The field of nuclear science is complex. Individuals learn about radiation, nuclear reactions, and other elements of nuclear concepts. However, for those interested in the industry who make the effort to learn, there are many varied and specialized career paths. Some include nuclear science technician, nuclear engineer, nuclear medicine technologist, nuclear power reactor operator, and nuclear physicist.
Nuclear Science Technician
Nuclear science technicians must learn to operate nuclear research and testing equipment. They are also responsible, depending on the working environment, for knowing how to move radioactive material using remote controlled devices. These types of technicians can often work long, irregular hours and are subject to hazards from the environments they are required to work in (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2007a).
A high school diploma is required to become a nuclear science technician. Typically, after beginning their career and going through training on the job, most technicians will go on to obtain at least a two- year degree. Most are employed in colleges/universities or scientific research and development facilities. They are paid an annual wage anywhere between $37,000 and $50,000. Future job prospects are expected to be good as more focus is placed on the nuclear industry to provide alternative power (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009a).
Nuclear engineers do research on problems in nuclear engineering, and apply scientific theories to nuclear energy and waste disposal (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009b). Nuclear engineers perform many job duties including: 1) designing, developing, and monitoring nuclear plants; 2) working in the nuclear fuel cycle; 3) production, handling, and use for nuclear fuel; 4) working on the development of fusion energy; 5) safe handling and disposal of nuclear waste. Most work a regular 40 hours a week with occasional overtime required.
The education required for this position is typically a two- to four-year engineering degree that includes courses in the life sciences and mathematics, followed by a study in the nuclear specialty. Additional study is needed throughout your career to keep updated on industry standards and advancements. Future job prospects in this field are estimated to be about average (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2007b). Most nuclear engineers are employed in the architectural, engineering and related services industry or the scientific research and development industry. The annual salary for someone in this position ranges from $113,000 to $107,000 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009b).
Nuclear Medicine Technician
Nuclear medicine technicians use radioactive isotopes for various purposes. They may prepare these isotopes and use them in diagnostic testing, therapeutic healing, or tracer studies. They provide radiation treatments, calculate appropriate doses of radiation and prepare those doses, and work with radiologists to treat patients (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009c). Nuclear medicine technicians normally work regular 40-hour work weeks, including nights and weekends. Depending on the type of job environment, some travel may be required and physical stamina is a must since most technicians are on their feet all day (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2007c).
The education required for this position takes one to four years. One can earn either an associate's degree, master's degree, or a certificate depending on the duration of the program. Job prospects for this branch of nuclear science are expected to be lower than average (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2007c). Most nuclear medicine technicians are employed in the general medical and surgical hospital industry or in physician offices. The annual income for someone in this field ranges from $73,000 to $66,800 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009e).
Nuclear Power Reactor Operators
A nuclear power reactor operator maintains control of nuclear reactors assigned to them (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009d). They are expected to work on rotational 12-hour shifts. The job is not physically demanding, however, you may be expected to pass a drug test on occasion. You are also required to pass a physical medical exam every two years and accept that you may be exposed to small amounts of radiation from the environment you must work in (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009e).
Most operators are only required to have a high school education. However, senior operators often have a degree. You can advance from entry level by receiving on-the-job training. Job prospects for this nuclear occupation are expected to be very good (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009e). A majority of operators are employed in colleges, universities or professional schools. This type of plant operator can expect to earn an annual salary somewhere in the range of $72,800 to $47,900 annually (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009d).
A nuclear physicist is responsible for conducting research regarding the phases of physical phenomena, developing theories and laws on the basis of observation and experimentation, and devising methods that apply to the laws and theories in their field or industry (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009f). Most work in regular laboratories and offices during regular business hours. However, sometimes travel is necessary depending on the job requirements. Additionally, sometimes physicists working privately may spend a great deal of uncompensated time writing proposals for grants to keep their projects funded (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2007d).
Generally, nuclear physicists are required to hold a doctoral degree in nuclear science or a related field. A master's degree does not qualify you to perform research in this area. However, when accompanied by certification, a master's degree is often enough to teach this subject at a high school or two-year college level (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2007d). Most nuclear physicists are employed in scientific research and development facilities or with the federal government. The annual salary for this position ranges from $143,400 to $112,100 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009f).
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