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Nuclear Operator: Career Information

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Anniversary Of Nuclear Disaster At Three Mile Island Marked Near The Site
Jeff Fusco / Stringer / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Job Description:

A nuclear operator, also called a nuclear power reactor operator, controls the flow of electricity a nuclear power plant generates. He or she adjusts and maintains the plant's equipment, implements procedures that regulate the start-up or shut-down of the plant and responds to abormalities and takes appropriate action.

Employment Facts:

As of 2010, there were about 5,000 nuclear operators. They worked for utility companies and local governments. Plants must be staffed at all times so those employed in this occupation work around the clock in rotating shifts that last from 8 to 10 hours each.

Because they produce electricity, which is vital to the functioning of our society, and are very vulnerable to attack, nuclear power plants are highly secure facilities. Working in this occupation means you will also be subject to tight security measures.

Although the rate of injury in this field is low, as compared to other occupations, there is danger inherent in this career. Workers are at risk for burns or shocks.

Educational Requirements:

Nuclear operators must have a high school diploma. Some receive training in the US Armed Forces, specifically in the Navy. Before you can work as a nuclear operator, you will need a combination of on-the-job training and technical education that will prepare you for the licensing exam all prospective nuclear operators must pass before they can work independently.

Why Do You Need to Know About Educational Requirements?

Other Requirements:

Nuclear operators must be licensed by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In addition to getting training and experience, one must pass the NRC Licensing Exam and a medical examination. To retain licensure, one must pass a plant-operating exam every year and a physical exam every two years. An operator must renew his or her license every six years. If one wants to get a new job in another plant, he or she must get a new license.

Employers need workers who are detail-oriented and diligent. This occupation involves using intricate equipment and operators must be constantly attentive to their tasks. Those who excel in this field also have strong mechanical and problem-solving skills.

Advancement Opportunities:

If you decide to work in this field, you will likely begin your career working as an unlicensed equipment operator or auxiliary operator. You will receive extensive instruction from more experienced workers. Once you pass the NRC licensing exam you will become a licensed reactor operator. From there you may eventually become a senior operator who will supervise the control room of the plant.

Why Do You Need to Know About Advancement?

Job Outlook:

Employment in this occupation is expected to grow by 4% through 2020. This is slower growth than the average for all occupations. New plants that are expected to open during this time will be hiring workers.

Earnings:

Nuclear operators earned a median annual salary of $76,590 and median hourly earnings of $36.82 in 2011. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that it is one of the highest paying occupations of those that require only a high school diploma.

Use the Salary Wizard at Salary.com to find out how much a Nuclear Operator currently earns in your city.

A Day in a Nuclear Operator's Life:

On a typical day a nuclear operator's tasks might include:

  • monitoring equipment including turbines, reactors and generators
  • reading charts and gauges to monitor power flow
  • regulating the amount of electricity a reactor generates by adjusting control rods
  • making note of malfunctions, diagnosing their causes and fixing them
  • starting and stopping equipment

Sources:
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, Power Plant Operators, Distributers, and Dispatchers, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/production/power-plant-operators-distributors-and-dispatchers.htm (visited November 07, 2012).
Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, O*NET Online, Nuclear Power Reactor Operator, on the Internet at http://www.onetonline.org/link/details/51-8011.00 (visited November 07, 2012).

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