Radioactivity was discovered in the late 1800s, and since then it has been the subject of many movies, cartoons, and TV shows. Some superhero favorites gained their power through exposure to radiation, including Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk.
Nuclear chemists work with various isotopic forms of elements to study fission and fusion processes, or they delve into the effects of ionizing radiation on materials, living organisms (including people), and the environment. Nuclear chemists may work in laboratories, or they may do theoretical work—and often, they do some of both.
Nuclear chemists may work in academic or government laboratories doing basic, applied, or theoretical research. They may also work in private industry, at nuclear power plants, or in medical facilities that offer radiation treatments and medical imaging.
Technicians in this field monitor equipment, measure radiation levels, and collect samples for environmental testing.
Typical work duties include the following:
- Conduct laboratory research in industrial, nonprofit institution, government, or academic laboratories
- Develop mathematical models and computer simulations of nuclear phenomena
- Teach classes and mentor student researchers in a university setting
- Develop methods for simulating, monitoring, and dismantling nuclear weapons and for monitoring treaty compliance
- Develop nuclear power sources for public utilities, submarines, or satellites and other spacecraft
- Develop medical imaging and therapeutic treatments using radioactive materials, or develop treatments for injuries and illnesses caused by exposure to radiation
- Develop and deploy detection methods for monitoring radioactivity in the environment
- Materials science
- Pharmaceutical research
- Nuclear medicine physics
- Theoretical chemistry
- Environmental science
- Weapons stockpile stewardship
- Nuclear non-proliferation compliance monitoring
Laboratory technicians usually require a bachelor's degree in chemistry, biology, geology, physics, or a related field. Employers typically provide significant job-specific training in laboratory procedures and dealing with specific workplace hazards.
In addition to an undergraduate degree in chemistry, research positions in nuclear chemistry usually require a graduate degree in chemistry as well. Research positions generally require a Ph.D., and they often require postdoctoral fellowship experience.
A doctoral degree and several years of postdoctoral experience are generally required for teaching positions at the university level.
Licenses are not generally required for nuclear chemists.
Nuclear chemists working in laboratories must take safety training to prepare for working with radioactive materials. They wear one or more radiation dosimetry devices in the laboratory and must submit these devices for periodic checks to ensure that they have not been exposed to various forms of radiation beyond federally established standards.
Nuclear chemists working at government agencies or national laboratories may be required to undergo background checks or obtain security clearances on the basis of the nature of the work and the security requirements of the laboratory.
Nuclear chemists often work in laboratories, and they may be responsible for operating, maintaining, and repairing state-of-the-art instrumentation. They are also responsible for maintaining sample preparation supplies and equipment and ensuring the safe use and disposal of samples and other materials used in the lab. Responsibilities may include training students and other users of the laboratory facilities and ensuring that they adhere to safety procedures, including the use, monitoring, and disposal of radioactive materials.
Because nuclear chemistry is a very computation-intensive specialization, researchers in this field must be able to use, and train others to use, data collection and analysis methods, software packages, and computer imaging visualization capabilities.
Nuclear chemists in academic environments often teach advanced chemistry and laboratory courses. At national laboratories, nuclear chemists train visiting users, and they perform their own research and maintain instruments and laboratory areas.
Nuclear chemists often make presentations at conferences, and they may travel to specialized facilities to run experiments. Some international travel may be required.
Is Nuclear Chemistry a Good Fit for You?
Although computer hardware and software have evolved to the point where they perform much of the computation, a nuclear chemist must understand the underlying principles to set up the calculations and ensure that the results are meaningful and properly interpreted. Nuclear research requires patience and attention to detail.
Nuclear chemists may collaborate with physicists, engineers, physicians, biologists, and mathematicians. Often, they have some degree of expertise across several disciplines and work with international teams on research projects. People with strong backgrounds in nuclear chemistry may have job titles that reflect their specific areas of application—for example, medical researcher or materials engineer.
Experimental nuclear chemists must be meticulous about handling and disposing of radioactive materials, and they must ensure that students and laboratory users adhere to established safety standards. They may be required to administer the distribution and monitoring of personal dosimetry devices in their laboratories.
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Graduates with bachelor's degrees can find employment as laboratory technicians or research assistants. It is common for bachelor's-level graduates to receive on-the-job training after discovering an interest in nuclear chemistry during their early years on the job.
Students or recent graduates with an interest in research may do one or more internships in preparation for selecting an area of specialization for a graduate degree. Research and supervisory positions generally require a doctoral degree, often with postgraduate experience. Postdoctoral fellowships are one way to gain this experience.
Nuclear chemists may pursue a teaching and/or research career in academia, or they may oversee a laboratory in industry or for a government agency or national laboratory. They may also support and train facility users or students or develop new capabilities for collecting and analyzing data.
After gaining several years of postgraduate experience, nuclear chemists may move into managing a suite of laboratories, or they may direct research programs.
Future Employment Trends
A 2012 report by the National Academy of Sciences states that the number of students opting to specialize in nuclear and radiochemistry has decreased significantly over the past few decades (although these numbers are beginning to increase again), and many current experts are expected to retire during the next 5 to 10 years.
Demand has increased in the fields of nuclear medicine and nuclear energy in the private and government sectors; however, relatively few universities have two or more nuclear chemists on their faculties or offer specialized courses in nuclear or radiochemistry.
Although the absolute numbers are relatively small, the combination of growing demand and more upcoming retirements is expected to produce additional career opportunities for graduates with specific education and training in nuclear chemistry.
Upcoming retirements and a growing demand in the field are expected to produce additional career opportunities for nuclear chemists in the following areas:
- They may work to improve the efficiency and safety of nuclear power sources and the methods of storing and disposing of radioactive materials.
- Technicians who handle radioactive materials require a bachelor's degree in chemistry, biology, geology, physics, or a related field.
- Research or professional staff require a Ph.D. degree and postdoctoral fellowship experience.
- A Ph.D. and several years of postdoctoral experience required for teaching positions at the university level.
- Nuclear chemists in the United States: $52,000 (entry level) and $92,000 (top level)
- Average salary across all levels of $65,500
Median salary: $75,000 for all chemists
- Technicians in the nuclear power industry: $70,000 (2012)
- Nuclear chemical technicians at government facilities: $60,000
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