REFRESH — Reactor Operators: What it Takes To Do This Important Job

John Munro
Senior Reactor Engineer


refresh leafAt 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 also including at least six months experience at the plant where they are currently employed.

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 of the same vendor and vintage 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.

ap1000_controlSome 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.

REFERESH is an occasional series where we re-run previous blog posts. This originally ran on Nov. 14, 2012.

Author: Moderator

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

7 thoughts on “REFRESH — Reactor Operators: What it Takes To Do This Important Job”

  1. Suggestion: Require all NRC licensed senior operators, licensed reactor operators, and NRC “Resident” Inspectors to live within the 10-mile radius emergency planning zone around each nuclear reactor. Reasons: 1. They would be available in a very short time to respond to the plant day or night in case of an emergency. 2. The public’s confidence in nuclear power safety would be enhanced. And 3. Operators and inspectors would have personal, as they say, “skin in the game”.

  2. Thank God for nuclear power plant reactor operators. They are the only occupational group mentioned by the NRC that deserves every penny they make. Good reactor operators are worth their weight in gold.

    Improper NRC interference in the training of these professionals resulted in the only major accident in US commercial nuclear power plant history. Of course I am talking about the accident at Three Mile Island (TMI) in 1979. Up until then the NRC overemphasized the dangers of overfilling the reactor’s cooling system. Overfilling is certainly not desired but under filling the cooling system is much, much worse. Under filling means there is not enough water to cool the highly radioactive fuel in the reactor leading to a reactor core meltdown. Overfilling results in a pool of water in the containment building; however, under filling results in a major nuclear accident.

    The NRC, not just Mr. Magoo, had myopia. Myopia is also known as nearsightedness, only being able to see things clearly that are close up. As you recall Mr Magoo, the cartoon character, had terrible eyesight but refused to wear eyeglasses. He, therefore, always got into trouble. The NRC had nuclear myopia before the TMI accident in 1979. They required that all US nuclear plant operators have training in recognizing and countering a reactor cooling system overfill event. The NRC not only required it for operators to get an initial license but they also required that it be covered in requalification training at least once per year thereafter. The end result in this myopic training was that reactor operators were conditioned to even override automatic safety systems to prevent an overfill event. So it was really no surprise that when the operators at TMI saw the level in the reactor cooling system going up, they inappropriately intervened to stop it. The reason though the level was going up was not just due to makeup water being pumped in automatically, but also by actual boiling in the reactor core itself. If the operators had not intervened, the automatic filling systems would have kept the reactor core covered and cooled and no accident would have occurred. By focusing on just one training objective, the NRC lost the big nuclear safety picture. Thankfully the NRC and the industry put their glasses on after this event. Many significant changes were made to the reactor operator training programs subsequently.

    Although it is a tragic way to learn, the TMI accident helped improve nuclear plant safety.

  3. Hmmm….. is there a skills shortage for this? Not sure where you are going to find these people even with attractive offers.

  4. Ah, yes, let the FUD flinging begin. Throw out the usual catch-phrases and buzzwords, and see if anything sticks. “No right,” “100,000 years,” “trillion dollar eco-disaster,” “uninhabitable areas the sized of large western states”……all garbage. Take it elsewhere.

    Having been both a Navy operator and a BWR operator, I can attest to the rigors of both those training programs. My Navy class had a 45% academic attrition rate when it came time for assignment to the fleet. And that was after having survived both a nuclear service entrance exam and math / science refresher course before even being allowed to take a seat in the classroom. And NRC licensing programs are no cake-walk. Reactor operator candidates must satisfactorily perform equipment operations out in the plant before they’re eligible for selection in the license training program. Then the 14-16 month license training program involves academic studies, detailed training in integrated plant systems operations, and full-scope plant simulator training. Regular examinations along the way will weed out the less skilled. Finally, the NRC license exams are a 6-hour written and a 2-3 hour simulator team session.

    THAT’S who’s taking care of the plants…now and for years to come.

  5. Your definition of SRO is wrong. I suggest you read 10CFR55.4 Definitions. “Senior operator means any individual licensed under this part to manipulate the controls of a facility and to direct the licensed activities of licensed operators.” Thus an SRO is functionally a qualified RO first and foremost, with additional duties of supervision. This fact is totally lost on INPO and apparently lost on NRC. I suggest you start inspecting like you understand this fact.

  6. This is a pack of silly propaganda. Nobody has the right to light a fire that in all likelihood will not only outlive their country, but the human race as well. There is only one important job as pertains to nukes, and that is to arrest you all and when you die, dig you up periodically to whip your bones.

  7. And we are going to be able to train and find qualified people to take care of our nuclear waste and facilities for the next 1000 – 100,000 years? Yeah, right!

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