After an earthquake and tsunami caused multiple collapses at the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi power plant in 2011, shock waves were felt in the global nuclear industry. Over 5,000 miles away in Germany, where the use of atomic energy had long been the subject of contention, the accident rang a fatal bell.
So when photographer Bernhard Ludewig first visited a nuclear power plant in 2012, a year after Fukushima, he wasn’t just looking into an inaccessible world, he was documenting a conclusive chapter in German history.
Control rods pictured inside an open reactor at the Emsland nuclear power station in northwest Germany. Credit: Bernhard Ludewig
“We chose a time when the fuel rods were changing,” he recalled this first meeting during a telephone interview. “We talked to the guy who was using the loader and we were able to drive it directly on the reactor, and I got my first photo. I had seen some photos for the press, but it’s a different thing when you’re there. This was the start of the project “.
Ludewig continued to visit dozens of other sites in the following years. Through a combination of paperwork, persuasion and trust building, he gained rare access to some of the country’s last remaining nuclear facilities, as well as capturing demolitions already underway.
Inside the aluminum-coated control room of the disused FR2 research reactor Karlsruhe. Credit: Bernhard Ludewig
The resulting photos are, at times, fascinating. Ludewig’s focus on patterns and symmetry reveals the beauty hidden in complex centrifuges, retro-style control rooms and cooling towers which he described as possessing a cathedral-like religious quality.
“Sometimes machinery or objects are like a person – I try to photograph them,” he said. “Take pictures and don’t think much about what it is. You have a feeling and you follow it. Each time it becomes more refined.”
The photographer also explored what he called “atomic age aesthetics” through vintage posters and accessories that claimed the benefits of new technology. This first utopian image, inspired by movements such as modernism and the Bauhaus school, offers a clear contrast with the images of today’s often faded structures.
Inside an exploratory mine drilled under the city of Gorleben, where radioactive waste can be stored permanently. Credit: Bernhard Ludewig
Yet Ludewig claims to be neither for nor against nuclear energy, but rather a “neutral” intrigued by the technology that once bore the promises of the future. His goal, he said, was to capture this world that disappeared for the sake of posterity, rather than promoting or criticizing the country’s energy policy.
“He was really documenting,” added Ludewig, who argued that nuclear energy disagreements are like a “civil war” in Germany. “You have two camps. It’s like Trump’s America, or you’re a republican or a left liberal and they don’t talk to each other. Anyone who says something is considered for us or against us.”
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During the 1970s, leftist protests outside nuclear facilities in former western Germany were common and often resulted in violent clashes with the police. Since then, the proposals for the disposal of radioactive waste in the Gorleben salt mines have made the town a reference point for demonstrations. (Ludewig’s book includes photos of an exploratory mine drilled under Gorleben as part of Germany’s ongoing search for a permanent answer to his nuclear waste problem.)
Ludewig’s plan also led him to the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant in present-day Ukraine. Credit: Bernhard Ludewig
Thus, in addition to visiting sites in Finland and Brazil, Ludewig also made a pilgrimage to the Chernobyl exclusion zone to paint a more complete picture of the sector. The photos he returned with, including disturbing images of the long-abandoned control room of the doomed plant, help provide objectivity and balance to the project, he said.
“If you publish hundreds of pictures on nuclear energy that show its hidden beauty and don’t show catastrophe, it wouldn’t be honest.”
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