U.S. NRC Blog

Transparent, Participate, and Collaborate

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

23 responses to “Reactor Operators: What it Takes To Do This Important Job

  1. f May 17, 2017 at 3:47 am

    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.

    • Gustavo Barajas September 21, 2017 at 9:21 am

      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?

%d bloggers like this: