Career services offices at high schools, vocational schools, and colleges are good sources of information about a career as a nuclear reactor operator. The librarians in these institutions also may be helpful in directing you to introductory literature on nuclear reactors.
Opportunities for exploring a career as a nuclear reactor operator are limited because nuclear power plants are usually located in places relatively far from schools and have strictly limited visiting policies. Very few commercial or research reactors provide tours for the general public. However, many utility companies with nuclear power plants have visitors' centers, where tours are scheduled at specified hours. In addition, interested high school students usually can arrange visits to non-nuclear power plants, which allows them to learn about the energy-conversion process common to all steam-powered electric power generation plants.
Technicians are trained to learn and perform all the duties expected of licensed operators. Almost all the skills and knowledge, however, are learned outside of the reactor control room.
The nuclear reactor is like an engine providing power, in the form of hot steam, to run the entire nuclear power plant. Nuclear reactor operators are the nuclear station's driver, in the sense that they control all the machines used to generate power at the station. Working under the direction of a plant manager, the nuclear reactor operator is responsible for the continuous and safe operation of a reactor. Although most nuclear power plants contain more than one nuclear reactor unit, each nuclear reactor operator is responsible for only one of the units.
From the standpoint of safety and uninterrupted operation, the nuclear reactor operator holds the most critical job in the plant. The operator's performance is considered so essential that any shutdown of an average 1,000-megawatt plant, whether due to an accident or operating error, can result in a minimum loss of the cost of the operator's salary for 10 years.
Licensed nuclear reactor operators work in the station control room, monitoring meters and gauges. They read and interpret instruments that record the performance of every valve, pump, compressor, switch, and water treatment system in the reactor unit. When necessary, they make adjustments to fission rate, pressure, water temperature, and the flow rate of the various pieces of equipment to ensure safe and efficient operation.
During each 24-hour period, operators make rounds four times. This task involves reviewing the unit's control board and writing down the parameters of the instruments. Each hour, a computer generates a reading indicating the amount of power the unit is generating.
In addition to monitoring the instruments in the control room, the nuclear reactor operator runs periodic tests, including pressure readings, flow readings, and vibration analyses on each piece of equipment. The operator must also perform logic testing on the electrical components in order to check the built-in safeguards.
Every 12 to 18 months, the nuclear reactor operator must also refuel the reactor unit, a procedure that is sometimes called an outage. During the refueling, the turbine is brought offline, or shut down. After it cools and depressurizes, the unit is opened, and any repairs, testing, and preventive maintenance are taken care of. Depleted nuclear fuel is exchanged for new fuel. The unit is then repressurized, reheated, and brought back online, or restarted.
Auxiliary equipment operators normally work at the site of the equipment. Their work can include anything from turning a valve to bringing a piece of equipment in and out of service. All of their requests for action on any of the machines must be approved by the nuclear reactor operator.
Precise operation is required in nuclear power plants to be sure that radiation does not contaminate the equipment, the operating personnel, or the nearby population and environment. The most serious danger is the release of large amounts of atomic radiation into the atmosphere. Operating personnel are directly involved in the prevention of reactor accidents and in the containment of radioactivity in the event of an accident.
Nuclear reactor operators always begin their employment as technicians. In this capacity, they gain plant experience and technical knowledge at a functioning nuclear power plant. The technician trains on a simulator and studies the reactor and control room. A simulator is built and equipped as an operating reactor control station. Technicians can practice operating the reactor and learn what readings the instruments in the simulator give when certain adjustments are made in the reactor control settings. This company-sponsored training is provided to help technicians attain the expertise necessary to obtain an operator's license. Even after obtaining a license, however, beginning operators work under the direction of a shift supervisor, senior operator, or other management personnel.