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What Is Nuclear Engineering?

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  • Written By: M. Kayo
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 28 October 2016
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Nuclear engineering is a field in which nuclear engineers work with radiation and radioactive materials to design processes and develop their use in power generation, industry, and nuclear medicine. Those who work in the nuclear engineering industry solve real-world problems like the management of nuclear waste, response protocols for nuclear power plant accidents, and how radiation can effectively treat cancer. People who work in the nuclear engineering industry have undergone extensive training and have a high aptitude for advanced mathematics, chemistry and physics. There are many different specialized areas within nuclear engineering, including the generation of nuclear power, medical use of using nuclear power, and the environmental impact of nuclear by-products.

Since the late 19th century, engineers have imagined all sorts of uses for the power stored in atoms, including the use of steam, produced by nuclear power, to turn turbines and produce electricity. In 1957, the first full-scale nuclear power plant began operation. In 1984, the amount of electricity generated by nuclear power surpassed that generated by hydro-electric power, and in 2011, there are 109 nuclear power plants in the US alone which generate 610 billion kilowatt hours of electricity.

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In the world of medicine, nuclear power is used in applications ranging from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the treatment of cancer, and surgery using a nuclear gamma knife. While early types of radiation therapy caused unnecessary damage to surrounding tissues, doctors can now accurately place the precise amount of radiation needed to kill tumors without harming other vital tissues and organs. The focused beams of radiation used in the gamma knife allow surgeons to perform a non-invasive medical procedure, treating tumors deep within the body. Other nuclear medical devices include stereotactic devices, laser beams, and linear accelerators which target and treat patients without surgery. One-third of all medical procedures done in the US use some type of technique developed by nuclear engineering.

Preserving the environment also an important part of nuclear engineering. There are many national and international agencies like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that are tasked with keeping a close eye on the use and disposal of nuclear materials. Organizations like the Nuclear Energy Institute protect the environment by working with other organizations to develop methods and procedures for the safe handling of the hazardous nuclear waste produced by nuclear power generation. Other nuclear engineers are working to design safer nuclear power plant equipment, developing new safety protocols to prevent and handle accidental contamination, and finding new methods to dispose of nuclear waste.

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