one technical advice and career guidance throughout the programme.

Graduate apprenticeships in engineering may be available for young people in the nuclear industry in the UK. These bring together study at degree or diploma level with structured work-based learning.

Employees generally work towards incorporated or chartered engineer status. To qualify as an incorporated engineer, candidates need:

  • An accredited three-year degree, or an accredited HNC/HND with further learning, equivalent to one year of study, known as a matching section.
  • To complete a period of initial professional development, including practical training and professional engineering experience.
  • To successfully pass a professional review, which includes an interview.
  • To gain membership of a professional engineering institution or organisation recognised by the Engineering Council UK.

The IET offers a number of awards to help women who are working towards incorporated engineer registration.

Chartered engineers are expected to fulfil the above criteria and typically have, in addition, an accredited MEng degree, or equivalent qualification.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A nuclear engineer should:

  • Have an analytical mind and a logical approach to problem solving.
  • Have knowledge of nuclear physics, together with mechanical, electrical and/or electronic engineering.
  • Be highly numerate and have strong ICT skills.
  • Be able to identify hazards and ensure maximum safety at all times.
  • Be able to work with, manage and lead a team.
  • Be an adept communicator, both verbally and in writing.
  • Have normal colour vision.

Your Long Term Prospects

There are good promotion prospects for engineers who gain experience and further their skills with continued study. They may move into more senior positions, or work as freelance consultants.

Get Further Information

Engineering Council UK (ECUK),
246 High Holborn, London WC1V 7EX
Tel: 020 3206 0500

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET),
Michael Faraday House, Stevenage,
Herts SG1 2AY
Tel: 01438 313311

Nuclear Industry Association (NIA),
Carlton House, 22A St James' Square,
London SW1Y 4JH
Tel: 020 7766 6640

SEMTA, 14 Upton Road, Watford WD18 0JT
Tel: 01923 238441

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