By Duriem Calderin
Before diving deep into strategies for how to ace the Nuclear P.E exam, let’s briefly review the three main reasons of why it’s essential for nuclear engineers to pass the professional engineering (P.E.) exam.
- It’s the law! Yes. Every state mandates (in one way or another) to follow the license requirements to be recognized and practice as a professional engineer. Completing these requirements in the nuclear engineering profession is the equivalent of completing the final project through the university engineering curricula, only four years later. The difference is that employers have become complacent by hiring nuclear engineers with no intention of pursuing licensing, while the state (and the law) requires both (engineering degree plus licensing requirements). This is especially true if you’re considering doing consulting engineering work in the future or pursuing a senior engineering position in the government.
- The truth is, engineers become better prepared and more qualified to address challenges through the process of taking and passing the exam. The licensing process sets the requirements and standards to understanding the roles of the engineering profession in society. Applying engineering principles to solve problems but above all, protect the workers, the public, and the environment. That’s a challenge!
- It also feels good because it is one of those long-term goals in the engineering profession you can get early on (after four years of experience). I am sure all my P.E. colleagues can agree that passing the exam feels fantastic!
How to Ace the Nuclear Professional Engineer Exam?
To give some context, it took me three attempts to pass the nuclear P.E exam! I learned the hard way. I realized my biggest mistakes were on how I was preparing for the exam and how I was taking it.
My experience is not unique. NCEES Nuclear P.E exam passing rate is presented below (Source: NCEES Squared reports 2017-2013). On average 58% of the examinees pass.
Summarized below are my main tips, tricks, and guidance on how to better prepare for passing the exam on your first attempt.
1. Get the Latest Study Guide from the American Nuclear Society Store
From time to time the P.E. nuclear exam study guide gets revised to make sure the scope is aligned with the latest industry trends and the content in the exam. It contains a lot of practice questions by topic and practice exams! But be aware, there are only a limited number of practice exams, leave them for the end and only take them when you’re well prepared.
The current P.E. Nuclear exam is computer-based. And it is closed book with an electronic reference. ANS put together an FAQ which I found very good. This means more study time.
The latest Nuclear P.E exam specifications can be found here.
In my case, after passing the F.E. exam (2010), I impulsively bought the P.E. nuclear exam study guide from the ANS store and for some reason I thought the guides were like textbooks — meaning the content wouldn’t change that much from year to year. But I was wrong! It cost me terribly because the study guides changed by adding new content and focusing on different scopes. Consequently, I didn’t pass on my first attempt and lost one year waiting.
If you’re planning to take the nuclear P.E. exam, make sure to get the latest study guide from the ANS store. Don’t assume!
2. Get the Latest Version of the Nuclear Engineering Single Reference Handbook
According to ANS, the official handbook will be available for download in May 2018. Attendees of the ANS Exam Preparation Workshop will receive a copy of the handbook as part of their workshop materials. Other interested parties may contact ANS to obtain a copy of the draft handbook.
I would use this handbook similar to how we prepared and aced the FE exam. Know where everything is and how to use it!
3. Go Above and Beyond the P.E. Nuclear Study Guide
Don’t assume the study guide is self-contained. It is not. You will need to get some key books and extra resources. A couple of recommendations are:
- Engineering Thermofluids (M.Massoud). This book was one of my favorites for topics related to nuclear power systems. It covers material specific to centrifugal pumps, humidity ratio/specific humidity, pressure drop in pipes, hydraulic diameter, choked and critical flow, thermal design of cooling towers and neutron flux calculations. Plenty of material to cover with plenty of examples.
- NRC Reactor Concepts Manuals for PWR and BWR (USNRC Technical Training Center). These manuals are free and will help refresh PWR/BWR reactor design, component systems, safety analysis and more.
- Nuclear Systems Volume I: Thermal Hydraulic Fundamentals (Todreas). I found this book helpful with calculations related to reactor residual heat after shutdown and with calculations related to pumping power. It also has good summaries on cladding defects, failure, water chemistry, and extent formulation/derivation of the fuel centerline temperature, surface, and fluid temperature. Get the solutions book too!
- Risk and Safety Analysis of Nuclear Systems (Lee). If you’re looking to expand more on Probabilistic Risk Assessment (PRA), this is your book. I remember PRA was a topic I was lacking in and this book helped me navigate through it. It has very concrete examples. It explains the “dark PRA magic” in simple terms which makes it easy to follow and understand.
- Intro to Health Physics (Cember), with the accompanying Solutions Manual. Best book for topics related to radiation protection, detectors, interaction of radiation with matter, and radioactive decay.
- Radiation Detection and Measurement (Knoll). There is no competition, this book is king for topics related to radiation detectors. I used it for statistics and anything related to detectors. Furthermore, this book is a keeper after the exam if you’re planning to stay in the detector arena.
- Nuclides and Isotopes (Bechtel). It has every single radionuclide listed with a lot of good and useful information. It came handy in the exam when looking for decay constants.
- Intro to Nuclear Engineering (Lamarsh) and Nuclear Reactor Engineering: Reactor Design Basics (Glasstone). I used them for preparing for interaction of radiation with matter (neutron cross sections, energy loss in scattering collisions, 1/v and non 1/v), mass defect and binding energy, fuel management, isotropic mass calculations, nuclear criticality, kinetics and neutronics; and radiation shielding.
- Nuclear Engineering Solved Problems, 2nd Ed (Camara) which expanded the range of practice exercises available. The exercises I found helped me the most were the ones related to nuclear fuel management: SWU, feed, product, waste calculations, and waste shipments categories.
- DOE Fundamentals Handbooks. I found the one in nuclear physics and reactor theory very good to keep practicing topics related to nuclear criticality, kinetics and neutronics. There are more handbooks out there besides the one I’ve listed. Some of them are free. They are great resources for finding additional exercises.
Managing all those books in an anxious state of mind is not an easy task. Follow the ANS study guide and once you’ve completed a section of the study guide, move on to read more on each book and do the exercises from the chapters! At least make sure to review the examples on each book towards an specific topic.
During my final attempt to take the exam, I barely used any books to prepare (only for discrete exercises). By that time, I had studied most of them.
Use the most relevant literature available for nuclear engineering
4. Budget Three Hundred Hours of Studying Prior to Taking The Exam
Perhaps you can get away with less preparation time. However, if you really want to succeed on the first attempt, I’d devote plenty of time to understanding the material. Remember the exam is designed to help you be a better engineer.
Furthermore, the current P.E. Nuclear exam is computer-based! And it is closed book with an electronic reference, which means you have to study more.
I spent most of the time studying for this exam by reading and reviewing the material on my own. I would stay away from group study type of approaches. It required a great commitment to review everything on my own, hence my advice to have plenty of time to cover it all.
Even though I studied on my own, it doesn’t mean I didn’t reach out for help. Don’t be afraid to ask around to colleagues for help.
Like myself, many others are willing to assist you with difficult material.
5. Use this Winning Exam Strategy to Maximize Time
Don’t waste your time on questions you don’t know. Instead, take the time to solve questions you know the answer to. If you are well prepared, the uncertainty level on the troubling questions will be low. Focus on pursuing questions you can easily answer first, working your way up through more complex questions.
Raise your hand if you’re one of those engineers that don’t give up a question until it is solved. As you may guess, I tried using this strategy on my first attempt and failed the exam. Tried it partially on my second attempt and also failed. On my third attempt, I solved the easy ones first and then went back to the difficult ones. This technique helped me pass the exam.
I didn’t take the CBT test though. But this strategy will work on any test environment.
Don’t Waste Your Time on Questions You Don’t Know Instead Take The Time to Ace on The Questions You Know
6. What if you don’t pass?
TAKE IT AGAIN. There’s no shame in not passing. The more you take the exam, the better prepared you will be at the end. Just look at me.
Believe me, it is all worth it. The mighty P.E. license awaits you.
One Last Note
Finally, I would like to share some of the counter-arguments to excuses for not pursuing the P.E. licensure in the nuclear industry:
- “It is not required because the nature of the work doesn’t mandate to sign drawings.”
- “This job is not regulated by the NRC”
- “My employer never asked me to, or it is not required.”
- “Our customers don’t demand it, or have never asked for it.”
If you face those comments (or a version of them), remember to answer with the whys! 1) it’s the law, 2) it makes us better engineers and 3) it feels fantastic.
1) It’s the Law, 2) It Makes us Better Engineers and 3) It Feels Fantastic.
Finally, it is my opinion that the nuclear industry needs to overcome the stigma of the past and consider a future with more nuclear professional engineers (P.E.) leading the work to solve tomorrow’s problems today.
Also, I would like to see a future P.E. with a range of applications and specializations beyond the nuclear power industry, such as the healthcare sector, safeguards, and non-proliferation to mention a few.
As Always, Above All, We, the Nuclear Engineers Protect the Workers, the Public, and the Environment. We also produce the cleanest energy, provide for radionuclide used for healthcare treatments, and power satellites in the sky.
If you took the exam recently, and would like to add some extra advice to the future Nuclear PE’s, feel free to chime in.
This post originally appeared on the author’s LinkedIn page & describes his personal experience with preparing for, and taking, the nuclear PE exam. ANS’s Professional Engineering Examination Committee (PEEC) is adding (with the author’s permission) the following additional clarifications:
- The resource manual is a published document available for free download from NCEES via your MyNCEES Account . It is no longer available from ANS.
- While every state has adopted a statute that defines engineering as a profession that requires licensure for public practice, there are exemptions that permit a nuclear engineer (and other engineers) to practice engineering without having PE. Therefore, it is critical that each potential examinee be familiar with the specific requirements of the state(s) where they intend to practice. The same caveat also applies to the state requirement for board approval – some require application prior to the exam and some allow application after the exam. Therefore, it is imperative that examinees check out their own state’s requirements early on to ensure that deadlines are not missed.
- The average passing rate quoted in the article is 58%. That rate was calculated based on five years’ worth of data on the number of passes versus the total number of examinees. When NCEES reports pass rates, it provides separate statistics for first-time and repeat takers because the probability of passing the exam drops significantly with each retake. For example, in 2017 the first time pass rate was 71% and the repeat pass rate was 63%; but due to the small number of nuclear PE examinees, there have been years where the repeat pass rate was 0%, which can potentially skew a multi-year combined average.
- Different examinees may require more or less preparation time, but on average most successful candidates spend between 150 and 200 hours preparing for the exam.
ANS Member and Social Media Teammate Duriem Calderin is a professional nuclear engineer in the state of Washington. He has over seven years of project management and engineering experience in the nuclear industry. He works for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory where he currently functions as the Fuel Fabrication Pillar Risk Manager for the Convert project.
Feel free to leave a constructive remark or question for the author in the comment section below.