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Nuclear engineers are involved in various aspects of the generation, use, and maintenance of nuclear energy and the safe disposal of its waste. Nuclear engineers work on research and development, design, fuel management, safety analysis, operation and testing, sales, and education. Their contributions affect consumer and industrial power supplies, medical technology, the food industry, and other industries.
Nuclear engineering is dominated by the power industry. Some engineers work for companies that manufacture reactors. They research, develop, design, manufacture, and install parts used in these facilities, such as core supports, reflectors, thermal shields, biological shields, instrumentation, and safety and control systems.
Those who are responsible for the maintenance of power plants must monitor operations efficiently and guarantee that facilities meet safety standards. Nuclear energy activities in the United States are closely supervised and regulated by government and independent agencies, especially the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC oversees the use of nuclear materials by electric utility companies throughout the United States. NRC employees are responsible for ensuring the safety of nongovernment nuclear materials and facilities and for making sure that related operations do not adversely affect public health or the environment. Nuclear engineers who work for regulatory agencies are responsible for setting the standards that all organizations involved with nuclear energy must follow. They issue licenses, establish rules, implement safety research, perform risk analyses, conduct on-site inspections, and pursue research. The NRC is one of the main regulatory agencies employing nuclear engineers.
Many nuclear engineers work directly with public electric utility companies. Tasks are diverse, and teams of engineers are responsible for supervising construction and operation, analyzing safety, managing fuel, assessing environmental impact, training personnel, managing the plant, storing spent fuel, managing waste, and analyzing economic factors.
Some engineers working for nuclear power plants focus on the quality of the water supply. Their plants extract salt from water, and engineers develop new methods and designs for such desalinization systems.
The food supply also benefits from the work of nuclear engineers. Nuclear energy is used for pasteurization and sterilization, insect and pest control, and fertilizer production. Furthermore, nuclear engineers conduct genetic research on improving various food strains and their resistance to harmful elements.
Nuclear engineers in the medical field design and construct equipment for diagnosing and treating illnesses and disease. They perform research on radioisotopes, which are produced by nuclear reactions. Radioisotopes are used in heart pacemakers, in X-ray equipment, and for sterilizing medical instruments. According to the Health Professions Network (http://www.healthpronet.org), more than 3,900 nuclear medicine departments at hospitals across the country perform, on an annual basis, over 10 million patient procedures.
Nuclear engineers perform a number of other jobs as well. Nuclear health physicists, nuclear criticality safety engineers, and radiation protection technicians conduct research and training programs designed to protect plant and laboratory employees against radiation hazards. Nuclear fuels research engineers and nuclear fuels reclamation engineers work with reprocessing systems for atomic fuels. Accelerator operators coordinate the operation of equipment used in experiments on subatomic particles, and scanners work with photographs, produced by particle detectors, of atomic collisions.