Students interested in nuclear science or nuclear technology fields often ask how to become a nuclear technician. Nuclear technicians are energy production workers who operate the high-tech equipment used to generate nuclear power. Nuclear technicians participate in all nuclear plant activities to safely produce electricity. A nuclear technician provides assistance to engineers, physicists, mechanics, and other related energy professionals. Technicians are also involved in nuclear research to determine how reactors and plant materials can reach better production levels. Becoming a nuclear technician is a popular path for individuals who seek a high-paying job that does not require a bachelor’s degree. The steps to becoming a nuclear technician include earning an associate’s in nuclear technology degree, becoming professionally certified, undergoing extensive on-the-job training, and acquiring specific skills.
A student looking for a great two-year nuclear technician degree may want to know how to become a nuclear technician. The process is similar to entering other declining job markets, such as plant operation and factory work. Breaking into the nuclear energy industry can take as much patience and resolve as joining a labor union.
Because jobs in nuclear energy are scarce, most universities don’t heavily promote their nuclear technician programs. Consequently, the number of people entering this profession is low. While competition for nuclear energy jobs is intense, it’s possible to enter this field at the bottom and rise to a senior position in a few years.
Pick a Nuclear Technician Career Path
How to become a nuclear technician starts with selecting the right field specialization. The Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 6,420 nuclear technicians, which fall into two distinct types: operating technicians and radiation protection technicians. First, operating technicians are focused on ensuring all power plant equipment functions at peak performance. Operating technicians constantly monitor nuclear production systems for inefficiencies and leaks. Operating technicians take measurements of factors like turbine temperature and pressure to test the reactor’s productivity. On the other hand, radiation protection technicians have a more public safety role in guaranteeing dangerous radiation is contained. Radiation protection technicians use dosimeters to determine the location’s absorbed dose of ionizing radiation. Radiation protection technicians devise procedures for controlling nuclear plant emissions and maintaining good air quality. Radiation protection technicians generally focus on keeping work conditions safe and disposing of nuclear waste.
Earn an Accredited Associate Degree from a Nuclear Technician School
In 2019, Business Insider recognized nuclear technician jobs as the fourth top-paying career available with an associate degree. Entering an associate program is how to become a nuclear technician. Associate degrees in nuclear science, nuclear technology, or closely related areas are best. Students must gain an understanding of nuclear energy tools and equipment that are used in power plants. Most associate programs require the completion of at least 60-65 credits. Community colleges and trade schools often deliver these two-year associate degrees. Associate programs at a nuclear technology school will teach you about nuclear power history, radiation detection instrumentation, and emergency planning. Students commonly complete a strong STEM foundation with core courses from chemistry to calculus. Associate major classes, such as fluid mechanics, nuclear physics, and nuclear engineering technology, will follow. High-school diploma or GED recipients should apply to nuclear-related associate programs only at regionally accredited colleges.
Pursue Professional Certification
Professional certification in nuclear science is a voluntary, yet recommended step. Certification makes the road to becoming a nuclear technician easier because employers trust one’s skills. Certification for nuclear technicians generally involves taking a test and passing a qualification review. Associate degree graduates can select from several different certification options. For example, the American Society for Nondestructive Testing (ASNT) credentials nuclear technicians. The Industrial Radiography Radiation Safety Personnel (IRRSP) certification requires passing a four-hour exam at Pearson VUE centers, which are in 170+ countries. The National Registry of Radiation Protection Technologists (NRRPT) certifies technicians who are 21 or older with five years of experience. Becoming a Registered Radiation Protection Technologist (RRPT) involves taking a $250 exam at one of two U.S. testing times. The Nuclear Energy Institute also offers the Nuclear Uniform Curriculum Program for professional certification.
Complete Extensive Training on the Job
Another part of how to become a nuclear technician is gaining hands-on experience. Learning about nuclear reactors and radiation detectors from textbooks isn’t sufficient. After completing an associate degree and professional certification, technicians typically need on-the-job training. Engaging in extensive training programs ensures that technicians have the know-how to safely practice. Nuclear technicians begin as trainees and complete tasks under the careful observation of experienced nuclear specialists. Technicians learn the correct techniques for using power plant monitoring and operating equipment. Radiation protection technicians also learn safety procedures, industry regulations, and the policies of their plant. How long training lasts depends on the technician’s education and experience level. Generally, on-the-job training takes between six months and two years. Nuclear technician apprenticeships are available at companies like Exelon, Siemens, PSEG, Dominion Energy, and more. Nuclear technicians also attend continuing education throughout their careers to stay up-to-date on field advancements.
Sharpen Specialized Nuclear Science Skills
Becoming a competent, successful nuclear technician requires sharp, specialized skills. Nuclear technicians need effective communication skills to receive and convey complex job instructions. Nuclear technicians must be good speakers to explain work to other nuclear workers and instruct personnel on safety procedures. Computer skills are needed for today’s nuclear technicians to carry out plant operations and document reactor activities. Good critical-thinking skills are essential for nuclear technicians to carefully assess all monitoring equipment data and make sound decisions. Mathematical skills help nuclear technicians use scientific formulas to measure production levels and rates of reactions. Mechanical skills are a must-have for nuclear technicians to operate nuclear facilities and conduct effective equipment repairs. Nuclear technicians need great attention to detail when evaluating gauges, sensors, and similar instruments. Nuclear technicians also need quick problem-solving skills to react when radiation levels rise.
Finding Your First Nuclear Technician Job
How to become a nuclear technician ends with the search for a permanent job. In 2021, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that 86 percent of nuclear technicians worked in electric power generation. According to American Geosciences Institute, there are currently 60 commercial nuclear power plants with 98 reactors across 30 states. The entire globe has over 440 nuclear reactors functioning in about 30 nations. Nuclear technicians can work at manufacturing companies to create power plant equipment. Some nuclear technicians are employed at engineering services firms to find new methods of breaking down atomic nuclei. Also, four percent of nuclear technicians work in employment services. Most nuclear technicians work full-time with variable shifts on a 24/7 operational schedule.
Nuclear Technician Job Outlook
Nuclear science is one of the highest-paying occupations for workers with only an associate degree. However, the shift to renewable and eco-friendly sources of energy is causing a decline in nuclear technician jobs.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of decline will be 19 percent per year through 2029. This rapid decline will force nuclear technicians to move to states with job openings and compete with other technicians for work. It will also drive many technicians out of nuclear science and into similar occupations, such as chemical engineering, hazardous waste removal, and nuclear medicine. These unfavorable numbers don’t tell the whole story, though. When nuclear energy becomes cleaner and safer, power plants may begin producing it again.
Competition for Nuclear Technician Jobs
Over the next decade, the competition for jobs in nuclear science will be strong, especially for technicians with only an associate degree. Most jobs will go to experienced workers, and recent college graduates will need luck and determination to find work in this field.
Even with advanced education and certification, job-seekers will have trouble finding positions in nuclear science. Technicians with wide-ranging skillsets will have the best prospects. For example, a technician with strong math, chemistry or computer science skills will find work relatively easily.
The one advantage nuclear technicians have in the current job market is the small number of new workers entering it. However, the lure of a high-paying job that requires only an associate degree will create more competition for technicians than for engineers.
The Best States for Nuclear Technicians
According to the BLS, thousands of nuclear technician jobs are still available in the United States. Virginia employs the most nuclear technicians at 860, followed by Ohio at 470, Pennsylvania at 430, Illinois at 380, and Tennessee at 320. The state with the highest mean annual salary for nuclear technicians is California at $105,750, followed by Massachusetts at $101,090, New York at $98,280, Michigan at $96,820, and Florida at $96,300.
The variance in salaries comes from the differences in culture and cost of living in each state. California, the state with the highest wages for nuclear technicians, offers only about 70 jobs in this field. Statistically, this figure represents 0.00 percent of California’s workforce. In Virginia, a sparsely populated state, nuclear technicians make up 2.3 percent of the workforce. Before enrolling in a nuclear technician program, students should research the job market, culture, and cost of living in the states where they want to work.
Is an Associate Degree Enough Education?
In a declining job market, a nuclear technician degree at the associate’s level may not be sufficient to get hired. Nuclear technicians with bachelor’s degrees will have better prospects than those with only associate degrees. Completing a four-year nuclear engineering degree may not be worth the investment of time and money, however.
According to the BLS, nuclear engineers will face a 13-percent decline in jobs through 2029. Moreover, investing four years and tens of thousands of dollars in a nuclear engineering degree would be a mistake for a technician. This path would make sense only if the technician could count on rising to a more senior position. For a nuclear technician, promotions and raises are possible, but they are not guaranteed. Several similar occupations may offer better career paths for engineering technicians.
The Job Outlook for Similar Occupations
Fields related to nuclear science include hazardous waste removal, nuclear medicine, chemical engineering, and mechanical engineering. According to the BLS, the closest career alternative for nuclear technicians is nuclear medicine, which has similar education requirements and expected earnings but a much better job outlook. Nuclear medicine technologists can find high-paying work with only an associate degree. They face a strong job market, with five-percent growth projected through 2029. At $79,590, their mean annual salary is on par with nuclear technicians’ mean earnings.
The next-best career alternative for nuclear technicians is mechanical engineering. Technicians in this field need only an associate degree and earn a mean annual salary of $58,230. With three-percent job growth projected through 2029, mechanical engineering technicians will face much better employment prospects than nuclear technicians.
How to Become a Nuclear Technician in Today’s Economy
The job market for nuclear technicians is declining from its peak in the late 20th century. Following the disasters in Chernobyl and Fukushima and the turn toward clean, renewable energy, nuclear power plants generate little of today’s electricity. Solar, wind, and geothermal energy production are rapidly replacing nuclear power, which has scant public support. However, public skepticism of nuclear energy could recede as the technology matures.
The future of nuclear power is uncertain, and a comeback isn’t guaranteed. College students should proceed as if nuclear energy jobs are in steep decline. Job-seekers can improve their prospects by moving to a state with a nuclear power plant and acquiring relevant technical skills, such as knowledge of chemical engineering or computer programming. It may also help to know someone who works in a nuclear facility and will provide a personal reference.
Working in the nuclear science field is intense and stressful. Nuclear technicians have a tremendous responsibility in working with hazardous materials. Nuclear technicians benefit from a high mean annual wage of $82,710. Most nuclear technicians make between $52,860 and $117,480 each year. Nuclear technicians with associate’s degrees from nuclear technician schools often earn more than bachelor’s degree graduates. Becoming a nuclear technician is ideal for diligent, hard-working STEM majors who are interested in the operations of nuclear environments. The necessary steps for how to become a nuclear technician include education, certification, job training, and skill development.
Engineering technician jobs are popular because they pay well and require only a two-year degree. Nuclear technicians earn among the highest salaries of entry-level workers in any engineering field. However, in the coming decades, renewable energy will replace nuclear power in electricity production, causing a decline in nuclear technician jobs. A student wondering how to become a nuclear technician should know that the job search may be long and difficult.