After an earthquake and tsunami triggered multiple meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant in 2011, the shockwaves were felt across the world’s nuclear industry. Over 5,000 miles away in Germany, where the use of atomic energy had long been a matter of contention, the incident sounded a death knell.
Chancellor Angela Merkel immediately announced that she was taking the country’s seven oldest nuclear power plants off the grid. Soon after, she pledged that the rest would be permanently shuttered by 2022, with the state’s focus shifting towards renewable alternatives.
So when photographer Bernhard Ludewig visited a nuclear plant for the first time in 2012, a year after Fukushima, he wasn’t simply glimpsing into an inaccessible world – he was documenting a closing chapter in German history.
“We picked a time when they were changing the fuel rods,” he recalled of this first encounter during a phone interview. “We spoke to the guy operating the loading machine and we were able to ride it right over the reactor, and I got my first picture. I’d seen some press photos, but it’s a different thing when you’re there. This was the start of the project.”
Ludewig went on 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 demolition already underway.
Inspired by Edward Burtynsky (the Canadian photographer known for his depictions of mines, oil refineries and other human interventions on natural landscapes), he decided to record a complete picture of the country’s atomic sector – not just power plants, but also research centers, training facilities and repositories for radioactive waste.
The resulting photos are, at times, mesmerizing. Ludewig’s focus on patterns and symmetry reveal the beauty hidden in complex centrifuges, retro-styled control rooms and soaring cooling towers that he described as possessing a religious, cathedral-like 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 so much about what it is. You’ve got a feeling, and you follow it. And it gets more refined every time.”
Ludewig has now compiled around 300 of the photos into a new book, “The Nuclear Dream.” Set across more than 400 pages, it is an exhaustive survey of nuclear power, complete with diagrams, illustrations and contributor essays on physics and architecture.
The photographer also explored what he called “atomic age aesthetics” through vintage posters and paraphernalia purporting the benefits of the then-new technology. This early utopian imagery, inspired by movements like modernism and the Bauhaus school, offers a stark juxtaposition with images of today’s often faded facilities.
Yet Ludewig maintains that he is neither for nor against nuclear power, but rather a “neutral” intrigued by technology that once carried promises of the future. His aim, he said, was to capture this disappearing world for posterity’s sake, rather than to promote or critique the country’s energy policy.
“It was truly documenting,” added Ludewig, who said disagreements over nuclear power are like a “civil war” in Germany. “You have two camps. It’s like Trump’s America, you’re either a Republican or a left-wing liberal and they don’t talk to each other. Anybody who says anything is regarded as being for us or against us.”
While Fukushima served as a catalyst for widespread public opposition in Germany, the country’s commitment to phasing out nuclear plants dates back 20 years. Debates over the perceived dangers and deficiencies of atomic energy are older still.
During the 1970s, left-wing protests outside nuclear facilities in former West Germany were common, and often resulted in violent clashes with police. Proposals to dispose of radioactive waste in salt mines in Gorleben have made the small town a flashpoint for demonstrations ever since. (Ludewig’s book include photos of an exploratory mine drilled beneath Gorleben as part of Germany’s ongoing search for a permanent answer to its nuclear waste problem).
For Ludewig, however, the real “turning point” was Chernobyl. The 1986 disaster – which sent radioactive fallout across Europe, caused a spike in cancer rates and left a 1,000-square-mile area of present-day Ukraine largely uninhabitable – fundamentally changed the debate in Germany. Soviet-designed facilities in the country’s east, such as the Greifswald Nuclear Power Plant, were decommissioned after the country’s reunification. And no new nuclear power facilities were built in Germany from the 1990s onwards.
So as well as visiting sites in Finland and Brazil, Ludewig also made a pilgrimage to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in order to paint a more complete picture of the industry. The photos he returned with, including eerie images of the doomed plant’s long-abandoned control room, help provide objectivity and balance to the project, he said.
“If you publish hundreds of pictures about nuclear power that show its hidden beauty, and you don’t show the catastrophe, then it wouldn’t be honest.”
“The Nuclear Dream: The Hidden World of Atomic Energy,” published by DOM, is available now.