After an earthquake and tsunami triggered multiple collapses at the Fukushima Daiichi Japanese power plant in 2011, shock waves were felt throughout the global nuclear industry. More than 5,000 miles away, in Germany, where the use of atomic energy had long been controversial, the incident sounded fatal.
So when photographer Bernhard Ludewig first visited a nuclear power plant in 2012, a year after Fukushima, he wasn’t just glimpsing an inaccessible world – he was documenting a final chapter in German history.
Control bars depicted inside an open reactor at the Emsland nuclear power plant in northwestern Germany. Credit: Bernhard Ludewig
“We chose a time when they were changing the fuel rods,” he recalled of this first meeting during a telephone interview. “We talked to the guy who operated the loading machine and we were able to mount it directly on top of the reactor, and I got my first photo. I had seen some press photos, but it is somewhat different when you are there. This was the start of the project.”
Ludewig visited dozens of other sites in the following years. Through a combination of paperwork, persuasion and confidence-building, he gained infrequent access to some of the country’s last remaining nuclear facilities, as well as captured the demolition already underway.
Inside the aluminum paneled control room of the disused FR2 research reactor Karlsruhe. Credit: Bernhard Ludewig
The resulting photos are sometimes fascinating. Ludewig’s focus on patterns and symmetry reveals the hidden beauty of complex centrifuges, retro-style control rooms, and cooling towers that he described as possessing a cathedral-like religious quality.
“Sometimes machinery or objects are like a person. I try to take portraits of them,” he said. “You take pictures and don’t think too much about what it is. You have a feeling and you follow it. And it gets more refined every time.”
The photographer also explored what he called “atomic age aesthetics” through old posters and paraphernalia that claimed the benefits of then-new technology. Inspired by movements such as Modernism and the Bauhaus school, these early utopian images offer a stark juxtaposition with images of today’s often-faded installations.
Inside an exploratory mine drilled below the city of Gorleben, where radioactive waste can be permanently stored. Credit: Bernhard Ludewig
However, Ludewig argues that he is neither for nor against nuclear power, but rather a “neutral” intrigued by the technology that once carried the promises of the future. His goal, he said, was to capture this vanishing world for the sake of posterity, rather than promoting or criticizing the country’s energy policy.
“It was really documented,” added Ludewig, who said disagreements over nuclear power are like a “civil war” in Germany. “You have two sides. It is like the United States of Trump, you are a Republican or a left liberal and they do not speak to each other. Anyone who says something is considered for or against us.”
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During the 1970s, protests from the left outside nuclear facilities in former West Germany were common, and often resulted in violent clashes with the police. Proposals to dispose of radioactive waste at the Gorleben salt mines have since made the small town a hot spot for protests. (Ludewig’s book includes photos of an exploratory mine drilled below Gorleben as part of Germany’s ongoing search for a permanent answer to its nuclear waste problem.)
Ludewig’s project also took him to the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant in present-day Ukraine. Credit: Bernhard Ludewig
So in addition to visiting sites in Finland and Brazil, Ludewig also made a pilgrimage to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone to paint a fuller picture of the industry. The photos he returned with, including creepy images from the long-abandoned control room of the doomed plant, help provide objectivity and balance to the project, he said.
“If you post hundreds of images about nuclear power that show its hidden beauty, and don’t show the catastrophe, then you wouldn’t be honest.”