Nuclear engineering, going forward

By Peter Caracappa

What does it mean to be a nuclear engineer? That question is not as
easy to answer as it once was.

Looking back on the field of nuclear engineering education in the past 20 years or so, some very interesting changes have taken place. In many ways, nuclear engineering is still a niche program. Compared with the “big boys” such as mechanical and electrical engineering (with hundreds of programs available), there are relatively few nuclear engineering programs – only about 30 – across the United States. Even at its height, there were no more than 50 programs. Many of them closed down as enrollments collapsed through the 1990s, and new programs have only very slowly begun to be added in recent years.

More importantly, there has been a shift in what it means to study nuclear engineering. What happened is that nuclear engineering began to take its  place – and I would say its rightful place – as one of the major fields of engineering.

Gas-cooled fast reactor schematic

The traditional view of nuclear engineering is the study of getting power from nuclear fission. There is plenty of interesting work to be done within this definition. With new reactors being built and Generation IV reactors being designed, there is a significant need for students in this area. But when nuclear engineering departments were struggling, many of them broadened their focus out of necessity more than anything else. They began to think of nuclear engineering as any application of nuclear and atomic interactions. Thinking of it this way, there are many more diverse applications in the field, such as homeland security, medical imaging, and plasma physics.

Considering the history of the different branches of engineering, they
all followed roughly the same pattern. They started out as a fairly
narrow field of study, and matured into a much more general and diverse
field. For example, when the first students began to study mechanical engineering, they all learned how to design steam engines and the things to do with them. Electrical engineering was largely the study of generators and motors. Chemical engineers worked mostly on the things that could be made from petroleum. Clearly, these fields are no longer thought of as narrowly as

Atomic scientists, 20th anniversary reunion, 1962. They all participated with Enrico Fermi in the December 2, 1942, Chicago Pile-1 experiment. (Photo: University of Chicago archives)

What will these departments do now that enrollments are increasing and new construction is beginning? Some may choose to return to traditional definitions of nuclear engineering – to be a niche program feeding the nuclear power industry. The broader applications of nuclear science and technology, however, are only going to become more important. If the idea persists that being a “nuclear engineer” is about more than just fission reactors, nuclear engineering programs may just be as common as mechanical or electrical engineering programs.

With a population of graduates well trained in the applications of atomic and nuclear physics – think of the possibilities!


Peter Caracappa is a clinical assistant professor and radiation safety officer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in New York State. He was a founding executive committee member of the Young Members Group and currently serves as its chair. He is a contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

One response to “Nuclear engineering, going forward

  1. Ein Diplom in Kerntechnik unterscheidet sich stark davon, was es noch in den Sechziger- und Siebzigerjahren bedeutete. Damals bedeutete Kerntechnik vorrangig Energietechnik, aber heute ist die Kerntechnik alles von Medizinphysik über die Innenverteidigung bis zur Energieerzeugung.

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