How to build a career in nuclear engineering

This year marks 100 years since Ernest Rutherford first broke the nuclei of atoms at Manchester University, one of the scientific discoveries that enabled nuclear power to be developed. Building on a legacy of development and an established history in the UK, nuclear power is now entering an exciting phase of investment where opportunities for engineering professionals are vast. This article looks at the current state of the industry, how you can get into nuclear engineering and the career development you can expect within this profession.

The industry

Whilst it can divide opinion, the fact is that nuclear power currently provides around 20% of the UK’s electricity. Nuclear power plants are receiving approval and investment worldwide, with another eight proposed within the UK alone. Projects such as Hinkley Point C have recently been given the go ahead and is predicted to create tens of thousands of jobs in the South West of England. And, in addition to the opportunities offered by new plants, existing plants also require skilled engineers. This is not just as a result of new and ongoing projects but also to fill the gaps left by an ageing workforce which is expected to shrink the overall workforce by about 3,900 per year as workers retire or leave the sector (Sustaining Our Nuclear Skills, www.gov.uk).

Plants are active for an average of 40 years, ten years longer than some coal-fired power plants, and more recently a number of them are seeing extended longevity plans for up to 20 years more. This construction and development within the industry is resulting in ample opportunities to build a long-lasting career in the industry.

Routes into nuclear engineering

Whether you are considering entering the industry via an apprenticeship, from higher education at college or university, or by transferring from another industry, there are plenty of opportunities in Nuclear.

Apprenticeships are available from most developers and energy providers (like EDF and AWE) as well as the Royal Navy and some construction suppliers. An apprenticeship in Nuclear takes around two years and is usually fully funded by the employer, allowing you to receive a basic salary (around £17,000) while you train and steady pay rises once qualified. Information on the different apprenticeship schemes in the UK industry can be found at Direct Gov.

Having a good education in science and/or engineering is a great facilitator to starting a career in nuclear, where according to The Engineer’s 2016 salary survey over half of nuclear engineers have a bachelor’s degree and one third have a masters. If you have a degree, your first job within nuclear is likely to be on a graduate scheme. This is a great way to learn about the industry, where a 1-2 year intensive course working within the different areas of the energy cycle will enable you to obtain a well-rounded knowledge of the processes behind nuclear power.

Another route into the industry is to transfer from a different engineering specialism. There are a number of opportunities in nuclear for engineers who have trained in different areas, most prevalently for those working in regulated industries such as oil, gas and Pharma. The industry is linked to the government’s Trident defence programmes which require engineers with an understanding of procedures and safety restrictions – something which comes hand-in-hand with working in the nuclear sector. In addition to this, engineers can also transfer from engineering sectors such as rail to help with the construction phases of new plants.

Career paths, salaries and progression

Engineering careers in nuclear usually begin at technician or junior engineer level (£24,000 - £29,000), moving into engineer (£30,000 - £50,000) and then senior/management positions (£55,000 - £70,000) as you build on your experience, skills and knowledge.

Most large companies offer structured training and encourage professional development for those starting their career as either an apprentice and a graduate, where training usually includes mentoring by experienced engineers/managers and in-house courses for specific skills. As you progress through your career and look to take on senior engineering roles, you may find that having a post graduate degree or chartered status is a requirement set by hiring employers.

Alternatively, you may like to move into project management, research or university teaching, which offer equally competitive salaries and interesting work.

The traits of a nuclear engineer

Regardless of your route into the industry and your level of education, the most important traits a nuclear engineer should have are attention to detail, problem-solving, good communication skills and strong knowledge of health and safety principles.

If you are looking to begin your career in Nuclear, progress in this booming industry or are looking to move across from a different specialism, please get in touch with our Nuclear recruitment consultants on +44 (0) 1489 898989 or at powernuclear@matchtech.com.

You can also view our current vacancies in the nuclear industry by visiting our dedicated webpage.

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