“Nuclear engineering is an endeavor that makes use of radiation and radioactive material for the benefit of mankind.”: 1 Perhaps its most prominent application is in power generation: 440 nuclear reactors generate 10 percent of the world's energy through nuclear fission. In the future, it is expected that nuclear fusion will add another means of generating energy. Both of these nuclear reactions make use of the nuclear binding energy released when atomic nucleons are either separated (fission) or brought together (fusion). The energy available is given by the binding energy curve, and the amount of energy generated is much greater than that generated through chemical reactions. (Fission of 1 gram of uranium yields as much energy as burning 3 tons of coal or 600 gallons of fuel oil.)
In addition to power generation, nuclear engineers also lend their expertise in such area as the following:
Nuclear engineering even plays an important role in such diverse areas as space exploration, criminal investigation, and agriculture.
The United States currently generates about 19% of its electricity from nuclear power plants. Nuclear engineers in this field generally work, directly or indirectly, in the nuclear power industry or for national laboratories. Current research in the industry is directed at producing economical and proliferation-resistant reactor designs with passive safety features. Some government (national) labs provide research in the same areas as private industry and in other areas such as nuclear fuels and nuclear fuel cycles, advanced reactor designs, and nuclear weapon design and maintenance. A principal pipeline/source of trained personnel (both military and civilian) for US reactor facilities is the US Navy Nuclear Power Program, including its Nuclear Power School in South Carolina. Employment in nuclear engineering is predicted to grow about nine percent in the year 2022 as needed to replace retiring nuclear engineers, provide maintenance and updating of safety systems in power plants, and to advance the applications of nuclear medicine.
Medical physics is an important field of nuclear medicine; its sub-fields include nuclear medicine, radiation therapy, health physics, and diagnostic imaging. Highly specialized and intricately operating equipment, including x-ray machines, MRI and PET scanners and many other devices provide most of modern medicine's diagnostic capability—along with disclosing subtle treatment options.
Nuclear materials research focuses on two main subject areas, nuclear fuels and irradiation-induced modification of nuclear materials. Improvement of nuclear fuels is crucial for obtaining increased efficiency from nuclear reactors. Irradiation effects studies have many purposes, including studying structural changes to reactor components and studying nano-modification of metals using ion-beams or particle accelerators.
Radiation measurement is fundamental to the science and practice of radiation protection, sometimes known as radiological protection, which is the protection of people and the environment from the harmful effects of uncontrolled radiation.
Nuclear engineers and radiological scientists are interested in developing more advanced ionizing radiation measurement and detection systems, and using these advances to improve imaging technologies; these areas include detector design, fabrication and analysis, measurements of fundamental atomic and nuclear parameters, and radiation imaging systems, among others.