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Oswego Career Ladders - Nuclear

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Power plants that generate electricity from nuclear energy are similar in structure to plants that use fossil fuels--coal, oil, natural gas--as an energy source. At all power plants except hydroelectric plants, high pressure steam "blows" the propeller-like blades of a turbine, which spins the shaft of a huge generator. Inside the generator, a coil of wire spins a magnetic field to create electricity. The heat needed to boil water into steam in a power plant is produced either by burning coal, oil, or natural gas in a furnace, a chemical process, or by splitting atoms of uranium in a nuclear reactor, a physical process.

Nuclear fission does not involve burning or explosions. Nothing is burned or exploded in a nuclear power plant. Rather, the uranium fuel--tons of it--generates heat through a process called fission. These plants do not produce electricity through nuclear explosions and the electricity is not radioactive. In fact, the nuclear fuel in a commercial nuclear power plant cannot explode.

The uranium used as a fuel in a nuclear plant is formed into ceramic pellets about the size of the end of your little finger. These pellets are inserted into long, vertical tubes within the reactor core. As uranuim atoms in these pellets are struck by atom particles, they split--or fission--to release particles of their own. These particles--called neutrons--strike other uranium atoms, splitting them. This sequence of fission triggering others, and those triggering still more, is called a chain reaction. When the atoms split, they also release heat. This heat is known as nuclear energy.

The nuclear reaction inside the reactor is controlled by rods inserted among the tubes holding the uranium fuel. These control rods are made of a material that absorbs neutrons and prevents them from hitting atoms that can fission. In this way, the nuclear reaction can be speeded up or slowed down by varying the number of control rods withdrawn and how much they are withdrawn.

Kinds of Careers in Nuclear Energy

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, there are two kinds of careers in Nuclear Energy--Careers in design and Careers in Operations and Maintenance.

Careers in design involve designing plant systems and equipment for optimum performance using the most advanced predictive tools and applying the latest technologies, whether for a new plant or an existing plant.

Careers in Operation and Maintenance involve operating and maintaining a nuclear power plant using the latest diagnostic tools, monitoring equipment, detection instruments, and analytical tools to measure perfirmance, determine when corrections are required, and specifiy them.

Design engineers and operations and maintenance engineers actually work very closely together at a nuclear power plant, usually collaborating on team projects. In fact, design projects are often initiated by the analyses and insights of operations and maintenance engineers.

High School Plus Training

Licensed and Non-Licensed Reactor Operators - Moves control rods, starts and stops equipment, conducts surveillance tests and records data. Average salary $82,000/yr.

Craft and Trade Workers - Apprenticeship programs that provide entry level workers with the opportunity to receive pre-technical instruction, take courses to expand knowledge in energy generation and get on-the-job training in machinery, equipment operation and maintenance. Average starting pay of $22/hr.

Bachelors Degree or Higher

Nuclear Engineer - Ensures that reactor cores are configured/assembled correctly, specifies fuel to be ordered, conducts a reload analysis of new fuel, designs reactor shielding and ensure that fuel limits are not exceeded. Average salary $90,000/yr.

Electrical Engineer - Oversees the routing of electric power in the plant, supervises conversion of energy and monitors the integration of all plant functions. Average salary $82,000/yr.

Mechanical Engineer - Monitors/supervises heat transfer, fluid flow and machinery design. Average salary $73,000/yr.

Chemical Engineer/Chemists - Responsible for the plant chemistry of the primary system and regulating the use of protective chemical additives. Average salary $57,000/yr for BS. Average salary $78,000/yr for experienced Chemical Engineers.

Materials Engineer - Ensures that plant equipment will withstand temperatures, pressures, and neutron flux of the operating plant. Average salary $66,000/yr.

Civil/Structural Engineer - Ensures the physical integrity of the plant structures. They ascertain that the structure will safely handle the loads produced by the ordinary operation of the plant, that in an accident the reactor core remains intact and safely cooled and that the structures will safely withstand extreme-magnitude natural events. Average salary $70,000/yr.

Operations Engineer - Analyzes plant performance and prepare procedures for a plant to generate energy. Average salary $52,000/yr.

Reactor Engineer - Verifies the equipment functions within the reactor and take receipt of the fuel. They are responsible for the control rod drive system, reactor instrumentation, and control rod sequence changes. No wage/salary data available.

Senior Reactor Operators/Supervisors - Oversees plant performance and cost data. Average salary $50,000/yr.

Maintenance Engineer - Keeps plant machinery in optimal condition. Average salary $70,000-$80,000/yr.

Health Physicist - Ensures that plant radiation practices conform to federal regulations. Average salary $91,000/yr.

Instrument Control Engineer - Involved with circuit design and function. Average salary $62,000-$81,000/yr.

Fire Protection Engineer - Responsible for protecting the reactor and plant equipment, avoiding forced shutdowns, and minimizing property loss. Average salary $60,000/yr.

Process Project Manager - Improves the efficiency of the business and operational functions of the plant. Average salary $50,000-$60,000/yr.

* All wages and salaries updated in 2009.