Reactor Operators: What it Takes To Do This Important Job

At first glance, the list seems surprising: Among professions that can earn $100,000 a year without a college degree are massage therapists, personal trainers, executive pastry chefs and nuclear reactor operators.

The list from PayScale.com has been touted in several NBC News reports. These reports stressed that all of the professions required extensive training and certification as well as years of experience before anyone could expect a six-figure salary. But what does that mean specifically for reactor operators?

The NRC issues two types of licenses to control room personnel qualified to operate a commercial nuclear power plant facility – i.e., the nuclear reactor. These are reactor operators (ROs), responsible for manipulating the controls of nuclear reactors, and senior reactor operators (SROs), who direct the licensed activities of ROs. Applicants for an RO license must have at least three years of power plant experience, including at least six months at the plant where they are currently employed (and seek a license) and at least six months as a non-licensed operator. SRO applicants also must have at least 18 months experience as a qualified non-licensed operator or as a plant staff engineer or manager involved in the daily activities associated with operating a commercial nuclear power plant facility.

RO candidates are not required to have a college degree, as long as they have the necessary experience and training. A college degree in engineering, engineering technology, or related sciences is typically required for anyone testing directly for an SRO license – with the exception that with at least one a year of active experience as a RO at a commercial power reactor facility they may take the SRO exam, whether or not they have a college degree.

Applicants for both licenses must complete rigorous training provided by the facility licensee (utility) before taking the NRC’s hours-long written examination and operating test. Once licensed, there are continuing training requirements per the facility’s NRC-approved requalification training program. ROs and SROs must pass a facility-administered operating test every year and a written examination every two years to maintain their license status.

Some of these experience requirements can be met through military service – in general, an applicant can receive six months credit for every year’s experience working at a military propulsion plant such as a nuclear-powered warship. It’s also important to note that reactor operators work for the commercial nuclear power plant owners, not the NRC, although it’s the NRC license that makes them eligible to do the job.

The licensing process for reactor operators is described in detail on the NRC website.

So while you don’t need a B.S. in Physics or a B.E. in Nuclear Engineering, to become a licensed nuclear reactor operator, you do have to meet extremely tough standards in experience and knowledge before being able to take the controls of a nuclear power plant as an RO or SRO.

John Munro
Senior Reactor Engineer