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 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

Author: Moderator

Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

23 thoughts on “Reactor Operators: What it Takes To Do This Important Job”

  1. Hi, I am very interested in this type of job. I would like to work as a reactor operator, but I do not know how to get in the job. Do you know how?

  2. I have been SRO – Senior Reactor Operator (SRO)- first licensed in 1983. Now do contract work as consultant and make $200-300k/year so the pay is way understated. I don’t know any licensed operators that make less than 6 figures. We are trained and tested a lot (including random p tests). We work a 5 week rotation of 12 hour shifts typically 2 are nights and 3 are days. Weeks range from 30-50 hours and we have fatigue rules such that we cannot work more than 6 days/week and 12 hrs/day – simplified but you get the idea. No one wants to work all night so we share it. That’s why we rotate. We do like our 7 day off period ever 5 weeks. We average 200hrs straight time over that 5 week period. Most work more than 20% overtime. I work none.
    We are sworn (yes, we take an oath) to protect the ‘health and welfare of the public’ as our first order when receiving a license. NRC director awards us these licenses. At this time, I estimate approx. 2000-2500 SROs in the US (20-25 per plant). Our careers consume us as we have little time outside of work. I work 12.5 hrs, then drive home (hour each way) = 15 hours. That leaves 9hrs to eat, sleep and shower. Not much else. EVERYTHING we do is by a written procedure which we have a peer who checks us before it is performed. We can execute at an error rate of less than 0.01% through practice, peer checks and human performance tools. Avg. person makes an error 20% of the time and never even thinks about it. Rest assured, we take our work very seriously and are very good at it. I am very lucky to work with a group of people who care so much about their performance. We are highly trained, work in a 99% male environment (women are hired but leave the environment because it is difficult – 1% stay) which is not our choice – it just works out that way through attrition. Most are degreed although not required. I have two degrees, a BS and 2 yr in Nuc Technology. I am typical. Also, it takes years of training before you can test for SRO. I was in the business for 8 years (1988) for my SRO. Over half was in training. So my cumulative training is 10yrs. We are compared to airlines because we both can affect large numbers of people and perform in high stress. However, the Nuclear Industry has resulted in many less deaths than the airline industry. Did you know that no one was killed at Fukushima or Three Mile Island and yet I know everyone of you know about those events. Fukushima – thousands died in the Tsunami. But the press never gets the long publicity or sensationalism from a big wave when they can prey on the ignorance of the public about big scary nuclear power. It is not fun or easy but has provided my family for a comfortable life.

  3. NRC is a gov regulator
    Nuclear Regulatory Commission – Spin off of AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) when it was decided to give government a regulating role in Nuclear Power
    Senior Reactor Operator
    Docket 1027

    Note Some verbiage removed to adhere to comment guidelines

  4. Considering the awesome responsibility vested in these reactor operators their working hours and conditions should be like those of commercial airline pilots. Please identify any airline pilots who work 12-hour rotating shifts. These are the worst shifts anyone could work. Operators like them because they get more days off and of course anything these prima donnas want they get! When will the industry and the NRC draw the line and put public safety first!

  5. I am a former navy aircraft mechanic and soon to be graduate with a BS in Chemical Engineering. My question is, how can I manage to break into the engineering side? I have applied to online postings for engineer I jobs and been turned down because of the screening questions. Maybe because I had no experience in this field to begin with? But I thought I wouldn’t need experience to be considered for thus entry level position. Can’t possibly think of.a reason why they I should screened out before an actual person looks at my resume. A little discouraged.

  6. Actually you do need a degree to become an SRO at every plant and company I have ever known. Secondly you cannot possibly understand the amount of training and knowledge that goes into working in this field. SRO training alone is two years long and a good majority don’t make it through. In fact the screening for this industry is extremely rigorous..more applicants are turned away than accepted. Even being accepted doesn’t mean you’ll get the job and if you do get the job you still have the training to content with. Not to mention regular and annual training, drug testing, psychological testing, physical tests, social emotional tests, financial inquires. Most companies look to hire former Navy Nukes since they have extensive experience and are more likely to meet and pass all requirements. Then there are all the inspections, regulations and rules in place for the plant that are strictly enforced…yeah you have no idea how tedious and safe it actually is.

  7. The plethora of defensive, insulting and nasty statements by people who admit they work in the nuclear industry here is exactly WHY the public needs an NRC that is both objective and independent. The NRC works for the people (they are a govt. agency), not at the behest of nuclear power company employees who are intent on squashing any public conversation or open discussion.
    More disclosure to the public is desperately needed about technical details and conditions at specific facilities.

  8. Heya i am for the first time here. I found this board and I find It truly useful & it helped
    me out much. I hope to give something back and aid others
    like you aided me.

  9. Er, tell me Lily, do you want them to cough up all their manuals and training textbooks to you too? How many industries or government entities would do that? Why do you think that they’re obliged to just to placate your frets? Believe it or not, you don’t need a high school diploma to fly a 747. Just training and a simulator. Some Korean jet aces came from WWII combat high-school free. We’re asking operators of complex equipment to be able and resourceful technicians, not overkill scientists. It’s worked rather well overall that you don’t need a PhD to pump you gas which could incinerate your car and family in seconds. BTW, there are LOTS of live agents and places far more lethal than a nuclear plant, like good old mundane chemical plants. Just ask the people in India among some. Too many fearful in this country are honing axes after the wrong trees. I’ve none to grind.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  10. I applaud the NRC for highlighting this topic! It is in public’s interest to have an ample supply of dedicated, well-trained operators for our nation’s nuclear energy facilities. Increasing awareness of these great career opportunities is a wonderful public service!

    I spent many years as a Senior Reator Operator, and training operators for both the US Navy and commercial nuclear power plants. Working in a nuclear control room with a team of fellow operators is an interesting and rewarding career. One thing that is unique about this group of people is the diversity of their formal education and training. Some operators get their start right out of high school working at their local nuclear plant in entry level positions. Others start with an associates degree and a first job as an equipment operator in a nuclear plant and later move up to become a reactor operator or senior reactor operator (check out “Nuclear Uniform Curriculum”). Members from another group have engineering or science bachelors or masters degrees. A final group receives their initial training in the US Navy and transition into the commercial industry after their commitment to the military is complete. Another group . Some of the best teams have members with a mix of backgrounds because different backgrounds helps bring different perspectives and ideas to team problem solving. One thing the NRC did not mention is while historically nuclear operations was dominated by males, more and more women are choosing this rewarding career path.

    On another note, I think it is disingenuous for people who are obviously actively opposed to nuclear energy to attempt to highjack this comment thread or criticize the NRC for sharing this information.

  11. There is no conflict of interest between regulating nuclear energy to ensure that it is safe and enabling nuclear energy production by ensuring that the public understands how they are being protected. Too often, people misunderstand Congress’s intent, which was clearly established by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 and continued even with the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 as amended.

    When they passed those laws, our democratically elected representatives understood that Americans enjoy the benefits of reliable energy and that it contributes a great deal to our common prosperity and ability to influence world events. It is not the NRC’s assigned mission to bend over backwards to appear to be agnostic about nuclear energy; they are required to be safety conscious and fair in the way that they enforce the regulations. The NRCs mission is to contribute to the safety and security of the nation by enabling nuclear energy production, not to bend to the will of people who seem to believe that the only safe nuclear plant is one that is not allowed to operate.

  12. Stay tuned. We have a YouTube video on “A Day in the Life of a Resident Inspector” in production!

  13. = The “coal” nonsense.

    More on the exam process or what types of things operators are expected to understand would be interesting, or how the NRC oversees the process. These kinds of things help public understanding of the whole process. Something else that might be useful along these lines would be to explain the resident inspectors role and their typical day.

  14. Could you elaborate on how a nuclear reactor is the most dangerous thing on Earth?

    Surely it is not more dangerous than coal which causes the deaths of more people per month than nuclear has in its 50 years of existence.

  15. So any concern or criticism no matter what means your a fanatic. Got it. Very mature. BTW, I agreed with the general premise of the NRC informing people about the process just not the tone and quoting, it ended up going beyond their scope.

  16. I think this is a great article and fulfills NRC’s duty to help keep the public accurately informed. The folks who have objected in these comments seem to all be the type of person who is fanatically opposed to nuclear power and should be ignored at every turn.

  17. Perhaps then a more appropriate response might be to simply say reactor operators are vetted and employed by plant owners yet licensed by the NRC and then cite the link to the NRC licensing process. There is too much at stake, with great conflict of interest, for the NRC to say more.

  18. This blog post was written to respond, albeit belatedly, to a report by, which generated some media reports implying that reactor operators may be under-educated. We felt some explanation would be worthwhile. Our post is unrelated to any promotional material produced by the industry.

  19. Indeed, operating the most dangerous thing on earth should only be dealt with by the best in class.

  20. Informing people about the reactor operator’s role & training is a good thing. They frequently do a demanding job while the power company pushes for longer hours and is frequently fighting with the union to take away their job benefits as happened at least twice this year.

    What is really concerning is that two sections of this post are taken from a recent nuclear industry media campaign. A number of different nuclear industry groups were pushing the “100,000 a year jobs with no college” promotion in recent months to encourage people to consider jobs in that industry. This is just providing free advertising for the industry’s existing media campaign on the topic.

    Since the NRC is supposed to be a regulator not a promoter of nuclear technology and is a government agency this seems inappropriate. The same article could have easily been done without the promotional aspect.

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