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Job Spotlight: Nuclear Safety/Criticality Engineer

We sat down with Sigma’s Krista Kaiser—a licensed Professional Nuclear Engineer (PE) and Certified Health Physicist (CHP)—to find out what a Nuclear Safety/Criticality Engineer does.

Krista holds a Master of Science in Radiation Health Physics from Oregon State as well as a Bachelor of Science in Nuclear Engineering from the Missouri University of Science and Technology. She has 14 years of experience in nuclear facility operations, research reactor operations, nuclear criticality safety, health physics, and reactor engineering and design. Krista is located in the Hanford, Washington area.

Does your job require a certain degree or level of education? It's hard to get in the door without a degree these days. So, the minimum is a Bachelor of Science, ideally a Masters. Job postings will typically state that a PhD is desired but I’ve found it not to be necessary.

Do you need any certifications and/or continuing education? STEM applicants are in high demand these days, so it’s not typically  requirement. However, it can position you ahead of other applicants.

And once you get into that position is it best to go ahead and work on certifications? I recommend yes to people. If you don't have the certifications, go ahead and work towards them. I carry two [PE and CHP] and am working on a third right now.

How does someone get into your field of work? Well, there are a few avenues. I went to college for nuclear engineering, then grad school for radiation health physics, and then I bounced around a lot. But another avenue that’s popular, is starting work as a technician, a non-degreed position, and then working while pursuing a degree on the side. A third avenue is coming in through the Navy.

What does your typical workday look like? You have projects that you work long-term, but—depending upon which client you’re supporting—there could be a lot of stuff that pops up throughout the day that requires a quick response. 

What is the most rewarding part of your job? I like seeing things get accomplished and being built. Ideally, that’s either designing an experiment or building a facility, something’s that tangible. In that aspect, I like to actually see it, not just pushing paper across the desk.

What is the most challenging part of your job? I think the most challenging part of my job is trying to help others  or the regulator foresee the consequences of decisions that have to be made. And trying to convey, “hey, if you go down this path, these are the potential issues and pitfalls you're going to you encounter and I'd like you to consider something else because it may result in a better outcome long term.” 

I love the technical challenges I deal with such as solving the actual math problems. That's fun for me.

What was your favorite project, personal, and/or professional achievement? To date, my favorite activity has been operating a nuclear reactor. Nothing has come close to that enjoyment.

What advice would you give someone just starting out? Don’t be afraid to dig in, ask questions, and push yourself to learn outside of work. . If there was some problem/issue that I didn't fully understand at work, I would go home and read every book I could on that problem/issue. Sometimes that was a few hours of reading, sometimes it was a few months of just learning as much as I could on that subject. And I just did that consistently. So, after about 10 years of doing that, one can really start to see the gains in performance. 
To sum that up, I guess my advice would be don't be afraid to put in the hours outside of work.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your job? I always tell people I’m living the dream, and it’s because I get to work on interesting things. I get to work with some smart, fascinating people. I really love what I do and will keep doing it as long as I physically and mentally can.