Nuclear Reactor Operators and Technicians


Education and Training Requirements

High School

If you wish to enter nuclear technology programs, you should study algebra, geometry, English composition, blueprint reading, and chemistry and physics with laboratory study. In addition, classes in computer science and beginning electronics will help you prepare for the technology program that follows high school.

Postsecondary Training

In the first year of a nuclear technology program at a technical or community college, you will probably take nuclear technology, radiation physics, applied mathematics, electricity and electronics, technical communications, basic industrial economics, radiation detection and measurement, inorganic chemistry, radiation protection, mathematics, basic mechanics, quality assurance and quality control, principles of process instrumentation, heat transfer and fluid flow, metallurgy, and metal properties.

In the second year, you may be required to take technical writing and reporting, nuclear systems, blueprint reading, mechanical component characteristics and specifications, reactor physics, reactor safety, power plant systems, instrumentation and control of reactors and plant systems, power plant chemistry, reactor operations, reactor auxiliary systems, and industrial organizations and institutions.

Upon completing a technical program, you will continue training once you are employed at a plant. On-the-job training includes learning nuclear science theory; radiation detection; and reactor design, operation, and control. In addition, nuclear reactor operator technicians must learn in detail how the nuclear power plant works. Trainees are assigned to a series of work-learn tasks that take them to all parts of the plant. If trainees have been working in the plant as regular employees, their individual training is planned around what they already know. This kind of training usually takes two to three years and includes simulator practice.

The simulator is an exact replica of the station's real control room. The controls in the simulator are connected to an interactive computer. Working under the supervision of a licensed nuclear reactor operator, trainees experience mock events in the simulator, which teach them how to safely handle emergencies.

During this on-the-job training, technicians learn about nuclear power plant materials, processes, material balances, plant operating equipment, pipe systems, electrical systems, and process control. It is crucial to understand how each activity within the unit affects other instruments or systems. Nuclear reactor operator technicians are given written and oral exams, sometimes as often as once a week. In some companies, technicians are dismissed from their job for failing to pass any one training exam.

Some people in the industry believe that one of the most difficult aspects of becoming a nuclear reactor operator is getting hired. Because electric utilities invest a substantial amount of time and money to train nuclear reactor operators, they are extremely selective when hiring.

The application process entails intensive screening, including identity checks, FBI fingerprint checks, drug and alcohol tests, psychological tests, and credit checks. After passing this initial screening, the applicant takes a range of mathematical and science aptitude tests.

Utility companies recruit most nuclear reactor operator technicians from local high schools and colleges, fossil fuel plants (utilities using non-nuclear sources of energy), and nuclear navy programs. Knowledge of nuclear science and the discipline and professionalism gained from navy experience make veterans excellent candidates. Graduates of two-year programs in nuclear technology also make excellent trainees because they are well versed in nuclear and power plant fundamentals.

The standards and course content for all nuclear training programs are established by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In addition, each nuclear power plant training program must be accredited by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, which was founded in 1979 by industry leaders to promote excellence in nuclear plant operations.

Certification, Licensing, and Special Requirements

Certification or Licensing

Nuclear reactor operators are required to be licensed, based on examinations given by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The licensing process involves passing several exams, including a physical exam. To qualify for the licensing process, nuclear reactor operators must have three years of nuclear power plant experience. The first written licensing exam (Generic Fundamentals Examination) covers topics such as reactor theory and thermodynamics. Candidates who pass this exam then take a site-specific exam that includes a written section and an operating test on the power plant's simulator. Candidates who pass these tests receive their licenses. A license is valid for six years and only for the specific power plant for which the candidate applied.

To maintain their licenses, operators must pass an annual practical, or operating, exam and a written requalification exam given by their employers. Requirements for license renewal include certification from the employer that the operator has successfully completed requalification and operating exams and passed a physical.

Other Requirements

In addition to psychological, physical, and aptitude tests, candidates for operator jobs undergo background checks, which include fingerprint, credit score, and drug and alcohol screenings.

Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits

Nuclear reactor operators must have proven skills in controlling nuclear power plants. They should be experienced at starting and stopping control rod equipment, which determines the uranium and plutonium levels. Operators should have a solid history of responding to and determining causes of abnormalities. They should have a strong background in implementing safety and emergency procedures.

Because of the dangerous nature of nuclear energy, the nuclear reactor operator's performance is critical to the safety of other employees, the community, and the environment. Operators must perform their job with a high degree of precision and accuracy. They must be able to remain calm under pressure and maintain sound judgment in emergencies.

Nuclear reactor technicians should demonstrate ability at measuring and monitoring radiation levels using special instrumentation. They must be knowledgeable about the procedures necessary to decontaminate workers, work areas, and equipment and to restore safe radiation levels. Nuclear reactor technicians should have experience in keeping detailed records and following safety regulations. Although nuclear reactor operators must frequently perform numerous tasks at once, they must also be able to remain alert during quiet times and handle the monotony of routine readings and tests.

Responding to requests from other personnel, such as the auxiliary operators, is a regular part of the nuclear reactor operator's job. The ability to communicate and work well with other team members and plant personnel is essential.

Nuclear reactor operators are subject to continuous exams and ongoing training. They must be diligent about keeping their skills and knowledge up to date. A desire for lifelong learning, therefore, is necessary for those doing this work.