What is Nuclear Engineering?

Nuclear engineering is a multidisciplinary field that focuses on researching and developing the processes, equipment, and systems to harness energy from nuclear reactions. Nuclear engineers work in various careers, from using radioactive material for medical equipment to developing nuclear reactors for ships, submarines, and weapons.

Nuclear power is a critical component in the future of energy for the United States and the world. Students who graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Nuclear Engineering Technology typically secure jobs with companies and utilities using nuclear energy to generate electricity.

For example, Excelsior’s bachelor’s degree program in nuclear engineering technology provides a pipeline to nuclear engineering jobs at the power generation company Exelon.

What is the History of Nuclear Engineering?

Nuclear engineering began in 1939 when German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann split a uranium atom. According to Live Science, Lise Meitner, an Austrian-born physicist who worked with the chemists, later documented the process of nuclear fission, or the release of energy from the splitting of atoms.

Nuclear power came into prominence in the U.S. in the 1940s. Warned by leading scientists, including Albert Einstein, that Germany had plans to develop a powerful weapon, the U.S. launched the Manhattan Project. The project culminated with the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, ending World War II.

During the Manhattan Project, a team led by Italian physicist Enrico Fermi built the first nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago, named Chicago Pile No. 1, which demonstrated the viability of harnessing energy from a controlled nuclear chain reaction. Another reactor built in Hanford, Washington, produced plutonium for weapons.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the group of physicists, engineers, and mathematicians who worked on the project “were the ancestors of today’s nuclear engineers.”

Nuclear Power in the Modern World

Today, nuclear power accounts for about 13 percent of the world’s electricity, according to numbers reported by Live Science. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, as of December 2021, there were 55 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 93 nuclear power reactors in 28 U.S. states. The World Nuclear Association reports there are about 440 nuclear power reactors operating in 32 countries.

About a third of all nuclear engineers work in electric power generation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS also reports that 18 percent of nuclear engineers work for the federal government, the largest employer of nuclear engineers. The second biggest group (15 percent) works in scientific research and development, while the third largest (10 percent) works in manufacturing. According to the BLS, nuclear engineers make an annual median salary of $116,140.

Job duties for nuclear engineers vary depending on where they work. However, typical tasks include:

  • Designing and developing nuclear equipment
  • Directing the operation and maintenance of nuclear power plants
  • Writing the detailed instructions for nuclear plant operations
  • Gathering data from nuclear accidents to determine how to avoid such accidents in the future

Nuclear engineering technology attracts many U.S. Navy veterans who have experience in nuclear-powered vessels. The online Excelsior College nuclear engineering technology program is a perfect fit for those with Navy experience or who already work in the nuclear industry.

Program Outcomes and Curriculum

Graduates from the Excelsior program have expertise in reactor operations, health physics, quality assurance, chemistry, instrumentation, and control related to nuclear engineering technology. Students choose between two technical concentrations: nuclear cybersecurity and nuclear leadership.

The BS in Nuclear Engineering Technology program includes courses in:

  • Introduction to Computers
  • Health Physics and Radiation Protection
  • Radiation Measurement Lab
  • Atomic and Nuclear Physics
  • Thermodynamics
  • Heat Transfer and Fluid Mechanics
  • Electrical Theory
  • Power Plant Components
  • Fundamentals of Reactor Safety
  • Reactor Cire Fundamentals

Students graduate ready for success in this field that has blossomed since its origins in the 1930s and 1940s. With the growing importance of nuclear energy to the world’s energy supply, a degree in nuclear engineering technology can open the door to the best jobs in the industry.