A reactor operator (or nuclear reactor operator) is an individual at a nuclear power plant who is responsible for directly controlling a nuclear reactor from a control panel and is the only individual at a nuclear power plant who can directly alter significant amounts of reactor reactivity. The reactor operator occupies a position of great responsibility that may require him or her to start up a nuclear reactor, shut down a critical nuclear reactor, monitor reactor parameters, or respond to a casualty of the nuclear reactor.
Civilian reactor operator licensing
A reactor operator is an individual who has met the licensing requirements of 10 CFR 55 and NUREG-1021 for being a reactor operator. These requirements include:
- A high school diploma
- At least 3 years of power plant experience with at least 1 year of experience at the nuclear power plant where the individual is licensed (not including time spent as a control room operator).
- At least 6 months of experience performing plant operational duties at the nuclear power plant where the individual is licensed
- At least 3 months of experience as a control room operator at the nuclear power plant where the individual is licensed
- Completion of the nuclear power plant's reactor operator training program
- Supervised manipulation of the controls of the nuclear reactor for certain operations affecting reactor power level
- A successful medical examination meeting NRC requirements
- Passing the NRC Generic Fundamentals Examination
- Passing the nuclear power plant's reactor operator test
- Passing the nuclear power plant's Operating Test (approved by the NRC) which covers knowledge of the nuclear power plant components, knowledge of casualty response, and responses to simulated casualties and plant evolutions in an approved simulator.
A reactor operator is licensed to manipulate the controls of a nuclear reactor which may alter reactivity and change the power level. Typically, this means that a reactor operator is qualified to remotely operate control rods and other remote actions required to control the reactor as desired (within regulatory requirements).
Senior reactor operator
A senior reactor operator is an individual who has met the licensing requirements of 10 CFR 55 and NUREG-1021 for being a senior reactor operator. These requirements are similar to the requirements for a reactor operator, except:
- At least 3 years of nuclear power plant experience is required instead of 3 years of general power plant experience
- A bachelor's degree in engineering, engineering technology, or physical science is required unless the operator has had 1 year of experience as a licensed reactor operator or 2 years of experience qualified in certain senior watch stations in the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program (including that of a naval reactor operator).
- Fulfilling certain supervisory functions as a trainee.
- Completion of the nuclear power plant's senior reactor operator training program
- Passing the nuclear power plant's senior reactor operator test which includes an administrative section in addition to the reactor operator test.
- Passing a more extensive plant Operating Test which also includes supervisory and administrative actions.
A senior reactor operator is licensed to manipulate the controls of a nuclear reactor and direct others to manipulate controls. A senior reactor operator is the senior watch stander in a control room and is responsible for directing the operation of the nuclear reactor as desired (within regulatory requirements). They also are licensed to perform fuel movement/core alterations within the reactor vessel (only SRO and Limited SROs are allowed to do this).
A senior reactor operator licensee (like aviation pilots and masters of ships at sea) is authorized by law to depart from regulations during emergencies. 10CFR50.54(x) states they may "take reasonable action that departs from a license condition or a technical specification (contained in a license issued under this part) in an emergency when this action is immediately needed to protect the public health and safety and no action consistent with license conditions and technical specifications that can provide adequate or equivalent protection is immediately apparent." and 10CFR50.54(y) "Licensee action permitted by paragraph (x) of this section shall be approved, as a minimum, by a licensed senior operator, or, at a nuclear power reactor facility for which the certifications required under Sec. 50.82(a)(1) have been submitted, by either a licensed senior operator or a certified fuel handler, prior to taking the action."
The only other person who may manipulate the controls of a US civilian nuclear power reactor is an individual who:
- Is under the direction and in the presence of a licensed operator or senior operator and
- Manipulates the controls of a facility as a part of the individual's training and
- Is enrolled in the facility licensee's training program as approved by the Commission to qualify for an operator license under 10CFR Part 55
- "Operators' Licenses". Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Retrieved November 29, 2006.
- "Operators Licensing Examination Standards for Power Reactors". Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Retrieved November 29, 2006.