Nuclear engineering is building machines that use the nuclear properties of matter, and the different kinds of energy that come out of the atomic nucleus, to do useful things. It overlaps with all the other branches of engineering – electrical, mechanical, chemical, etc. – but it has this special foundation in fundamentals of nuclear behaviour and nuclear reactions that have to be considered too. It is very interdisciplinary.
Accessing nuclear properties of matter as well as just the chemical and electrical gives us a final resort and may be the only solution for all the really big problems and most exciting challenges that we have in the world today, from net zero-carbon energy, to space travel. So that is why nuclear engineers are so important.
Nuclear engineers work in companies that create nuclear technology, they work in operations in companies that use nuclear technology; they work in mining, in research; and in healthcare, because medical radiation is a very big application of nuclear technology. They work a lot in government because of the geopolitics and regulatory challenges around most questions on nuclear technology. For the same reason they work in international organisations like the IAEA and the OECD, and also in the UN because of the connection between nuclear technology and global development. There is a huge skills shortage for nuclear engineers both in Australia right now and internationally.
Nuclear engineers bring their special understanding of the properties of materials and combine this with a huge range of interdisciplinary concerns. So for example if you work in nuclear safeguards you need to understand the geopolitics of nuclear non-proliferation and exactly what makes so-called ‘nuclear material’ so special to safeguards inspectors. If you are designing a heater for a Mars base then you need to understand how to make nuclear heat safely and what explorers will want to do on Mars. If you are a nuclear materials engineer for a submarine reactor then you have to understand how it works and all the effects of neutron radiation on steel and zirconium alloys….