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.
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.
Control rods pictured inside an open reactor at Emsland Nuclear Power Plant in northwestern Germany. Credit: Bernhard Ludewig
“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.
Inside the aluminum-paneled control room of the disused FR2 research reactor Karlsruhe. Credit: Bernhard Ludewig
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.”
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.
Inside an exploratory mine drilled beneath the town of Gorleben, where radioactive waste may be permanently stored. Credit: Bernhard Ludewig
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.”
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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).
Ludewig’s project also took him to the abandoned Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in present-day Ukraine. Credit: Bernhard Ludewig
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.”