What is a Nuclear Engineering Degree?

Students of nuclear engineering learn how energy released from nuclear reactions can be used in power plants, medical diagnostic equipment, and other industries. This field of study includes courses in applied mathematics, physics, thermodynamics, materials science, and the principles of energy conversion. It aims to provide the next generation of nuclear engineers with knowledge and skills in:

  • Nuclear reactor theory
  • Nuclear processes
  • Nuclear equipment design
  • Nuclear power plant operations and maintenance
  • Safe handling and disposal of nuclear waste
  • Preventing and investigating nuclear accidents
  • Developing nuclear material for use in fields such as medicine and transportation

Program Options

It is important to select nuclear engineering programs that are accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).

Bachelor’s Degree in Nuclear Engineering – Four Year Duration
The bachelor’s curriculum in nuclear engineering emphasizes study in the areas of nuclear reactions and radiation, nuclear reactor theory and design, fusion power engineering, radioactive waste management, radiological physics and biophysics, and nuclear materials.
Programs at this level provide students with a firm foundation in the science and engineering principles relevant to nuclear processes and their applications in energy generation and in medical and industrial fields, and prepare them for entry-level and some mid-level positions.

Generally, the first half of a bachelor’s program is composed of classes in chemistry, physics, and advanced mathematics. The second half of the curriculum includes courses like the following:

  • Thermal Fluids Engineering
  • Differential Equations
  • Introduction to Nuclear Engineering and Ionizing Radiation
  • Introduction to Nuclear Design
  • Introduction to Computer Programming and Numerical Methods for Engineering Applications
  • Introduction to Applied Nuclear Physics
  • Nuclear Systems Design
  • Social Problems of Nuclear Energy
  • Engineering and Nuclear Systems
  • Fusion Energy
  • Principles of Nuclear Radiation Measurement and Protection
  • Neutron Science and Reactor Physics
  • Introduction to Probability and Statistics
  • Analog Electronics from Circuits to Zero-Carbon Grid
  • Quantum Technology and Devices
  • Integration of Reactor Design, Operations, and Safety
  • Systems Analysis of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle
  • Radiation Biophysics
  • Corrosion: The Environmental Degradation of Materials
  • Radiation Damage and Effects in Nuclear Materials
  • Principles of Nuclear Chemical Engineering and Waste Management
  • Introduction to Sustainable Energy
  • Physical Metallurgy

Master’s Degree in Nuclear Engineering – Two Year Duration
The typical master’s program in nuclear engineering is comprised of three components: refresher courses in nuclear physics, materials science, and the principles of energy conversion; elective courses that allow students to focus on their individual area of interest and support research for their thesis; and a master’s thesis. Many holders of a Master’s Degree in Nuclear Engineering work in the area of nuclear reactor design.

Sample tracks of study:

  • Advanced Nuclear Waste Management
  • Civil Engineering of Complex and Nuclear Structures
  • Fuel Cycle
  • Materials Science for Nuclear Energy
  • Nuclear Energy Production and Industrial Applications
  • Nuclear Fusion and Engineering Physics
  • Nuclear Systems Safety Engineering
  • Nuclear Technologies
  • Nuclear Technologies for Medical Applications
  • Physics and Technology for Nuclear Reactors
  • Radioecology

Examples of subjects common to all tracks:

  • Atomic, Nuclear, and Particle Physics
  • Fission Reactor Physics
  • Nuclear Detection and Measurements
  • Nuclear Plants
  • Radioprotection

Possible optional subjects according to track of study:

  • Reliability, Safety, and Risk Analysis
  • Medical Applications of Radiation Fields
  • Radiochemistry
  • Nuclear Design and Technology
  • Experimental Nuclear Reactor Kinetics
  • Waste Management
  • Decommissioning of Nuclear Installations
  • Nuclear Electronics
  • Solid State Physics
  • Nuclear Physics
  • Nanotechnology
  • Nuclear Techniques for the Analysis of Materials
  • Statistical Physics
  • Plasma Physics
  • Nuclear Fusion

Doctoral Degree in Nuclear Engineering – Four to Five Year Duration
To study for the Doctoral Degree in Nuclear Engineering students must have a bachelor’s or master’s degree from a recognized university with a major in engineering, physics, chemistry, or mathematics. Doctoral candidates are required to pass a comprehensive qualification examination covering nuclear reactor engineering, radiological engineering, and a chosen specialty area.

Possible specializations:

  • Nuclear Fuel Processing
  • Materials
  • Radioactive Waste Treatment and Management
  • Thermal Behavior and Measurement
  • Nuclear Systems Design, Modeling, and Simulation
  • Applications of Nuclear Process Heat
  • Medical / Health Physics
  • Management of the Nuclear Enterprise
  • Radiation Interactions and Detection
  • Plasma Science and Engineering
  • Nuclear Security and Non-Proliferation
  • Nuclear Reactor

Most doctoral programs require that candidates complete some core courses, like the ones listed below, before concentrating on research for their Ph.D. dissertation:

  • Applied Risk Analysis
  • Nuclear Design Processes and Techniques
  • Nuclear Reactor Analysis
  • Methods for Particle Transport
  • Fuel Management in Nuclear Reactors
  • Reactor Containment Systems
  • Advanced Reactor Control
  • Computational Fluid Dynamics
  • Software Quality Management

Doctoral graduates in nuclear engineering typically go on to teach the discipline at the university level and/or conduct research in the field. They may also work in the areas of nuclear reactor design or diagnostic medical equipment design.

Degrees Similar to Nuclear Engineering

Aerospace Engineering
Aerospace engineering degree programs teach the analytical, computational, and engineering and design skills needed to work in the aerospace industry. Students learn how to apply this knowledge to the manufacturing, testing, and monitoring of civil or commercial aircraft, military aircraft, missiles, rockets, spacecraft, lunar vehicles, and space stations.

Astronomy degree programs teach students about celestial bodies and the energy and forces exerted by their interaction. This means that the curriculum is concerned with the study of objects in space, from the smallest neutrinos to planets, stars, solar systems, galaxies, asteroids, comets, and black holes.

Students learn about when these objects were born, how they evolved, how some of them became extinct, and how they move in space. They develop skills to theorize about the origin of the cosmos and to predict future events in the universe. In addition, they study the mechanics involved in building and deploying space stations, satellites, space crafts, and transportation systems.

Biomedical Engineering
Simply stated, biomedical engineering uses engineering to solve health and medical problems. For example, a biomedical engineer might look for chemical signals in the body that warn of a particular disease or condition.

Chemistry is the science that deals with identifying the substances that make up matter. Degree programs in chemistry focus on investigating these substances: their properties; how they interact, combine, and change; and how scientists can use chemical processes to form new substances.

Civil Engineering
This degree field is focused on the processes of design and planning of civil infrastructure like roads, tunnels, bridges, dams, railroads, and airports. In their work, civil engineers are concerned with such things as how much weight a structure can support and the environmental issues presented by construction. The emphasis of civil engineering degree programs is math, statistics, engineering systems and mechanics, building codes, and statistical analysis.

Electrical Engineering
Students of electrical engineering learn how to use physics, electronics, and electromagnetism to design devices that are powered by or produce electricity. Most degree programs in the field start with foundational classes in calculus, physics, and chemistry.

Environmental Engineering
This branch of engineering is concerned with developing solutions to environmental problems. Environmental engineers work to control air and water pollution, improve recycling and waste disposal, and advance public health.

Mechanical Engineering
Students of mechanical engineering learn how to research, design, develop, and test mechanical and thermal devices, including tools, sensors, engines, and machines. These devices serve many industries, including the aerospace, medical, energy, and manufacturing sectors. In addition to coursework in engineering and design, degree programs in the field include classes in mathematics, life sciences, and physical sciences.

Nuclear Engineering Technology
Nuclear engineering technology programs teach the engineering skills required to assist and support nuclear engineers in their work. Classes include computers for engineering technology, physics, nuclear plant design, and safety protocols.

Physics is a field that keeps changing as discoveries are made. This means that the field asks at least as many questions as it answers. Students of physics degree programs study matter and energy. They learn about the relationships between the measurable quantities in the universe, which include velocity, electric field, and kinetic energy.

Skills You’ll Learn

In learning to become nuclear engineers students learn that the work involves designing complex facilities and systems, working with other engineers, and always being aware of potential hazards. Throughout their education in the field, they develop the following transferable skills:

  • Ability to visualize complex processes
  • Attention to detail
  • Communication
  • Creativity, patience, and persistence
  • Critical thinking and problem-solving
  • Dedication to ongoing learning
  • Laboratory skills
  • Logical thinking
  • Mathematical and computer skills
  • Planning and organization
  • Project management
  • Report writing and documentation
  • Research and data analysis
  • Respect for the environment
  • Safety awareness
  • Teamwork

What Can You Do with a Nuclear Engineering Degree?

Nuclear engineering graduates are hired by various sectors, including:

  • Nuclear power plants
  • Nuclear research reactors
  • Nuclear regulatory organizations
  • Nuclear engineering firms
  • Nuclear fuel fabrication
  • Nuclear waste treatment
  • Radio-isotope production (radio-isotopes are used in medical diagnosis, scientific research, and to test thickness of materials and structural integrity)
  • Electric power generation, transmission, and distribution
  • Scientific research and development (with government and industrial laboratories)


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