Nuclear engineering is a specialised branch of engineering which works with the applications of the breakdown (fission) or combination (fusion) of atomic nuclei or other sub-atomic processes. The basis of the engineering is understanding and apply the principles of nuclear physics to find application worthy processes in other fields. It also involves the framework, interaction and upkeep of systems and components such as nuclear reactors, power plants and weapons. It also finds applications in medicine and radiation sciences.

Nuclear engineers primarily design and develop equipment—such as reactor cores, shielding and other instrumentation while ensuring to meet regulated safety standards. Another important factor that nuclear engineers are needed for is the handling and disposal of nuclear wastes.

In emergency situations, they are also required to take corrective actions and order plant shutdowns, if the need arises. Medical imaging and therapeutic devices like PET scanners and cyclotrons (used to treat cancerous tumours) are commonly used innovations as a result of the efforts of nuclear engineers.

Other advancements include

  • Transition to advanced nuclear reactors: Cutting-edge designs of advanced nuclear reactors are the only way forward for nuclear industry. Small Modular Reactors are the future of nuclear power, due to its increased safety, flexibility and resiliency and its ability to generate emission-free electricity. The passive cooling design of these systems do not require manual intervention or pumps, as is the current scenario, to initiate emergency shutdowns.
  • Newer nuclear cardiological imaging techniques: Since the 1970s, PET has been the most common technique for advanced medical imaging. However, a whole new generation of SPECT cameras, using more environmentally friendly Cadmium Zinc Telluride detectors, are now providing better imaging. This is due to advancement in nuclear engineering.
  • Nuclear engineering in agriculture: The use of radiation to prevent reproduction and reduce the numbers of harmful insects, pests and bugs ensures protection of crops without the harmful chemicals. Controlled radiation can also be used to sterilize food (especially raw and frozen goods) without poisoning the food.
  • Exploration of space: Deep space exploration is only possible due to nuclear technology. Heat from plutonium is used to run the generators in unmanned spacecrafts which can then remain unattended for years making nuclear energy a long-term reliable source of power in space.
  • Water desalination: The process of removing salt to create potable water requires a lot of energy which, when supplied from nuclear power sources can run efficiently to provide clean drinking water to those in need.

Nuclear engineering in India

Nuclear engineering courses are taught at both a Bachelor’s as well as a Master’s level in Indian colleges like IIT Bombay, Jadavpur University, Amity School of Engineering and IIT Kanpur.

To pursue a career in Nuclear Engineering, a strong foundational understanding of concepts in Mathematics (algebra, trigonometry, calculus), Biology, Chemistry and Physics is required. The aspirant must be someone who pays attention to detail as, in this field, they need to be up to date with all the operations and ensure they are in tandem with the laws and regulations governing them ensuring the safety of workers and the surrounding environment.

Future prospect for nuclear engineers

Organisations across the globe are always on the lookout for skilled nuclear engineers. Some of the names include ENEL, Urenco, Siemens, Healthineers, Rosatom. Some of the jobs for a nuclear engineer are:

  • Atomic process engineers: The designing and management of safe productive running of nuclear power stations is the responsibility of atomic process engineers. They are also entrusted with making sure that the plant complies with legislation.
  • Nuclear radiation engineers: Application of the principles and theories of nuclear science and conducting research directed towards release, control and efficient use of nuclear energy and environmentally-friendly waste disposal methods come under the profile of a nuclear radiation engineer.
  • Reactor engineers: Nuclear reactor engineers are required to work closely with the reactors to make necessary repairs and ensure that the right fuel is used to power reactors. They run tests on nuclear reactors and must also be prepared for emergencies related to the reactor.