Nuclear chemists dedicate their professional lives to researching and understanding radioactive substances and nuclear processes, and then applying that expert knowledge to develop innovative solutions to real world problems, such as medical treatments and the safe disposal of nuclear waste.
They tend to work in one of two core industries: medicine and energy.
In the medical world, nuclear chemists conduct research into how radioactive materials alter living organisms and make changes to their biochemistry. This then leads to the development of medical treatments and diagnostic techniques, such as external beam radiotherapy, radionuclide therapy, brachytherapy and X-ray.
In the energy sector, nuclear chemists focus their efforts on nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, the synthesis of thorium and uranium, and the absorption of fission products. This research is vital in the development of fuel fabrication processes, radioactive waste storage solutions, and safety procedures during nuclear reactor operations.
Nuclear chemists tend to spend the majority of their time in laboratories, conducting investigations, recording their findings, analysing the data, and then presenting their conclusions to clients in a clear and concise manner.
In this sense, nuclear chemists act as consultants to engineers and physicists who are responsible for designing and developing practical solutions, such as silos, reactors and radioactive dyes.
Salary & benefits
The highly complex nature of this work means that nuclear chemists can command relatively high salaries. In the early stages of your career, you could earn anywhere between £26,000 and £34,000 per annum.
As you gain more experience and professional expertise, your salary could increase to anywhere between £40,000 and £80,000 a year.
Working hours vary from employer to employer, but usually range between 35 and 40 hours per week. Occasionally, you may be required to put in an extra shift or two during weekends and national holidays in order to meet research deadlines.
Opportunities for travel across the UK and overseas may be extensive. However, this depends on your area of specialisation and your reputation within the research fraternity.
To enter this profession, it’s absolutely essential that you complete an undergraduate degree in a relevant subject, such as chemistry, biochemistry, medicinal chemistry or chemical engineering.
The majority of nuclear chemists will also complete a relevant MSc or PhD before securing a research position.
Training & progression
Most research institutes provide structured training and development programmes, which will usually involve learning ‘on-the-job’ and attending in-house training sessions from time to time. These organisations may also sponsor you to complete relevant professional courses.
As you progress, you may choose to specialise further and work as a senior research scientist in a particularly niche area of nuclear chemistry.
Alternatively, you may take a step back from the hands-on, technical side of research projects and become a project manager. Here, the financial rewards will be significant, but it will mean moving further and further away from pure science.