United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission - Protecting People and the Environment
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Licensing Process for Operators

Before the NRC licenses an individual to operate or supervise the controls of a commercial nuclear power reactor, the applicant must complete extensive training and pass rigorous examinations. Once licensed, operators and senior operators must comply with a number of requirements to maintain and renew their licenses. For more details see:

Process for New Operator Licenses

NRC's four regional offices (locations) are responsible for issuing licenses for operators and senior operators of commercial nuclear power plants in accordance with NRC's regulations for "Operators' Licenses" (10 CFR Part 55) and (NRC Form 398). An applicant sends or delivers a completed application (NRC Form 398) to the Regional Administrator having jurisdiction over the plant at which the applicant hopes to work.

A completed application (10 CFR 55.31) describes the applicant's qualifications and requires the facility licensee for which the applicant will work to certify that the applicant has satisfied the facility licensee's training and experience requirements to be a licensed operator or senior operator. Applicants must also undergo a physical examination (10 CFR 55.21) and be certified (NRC Form 396) physically and mentally fit to be an operator. If an applicant's general medical condition does not meet the minimum standards (10 CFR 55.33), the Commission may approve the application and include conditions in the license to accommodate the medical defect. 

The examination process begins with a 50-question, multiple-choice written exam covering reactor theory, thermodynamics, and mechanical components; this Generic Fundamentals Examination (GFE) is actually administered early in the applicants' training program and is a prerequisite for taking the site-specific examination. The site-specific examination for reactor operators (10 CFR 55.41) consists of 75 multiple-choice written questions and an NRC-administered operating test (10 CFR 55.45) that includes a plant walk-through and a performance demonstration on the facility licensee's power plant simulator. Individuals who apply for a senior operator's license must pass an additional 25-question written examination (10 CFR 55.43) and a more rigorous operating test. The examinations may be prepared by the facility licensee and approved by the NRC, or the facility licensee may request the NRC to prepare the examinations (10 CFR 55.40). In either case, the examinations are prepared, administered, and graded using the guidance in the Operator Licensing Examination Standards for Power Reactors (NUREG-1021).

If the applicant passes both the written examinations and the operating test, the responsible NRC regional office will issue a license (10 CFR 55.51) in a form and containing any conditions it considers appropriate and necessary. The license is only valid to operate the facility for which the applicant applied, and it expires 6 years after the date of issuance or upon termination of employment with the facility licensee, or upon determination by the facility licensee that the licensed individual no longer needs to maintain a license (10 CFR 55.55).

Operator License Application Forms. NRC Form 398, "Personal Qualification Statement - Licensee," (i.e., the license application), and NRC Form 396, "Certification of Medical Examination by Facility Licensee,"are available in portable document format (pdf). If you have Version 5.0 or newer of the Adobe Acrobat Reader, you can view or print the blank form, or you can complete the form and then print it for your use. If you have the full Adobe Acrobat program - not just the free Reader - you can also save the completed form as a new file. Beginning on January 1, 2004, you will be able to submit the applications to the NRC in electronic format; refer to the Electronic Information Exchange web site for more information.

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Operator License Maintenance

Each license is subject to a number of conditions (10 CFR 55.53) whether or not they are stated in the license. For example:

  • Licensed operators and senior operators are required to observe all applicable rules, regulations, and orders of the Commission (10 CFR 55.53(d)).

  • Licensed operators and senior operators are required to maintain their proficiency (10 CFR 55.53(e) and (f)) and to complete their facility licensee's requalification training and examination program (10 CFR 55.53(h)) as described in 10 CFR 55.59.

  • Licensed operators and senior operators must have a medical examination by a physician every 2 years (10 CFR 55.21). If, during the term of the license, an operator or senior operator develops a permanent physical or mental condition (10 CFR 55.25) that may adversely affect the performance of their duties, the facility licensee must notify the Commission within 30 days of learning of the diagnosis. When appropriate, the NRC may issue a conditional license in accordance with the requirements in 10 CFR 55.33(b).

  • Licensed operators and senior operators are prohibited from using, possessing, or selling illegal drugs (10 CFR 55.53(j)) and from performing licensed duties while under the influence of alcohol or any prescription, over-the-counter, or illegal substance that could adversely affect their performance. They are also required to participate in their facility licensee's drug and alcohol testing programs (10 CFR 55.53(k)) established pursuant to 10 CFR 26.

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Operator License Renewal Process

If an operator or senior operator applies for renewal at least 30 days before the expiration date of the existing license, the license does not expire until the NRC determines the final disposition of the renewal application (10 CFR 55.55). The renewal process (10 CFR 55.57) requires the applicant to complete NRC Form 398 and submit it to the applicable NRC regional office with the following information: written evidence of the applicant's experience under the existing license, a certification from the facility licensee that the applicant is a safe and competent performer who has satisfactorily completed the requalification program for the facility (10 CFR 55.59), and certification on NRC Form 396 that the applicant's medical condition and general health are satisfactory (10 CFR 55.23). The NRC regional office will renew the license if, on the basis of the application and certifications, it determines that the applicant continues to meet the regulatory requirements (10 CFR 55.57(b)).

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The following graphs illustrate the written examination, operating test, and overall pass-rates and the average written examination grades for reactor operator (RO) and senior reactor operator (SRO) initial license applicants on a fiscal year (FY) basis for each of the NRC's four Regions and nationally. (Each FY runs from October 1 of one year through September 30 of the following year.) Two additional graphs summarize the average grades and pass-rates on the SRO-only portion of the written examinations.

The last graph summarizes the national written examination performance history (10 year) for ROs. For each year, it charts the percentage of the total number of examinations that had no failures, one failure, two failures, etc. For example, in FY 2014, about 83% of the RO written examinations (i.e., 34 of 41) had no failures, about 12% of the exams had one failure, about 2% of the exams had two failures, 0% of the exams had three failures, and about 2% of the exams had four failures. The chart illustrates that the vast majority (generally about 80% or more) of the RO written examinations over the past 10 years have had no failures (i.e., 7 out of the last 10 years show over 80% of the written examinations have no failures, and all 10 years show over 70% of the examinations have no failures) and that the RO performance during that period has been relatively constant (i.e., all 10 years show over 90% of the examinations have had two or less failures).

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Operator Licensing Examination Schedules

See the operator licensing examination and requailification schedules for each of the four regional offices:

All the schedules are in portable document format (PDF). See our Plugins, Viewers, and Other Tools page for more information.

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Page Last Reviewed/Updated Thursday, December 17, 2015