The demand for nuclear power is universal. It is the need of the day as nuclear power plants emit far less carbon dioxide into the environment than the power plants running on coal and oil.
With the signing of the Indo-US nuclear agreement and universities introducing courses in the field of nuclear science and technology, nuclear engineering has emerged as an important discipline in India. The nuclear power industry is likely to reach $18 billion by 2013. This industry is literally bursting with ‘energy’ and now offers a career option with rising potential. The job is not easy though, as nuclear facilities are technologically complex and require a highly trained and motivated workforce. But success brings opportunities for advancement.
Opportunities in india
“The job potential in nuclear engineering and technology has increased manifold after the signing of the Indo-US deal and clearance from the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Now India is free to do nuclear commerce internationally. It plans to import nuclear power plants from abroad producing power worth 40,000 GWe. This will generate a large number of jobs not only in India but also in advanced countries,” says Dr Om Pal Singh, visiting professor, Nuclear Engineering and Technology Programme (NETP)/Mechanical Engineering at IIT Kanpur, and former secretary, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) (NETP)/Mechanical Engineering at IIT Kanpur, and former secretary, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB).
“Because of economical reasons, there is a high probability that many vital equipment and components needed by the nuclear industry will be manufactured and made in India. India may become a hub of manufacturing of equipment and components needed by the nuclear industry worldwide. This, in turn, will have a multiplier effect on the demand of nuclear engineers. Nuclear engineers will be in demand not only in India but also internationally, due to renaissance of nuclear power (owing to it being with practically no carbon-dioxide emission—the gas predominantly responsible for global warming),” he adds.
Although there is a demand for people trained in nuclear energy, the industry has not grown explicitly because private players have no hand in power plants in India yet. All the nuclear energy research institutes and power plants come under the administrative control of the government of India.
“India plans to import nuclear power plants from abroad producing power worth 40,000 GWe. This will generate a large number of jobs not only in India but also in advanced countries.”
— Dr Om Pal Singh, visiting professor, Nuclear
However, many more nuclear reactors will be built in India in the next few years, which will boost the job prospects. “Today, only 8000 megawatts of power is being generated but the government plans restoration of at least 25,000 megawatts of power by 2020 and 62,000 megawatts by 2032. Many more nuclear power plants are coming up and this will require much more manpower. It will definitely take time but, in a few years, there will be a huge demand for them. At present, reactors are inefficient and trained manpower is working towards increasing efficiency,” adds Dr H.C. Goel, director, Amity Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (AINST), Noida.
Opportunities in the US
The median age in the US nuclear utility industry is nearing 50, and as much as 38 per cent of the incumbent workforce may be eligible to retire within five years. Another 10 per cent of the workforce may be lost through attrition over the same period.
Then if you factor in the expansion plans in the United States, and the even more accelerated pace of construction internationally, the bright outlook for students becomes even more apparent. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is actively reviewing 13 applications for 22 new reactors that may be built in the United States over the next 10-20 years.
“Typically, a nuclear power plant employs 400-700 people at facilities that will operate for decades. During construction—a four- to five-year undertaking—approximately 1400-1800 people (with a peak workforce of up to 2800) are needed in jobs that include skilled trades like sheet metal workers, electricians and heavy equipment operators. Worldwide, over 140 new nuclear plant projects are in the licencing and advanced planning stage, with over 60 currently under construction. The opportunities are enormous,” quips Carol Berrigan, senior director-industry infrastructure and supply chain at the US-based Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). The NEI is the policy organisation of the nuclear energy and technologies industry and participates in both the national and global policy-making process.
Know the field
It is hard to get excited about a field that you know little about. So let’s delve a little deeper to know the work of a nuclear engineer.
“The government plans restoration of at least 25,000 megawattsuclear power plants are coming up and this will require much more manpower.”
— Dr H.C. Goel, director, Amity Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology (AINST), Noida
Nuclear engineers develop the processes, instruments and systems for national laboratories, private industry and universities that derive benefits from nuclear energy for society. As a nuclear engineer, you may solve challenges in the areas of consumer and industrial power, space exploration, world food and water supply, environmental protection, medicine and transportation.
In other words, this branch of engineering deals with the technology of harnessing energy contained in the atom generally by fission or fusion.
Where do you fit?
A nuclear power plant is a complex technological marvel that requires all kinds of engineers who will have to handle work related to power generator, reactor, fuel, radiation, electricity, materials and radioactivity.
Many nuclear engineers design, develop, monitor and operate nuclear plants used to generate electricity. They may work on the nuclear fuel cycle—production, handling and use of nuclear fuel and safe disposal of the waste produced by generation of nuclear energy. Others research the production of fusion energy. Some specialise in the development of power sources for spacecrafts that use radioactive materials. Others develop and maintain the nuclear imaging technology used to diagnose and treat medical problems.
“At present, most of the engineers who work at nuclear reactors come from engineering branches like mechanical, civil and electrical, and even include physicists and scientists who learn nuclear engineering on the job. Even from IIT Roorkee, students join Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and get trained in nuclear energy,” notes Dr A.K. Jain, head of physics department at IIT Roorkee.
Power plants also require a large number of technicians to handle electrical things like power lines, installations and boilers. They are usually diploma holders in engineering.
“Worldwide, over 140 new nuclear plant projects are in the licencing and advanced planning stage, with over 60 currently under construction.”
— Carol Berrigan, senior director-industry infrastructure and supply chain at the US-based Nuclear Energy Institute
Nuclear engineers also carry out theoretical research work, which is a valuable branch of study.
In addition to the jobs identified above, there is a pressing need for health physicists and radiation protection technicians in environmental monitoring and programmes to assure health and safety of the workforce. Besides, there is demand for operators and many other nuclear technicians in such fields as non-destructive examination for quality assurance, instrumentation and control, mechanical and electrical maintenance, and chemistry.
How to get there?
There are very few nuclear engineering courses being offered in India. IIT Kanpur, for instance, offers a Nuclear Engineering and Technology programme that provides R&D expertise in the experimental and theoretical studies of fusion and plasma physics, radio isotope applications in manufacturing engineering, computer-aided tomography, reactor safety, heat transfer in nuclear sub-systems, and development of radiation detectors. It costs students approximately Rs 30,000-40,000 per semester.
Dr Jain says, “Some private universities have also started courses in nuclear engineering by hiring retired professors but they have the limitations of practical training and underdeveloped laboratories.”
Universities like Punjab University and Delhi University too offer degree courses in this field. Students can also participate in research activities, summer jobs and internships at BARC or Indira Gandhi Center for Atomic Research (IGCAR), Kalpakkam, for two-three months and gain some experience.
AINST, Noida too offers B.Tech (four-year) and M.Tech (two-year) degrees in nuclear science and technology either as an integrated dual-degree (five-year) course or separate courses.
Who is hiring?
The biggest recruiter is the Department of Atomic Energy, government of India, with a large number of organisations running under it. These include BARC, Trombay; IGCAR, Kalpakkam; and Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), Mumbai.
According to Dr Goel, “Pay scales in NPCIL and BARC are equivalent to government-office pay scales, and based on grades and time served within the organisation. Private enterprises do not base compensation on grades and competent employees are compensated well. Students can even apply abroad.”
“It is all government-controlled now and salary is as per the Sixth Pay Commission,” adds Dr Jain.
It’s interesting to note that nuclear jobs have the highest median income of any engineering discipline. “The median salary of an electrical technician at a U.S. nuclear power plant is about $67,500; for a mechanical technician, $66,500; and for a reactor operator, $77,800. These jobs commonly include family medical benefits, pensions and incentive compensation plans,” informs Berrigan.
BARC provides one-year training programme in nuclear energy, following which students are absorbed within the centre itself. Graduates can apply for this programme by writing the GATE exam, which is held every year in November. Those who score 98 or 99 percentile are eligible for an interview. The interview includes fundamental questions that can be answered only if one understands the subject well.
“Once the candidates are chosen, they are not taken in as students but employees who are provided training for a year and assured a job when the training is over. About 100 to 150 candidates are chosen for the programme and given training in all aspects of nuclear engineering including nuclear physics, radiology, radiation protection, mechanical design and instrumentation,” informs Pithawa C.K., distinguished scientist and head-electronics division, BARC.
Training includes both theory and practical work. It also involves visits to various power stations and interactions with senior officers. In addition, candidates are paid a monthly stipend of Rs 15,000 while they undergo training. After a year, they are given the post of a scientific officer at ‘C’ level.
BARC always tries to accommodate the trained recruits based on their area of interest and discipline. Besides BARC, they can get placed at centres like Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research (Hyderabad), Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Ltd (Kalpakkam), Board of Radiation and Isotope Technology (Mumbai), Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology (Indore), Heavy Water Board (Mumbai), IGCAR (Kalpakkam),
“About 100 to 150 candidates are chosen for BARC’s one-year training programme and given training in all aspects of nuclear engineering including nuclear physics, radiology, radiation protection, mechanical design and instrumentation.”
— Pithawa C.K., distinguished scientist and head electronics division, BARC
Nuclear Fuel Complex(Hyderabad), Uranium Corporation of India Ltd (Jaduguda), NPCIL (Mumbai) and Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre (Kolkata).
They can work in various divisions like electronics, reactor control, accelerator, analytical chemistry, applied physics, atomic fuels, design and manufacturing, chemical engineering, cryo technologies, waste management, food technology, fuel reprocessing, health, heavy water reactor, laser and plasma, amongst others. The nature of work includes R&D, hardware development, software reliability testing, system analysis and control, etc.
“Most of the engineers who work at nuclear reactors come from engineering branches like mechanical, civil and electrical, and even include physicists and scientists who learn nuclear engineering on the job.”
— Dr A.K. Jain, head of physics department at IIT Roorkee
Joining at ‘C’ level, the recruits are placed in a pay band of Rs 15,600-39,100 with benefits like accommodation and healthcare. There are many incentive schemes which are given regularly based on an employee’s performance; you can earn up to 40 per cent of your income as incentives.
“If you are a dedicated worker, you can get your first promotion in two years and the next in four years. The highest level is ‘distinguished scientist,’ who can earn around Rs 150,000 per month. It takes at least 32 years to reach that stage,” adds Pithawa.
Once the recruits complete one-year training, they can earn an M.Tech degree from Homi Bhabha National Institute, based on their research and thesis alongside regular work.
Occasionally, BARC allows Ph.D holders to apply for fellowship. Sometimes, there are immediate requirements for senior experienced people. In such cases, eligible candidates can apply directly.
Private companies like L&T and Walchandnagar Industries fabricate and supply hardware and power systems to NPCIL. This is another avenue for students of nuclear energy.
What skills are required?
Now that you have received enough boosters about the opportunities to be grabbed in the field of nuclear engineering, your next question is likely to be “How to prepare myself for this industry?” Well, recruiters look for a good understanding of the subject and evaluate candidates based on their in-depth knowledge of nuclear science and basic skills like mental alertness.
Dr Jain explains, “Recruiters look at practical knowledge and how skilled candidates are in their area. They also consider internships and research projects candidates might have participated in. Private sectors have not yet started making reactors but will soon get into the picture.”
So dig out all the possibilities to get a practical exposure and make sure the fundamentals are clear. Specialisation in one of the branches is always good to get an edge over others in the job market.