Following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant, a wave of mourning was felt across the world’s nuclear industry. Nearly 5,000 miles away in Germany, where the use of nuclear energy has long been the subject of controversy, the incident sounded like a death knell.
So a year after Fukushima, when photographer Bernhard Ludwig visited a nuclear plant for the first time, he not only glimpsed a remote world – he recorded a concluding chapter in German history.
Control rods depicted inside an open reactor at the Emsland nuclear power plant in northwestern Germany. Credit: Bernhard Ludwig
“We chose a time when they were changing fuel rods,” he recalled of this first encounter in a phone interview. “We talked to the guy operating the loading machine and we were able to run it over the furnace one by one and I’d got my first picture I’d seen a few press photos, but when you were there it’s a different thing to start this project.”
In the years that followed, Ludwig toured dozens of other sites. Through a combination of paperwork, persuasion, and confidence-building, he gained rare access to the country’s end-to-end nuclear facilities as well as capturing the already ongoing devastation.
Inside the aluminum-paneled control room in the stationary FR2 research furnace Karlsruhe. Credit: Bernhard Ludwig
The resulting photos are mesmerizing at times. Ludwig’s approach to patterns and symmetry reveals the beauty hidden in intricate centrifuges, retro-style control rooms, and great cool towers that he described as having religious, cathedral-like quality.
“Sometimes equipment or things are like a person – I try to portray them,” he said. “You take a picture and don’t think so much about what it is. You get a feeling and you follow it. And every time it gets more refined.”
The rest is neutral
The photographer also referred to the advantages of the new technology of that period as “the aesthetics of the atomic age” by vintage posters and paraphernalia. Inspired by movements such as modernism and the Bauhaus school, these early utopian paintings provide a free impetus with today’s often faded advantage paintings.
Radioactive waste can be permanently stored inside a search mine scattered below the town of Gorleben. Credit: Bernhard Ludwig
Yet Ludwig says he is not for or against nuclear power, but is interested in a “neutral” technology that once promised the future. He said his intention was to promote the country’s invisible world, not to promote or criticize the country’s energy policy.
“It was indeed a document,” added Ludwig, who said the dispute over nuclear power was like a “civil war” in Germany. “You have two camps. It’s like you’re Trump’s America
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Left-wing demonstrations outside the nuclear facilities were common in East Germany in the 19 1970s, and there were frequent violent clashes with police. Proposals to remove radioactive waste from Gorleben’s salt mines have since made the small town a beacon for protests. (In Ludwig’s book, Germany includes a picture of an explorer scattered beneath the Gorleban as part of an ongoing search for a permanent answer to its nuclear waste problem).
Ludwig’s project also took him to the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant in present-day Ukraine. Credit: Bernhard Ludwig
In addition to visiting sites in Finland and Brazil, Ludwig also made pilgrimages to the Chernobyl exclusion zone to paint a more complete picture of the art. The images he provided, along with wonderful images of the doomed plant’s long-abandoned control room, helped maintain purposefulness and balance in the project, he said.
“If you publish hundreds of pictures about nuclear energy that show its hidden beauty and you don’t show disaster, it won’t be true.”