Nuclear Operator: Job Description

Nuclear Operator
A nuclear operator working in the plant's control room. Monty Rakusen / Cultura / Getty Images

A nuclear operator—also referred to as a reactor operator (RO), nuclear power reactor operator, or control room operator—controls the flow of electricity a nuclear power plant generates. They adjust and maintain the plant's equipment, implement procedures that regulate the start-up or shut-down of the facility, and respond to abnormalities and take appropriate action. You will need to go through very rigorous training provided by the facility that employs you. A senior reactor operator (SRO) supervises reactor operators.

Roles and Responsibilities

Analyzing numerous nuclear operator jobs revealed day-to-day job duties that include directing, starting, stopping, adjusting, testing, and operating pumps, valves, switchgears, controls, and other components of systems; performing routine tests, incidental maintenance, electrical switching, and other activities necessary to ensure continuity of power generation; placing in operation, operating, and removing from operation equipment using approved station procedures; and collecting, sorting, segregating, and packing radiological waste.

How to Become a Nuclear Operator

If you want to become a nuclear operator, you will need only a high school diploma, but a college or vocational school degree can make you a more competitive job candidate. You may also receive training by enlisting in the U.S. Armed Forces—specifically, the Navy.

Many employers use the Edison Electric Institute Power Operation Selection System (POSS) test to help them select employees. This test assesses whether an applicant has the aptitude to work in this occupation.

You will need a license from the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to work independently as a nuclear power reactor operator. If you change jobs, you will have to get a new license.

A power plant can employ you as an equipment or auxiliary operator under the supervision of more experienced operators until you become licensed. You will undergo extensive on-the-job and technical training to prepare you for the NRC Licensing Exam. You will also have to pass a physical exam and drug test.

According to the NRC, there are two types of licenses: Reactor Operator (RO) and Senior Reactor Operator (SRO). To get an RO license, you need at least three years of experience working in a power plant and at least six months working in your current facility. 

With at least 18 months of experience as a non-licensed operator, a plant staff engineer, or plant manager, you can apply for an SRO license. You don't need a college degree to apply for an SRO license if you have worked for at least one year as a licensed RO. To retain your license, you will have to pass a plant-operating exam every year and a physical exam every two years.

Soft Skills That Will Help You Succeed in This Career

Nuclear operators need particular soft skills, which are personal qualities that are either innate or acquired through life experience. These soft skills include:

  • Active Listening: You must be able to understand the information others convey to you.
  • Concentration: The ability to focus on tasks is imperative.
  • Problem Solving: You must have the ability to identify problems.
  • Critical Thinking: After you identify a problem, this skill will allow you to evaluate possible solutions and choose the best one.
  • Reading Comprehension: You must be able to understand written documentation.
  • Monitoring: You need the ability to assess your own and others' performance, as well as monitor equipment.

What Employers Will Expect From You

Since nuclear plants never close, operators work around the clock on 8- to 12-hour rotating shifts, which means they don't work the same hours all the time. While this offers flexibility, the lack of consistent hours can become a burden. Employees must also be familiar with and comply with all relevant health and safety requirements and have the ability to obtain and maintain credentials to access a nuclear power plant unescorted.

Quick Facts

As of 2018, nuclear operators earn a median annual salary of $83,020. The occupation employees roughly 54,700 people, with most working for public utilities and a small number working for governments. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts employment in this field will decline until 2026.