Nuclear engineering is all about the production and application of nuclear energy and the uses of radiation and radioactive materials. Most nuclear engineers design, construct and operate nuclear power plants, which generate electric power. They take care of every stage in the production of nuclear energy – from the processing of nuclear fuels to the disposal of radioactive waste from nuclear reactors. Nuclear science is about studying atomic nuclei and exploiting their energy to serve humankind. It is used in food irradiation, medicine (think cancer treatment), electricity production, space and the industry. A nuclear scientist is a cross between a physicist and an engineer. Though it is an extremely specialised field, the prospects are very bright for enthusiastic young minds. With the discipline evolving, a lot of people are needed who can look at specialised areas like managing nuclear waste, nuclear plant design, nuclear operations, nuclear engineering and ensure nuclear plant safety.
What do they do?
Padmini Vyas*, 25, is a nuclear engineer working with the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). The freedom to work in a chosen field — production, design, quality control — prompted her to accept BARC’s appointment letter instead of those of other organisations, which didn’t offer her the flexibility as BARC did.
Vyas joined the organisation in 2006 after doing a BTech in mechanical engineering from JNTU, Kakinada. She completed her MTech in nuclear engineering from the Homi Bhabha National Institute this year and intends to do her PhD as well, in the near future. And she has been and would be, in all likelihood, in employment all the while because study and research are often linked with the job profile of a BARC employee.
Vyas chose nuclear engineering not just because of the scope of learning the job offers, but also because “it is a growing field; it is research oriented and I can do a lot in this field”. As scientific officer ‘d’, she works in BARC’s quality assurance department. “ Our facility produces fuel for nuclear reactors and my department is concerned with the quality aspect of the fuel bundle — a cluster of elements consisting of uranium oxide pellets,” says Vyas.
“Nuclear engineering is all about the technology of harnessing energy contained in the atom generally by fission or fusion. In our country, this branch of engineering focuses on the research, installation and operation of nuclear reactors for generating electricity and application of radioactive isotopes for peaceful purposes,” says H R Ravindra, head, BARC Training School, NFC, Hyderabad. Nuclear engineers also design and build nuclear engines for ships, submarines, and spaceships.
They determine how radiation and radioactive materials can be used for industrial, medical and scientific purposes. Some engineers specialise in designing and constructing particle accelerators, devices used in scientific studies of the atom, and in creating new elements.
The scope of work of a nuclear engineer in the country is varied. Apart from carrying out basic research and technology development in nuclear science, work in operation and maintenance of nuclear reactors, s/he may work towards “new materials development, safety analysis of materials which go into a reactor and irradiation studies on materials that later would be used in scientific research, medicine, agriculture, manufacturing industry etc.,” points out Ravindra.
“Besides, nuclear engineers carry out theoretical research work, which is a valuable branch of study”.
And there is no dearth of good nuclear engineers in the country. “The Department of Atomic Energy has a very comprehensive training programme in the country.
They recruit engineers from chemical, electrical and other related industries and ensure they get orientation in nuclear sciences and engineering,” explains Dr Om Pal Singh, secretary, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. Add to this the various IITs and Universities that are either conducting or are in the process of introducing courses on nuclear science and engineering. “As a result there is the required level of awareness about nuclear engineering in the country and I see no shortfall in the number of nuclear engineers in the near future,” says Dr Singh.
The scope of employment for graduate engineers is indeed good. “Opportunities for a nuclear engineer in India are present mainly in government-run institutes and laboratories,” say Nitin Jain and Manish Bajpai, research scholars, nuclear engineering and technology, IIT-Kanpur.
“Once the Indo-US nuclear agreement gets implemented a lot of private players are expected to come in this field, thereby adding to the existing opportunity.”
*name changed on request
- S/he should be passionate about engineering
- Good knowledge about properties of materials is mandatory
- Should have good communication skills
- Good concepts in mathematics and physics
- Basic knowledge of thermal hydraulics, instrumentation, control and nuclear physics is desirable
- A nuclear engineer must have problem-solving skills and the ability to put theoretical knowledge into practice
How do I get there?