What Do Nuclear Engineers Do? Are you excited by the possibility of designing nuclear reactors to power cities and atomic submarines, or splitting atoms to be able to see inside the human body without surgery?

Do you dream about being at the forefront of developing cutting-edge medical technologies to help treat cancerous tumors and ultimately save lives?

Would you like to develop designs for efficient and safe nuclear power systems that provide power for thousands of homes or even submarines, all while reducing the need for fossil fuels?

The field of nuclear engineering offers unique opportunities to make a real difference by developing uses of nuclear material for medical diagnostic equipment, food production, radioactive-waste disposal facilities, and more!

Nuclear engineers

  • Research and develop the processes, instruments, and systems used to derive benefits from nuclear energy and radiation.
  • Design, develop, monitor, and operate nuclear plants in order to generate power.
  • Work on the nuclear fuel cycle — the production, handling, and use of nuclear fuel and the safe disposal of waste produced by the generation of nuclear energy — or on the development of fusion energy.


  • Developing nuclear power sources for naval vessels or spacecraft.
  • Finding industrial and medical uses for radioactive materials — for example, in equipment used to diagnose and treat medical problems.
  • Designing nuclear equipment, such as reactor cores, radiation shielding, or associated instrumentation to help deliver power to homes and businesses.
  • Performing special experiments to test for various methods of using nuclear material.
  • Monitoring nuclear facility operations to identify design, construction, or operation practices that violate safety laws and regulations.
  • Examining nuclear accidents and gathering data to design preventative measures.

Famous Nuclear Engineers

  • Lisa Meitner – Austrian physicist who worked on radioactivity and nuclear physics; part of the team that discovered nuclear fission
  • Maria Goeppert Mayer – worked on the Manhattan Project and later won the Nobel Prize in physics for her work in developing the theory of nuclear shell structure
  • Leó Szilárd – helped build the first nuclear reactor
  • Enrico Fermi – achieved the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction
  • Ernest Lawrence – invented the cyclotron, a type of particle accelerator
  • Walter Zinn – supervised the construction of the first experimental nuclear reactor
  • Jimmy Carter – worked on plans for the first nuclear-powered submarine

Areas of Employment

  • Electric power generation/distribution
  • Medical research
  • Industrial plants
  • Construction sites
  • Environmental protection
  • Strategic defense
  • Archaeology
  • Nuclear fuel design
  • Equipment manufacturing
  • Consulting firms
  • Government institutions including:
    • Healthcare facilities
    • Regulatory agencies
    • National laboratories
    • Military service

Career Guidance Suggestions for Pre-University Students

Coursework to consider
  • Pre-algebra
  • Geometry
  • Advanced algebra
  • Engineering fundamentals
  • Chemistry
  • Biology
  • Calculus
  • Trigonometry
  • Statistics
  • Physics
  • Robotics
  • Programming
  • Design
  • Reactor operations and safety
  • Sustainable energy
  • Modeling and simulation
  • Electromagnetic interactions
  • Numerical methods
  • Materials in nuclear engineering
Suggested extracurricular activities
  • Competitions
  • Summer programs
  • Afterschool programs
  • Clubs
  • Internships
  • Online puzzles and games
  • Online courses
  • Maker Faires
  • Design projects
Local programs offered by
  • Science centers and museums
  • Professional societies like IEEE
  • Universities
Important Skills
  • Analytical skills: identify design elements to build facilities and equipment that produce material needed by various industries.
  • Communication skills: convey information effectively with other engineers and technicians.
  • Critical thinking skills: order information clearly and logically to design complex systems.
  • Problem-solving skills: identify problems before they occur and quickly implement solutions in case of nuclear-related emergencies.
  • Operations analysis: analyze needs and product requirements to develop designs.
  • Systems analysis: determine how a system should work and identify measures of system performance.
  • Detail-oriented: pay close attention in order to ensure the safe operation of nuclear facilities and comply with all laws and regulations.

Links and Resources