Nuclear power plants have their own aesthetic which, at the risk of overstating it, ranges from the banal to the sacred. They feature a whole host of different facilities: reactor buildings, power houses, auxiliary and switchgear buildings, cooling water facilities, workshops, administrative offices, emergency shelters, often one or two cooling towers, and an intermediate storage facility. Everything is surrounded by a barbed wire fence equipped with cameras. In many aspects they are often barely distinguishable from other types of industrial plant: functional, greyish architecture, colour-coded footpaths and escape routes, occupational safety signs, crane runways and labelled pipes. Some reactor buildings are no more than simple concrete blocks. In the mid-1970s, Prince Charles described the brutalist new Royal National Theatre as “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting”. Such a comparison would also be possible in Germany, in view of the characteristic shape of the country’s boiling water reactors.
But many reactor buildings do have something distinctly iconic about them. Pressurised water reactors in western Germany have distinctive-looking domes which have become a symbol for the entire technological field. These domes are white or concrete grey, but the adjacent buildings are usually coloured. Sometimes this is to blend them into the landscape. At Grohnde, there was an official instruction to paint it straw-yellow and field-brown. The same colour features at Brunsbüttel, whereas Gösgen matches the dark blue-green of the surrounding forests. Gundremmingen’s auxiliary buildings are clad in brown, which only serves to highlight even more the white reactor cylinders with their red access doors. On a sunny day, the installation looks like a Hopper painting. really spectacular, however, is Angra-2, the art deco power plant mentioned above, with its soft pastel colours. One night, I watch as a tropical downpour hammers down on the plant. The torrential rain reflects the yellow light that illuminates the dome, giving it a blurred, eerie glow. A plant’s cooling towers, dissipating gigawatts of heat in relative silence, can look just as striking. Huge columns of steam are sometimes illuminated at night, together with the towers and reactor buildings, looking like the animate, almost living superstructure of some gigantic sculpture bathed in orange light. From a distance, it resembles the glow of a raging fire; up close, the feeling of power is palpable.
Getting inside a plant comprises several stages. You approach by car and enter the outer perimeter. Sometimes you will find a cooling tower there, but first of all there is the main entry building. After passing through various checkpoints and receiving instruction on aspects of your visit, you then enter the actual site inside the perimeter fence. This is the “outer security area”, to which most buildings belong. The architecture is simple and functional. Critical departments are located one stage beyond, in the inner security area. This is where you will find the control room, the brain of the power plant. Every control room is designed differently, and reflects more than any other section the style of the era in which it was built. Kahl nuclear power plant (built between 1958 and 1960), reflects the sweeping spirit of the early atomic age. Rheinsberg (1960 – 1966), on the other hand, is a more angular representation of the Bauhaus, its control desks chiefly made using bakelite. Zwentendorf (1971 – 1977) still has the bulbous CRT screens of the 1970s. Grafenrheinfeld (1975 – 1981) features brown wood panelling, dark carpet tiles and warm lighting. Grohnde, completed in 1984, anticipates the early 1990s with its laminated flooring: the furniture has a reddish beech look, the floors and walls are covered with light blue plastic. Irrespective of the particular design, during operation the control room is, for me, the best place to sense the forces that are at work elsewhere, unseen. From the hallway you can usually take a look through some glass panes, but first you have to go through an anteroom and wait until you are allowed to enter. The atmosphere inside is one of extreme concentration. There is little talking; those words that are uttered are spoken softly. From time to time, one of the reactor operators walks to a wall or a desk, checking a display. The most striking of these is the turbine’s power indicator, which looks like a red Pac-Man and is called a “parrot”. When the beak is on the right, the system is at full load.
By default, the power plant is in this condition. The reactor is “hot”, the basin above it dry and, for radiation protection, covered with large concrete bars. In the power house, next to the turbine, there is a deafening noise, and the heavy foundations vibrate. A constant waterfall rushes inside the cooling towers, and the high-voltage lines going out from the transformers crackle audibly. Everything runs with a comparatively small crew of a few hundred people. About once a year, however, there is a planned outage, during which refuelling takes place, and all the repair work that is not possible while the plant is in operation is carried out. During this period the usual tranquillity gives way to a flurry of activity as about 1,000 additional workers come on site. And it is only during this period that you can see the two places that, from a photographic point of view, are the most impressive. The first is the inside of the cooling tower, at the level of the so-called drift eliminators. This monumental space, large enough to encompass any church steeple, is illuminated only by its central opening to the sky, more than a hundred metres up. It resembles an oversized pantheon, gloomy yet sublime. The second place is less easy to reach. It is located in the innermost protection zone, the control area. If you want to go in, you have to change your clothes completely and wear an orange overall and a yellow helmet. In pressurised water reactors you then enter the containment through a massive manlock. Two or three stairs and you’re in the reactor room, beneath the 56-metre wide dome. Thus far, this beige-grey hall is still unremarkable.
But then, as the planned outage begins, the concrete bars are lifted out of the pool, briefly revealing the twinkling stainless steel basin, brightly illuminated by floodlights overhead. In the middle sits the reactor lid, surrounded by a shiny insulating hood. An armada of silvery cylinders protrudes from the lid, encasing the control rod motors. This is the inner sanctum, and for those involved it’s a scene like the rare unveiling of a Hibutsu in a Japanese monastery. In my orange monk’s habit, I stand at the edge of the pool and gaze down. There are maybe 10 people in the room. Everyone with time to spare is doing the same thing. We stand and gaze. First, the insulating hood is removed. Workers wearing gas masks and protective suits then loosen the cyclopic bolts that secure the lid, before the hood is placed back on. We gaze. Then the planned evacuation alarm sounds. To minimise the risk of exposure to escaping aerosols, only essential personnel remain. We put on our hoods and white respirator masks. Now the radiating reactor lid is lifted off. The overhead crane’s customary nonchalance is shattered as it literally shrieks under the load. Underneath the cover, the interior of the reactor appears, the upper core structure containing the control rods. Some workers stay at the edge of the pool, constantly monitoring activity until the lid gets too close. The rest of us have retreated to a steam generator housing, observing the process from a safe distance. Then the moment is over, the lid is resting on its storage place behind concrete walls, and the pool is covered with a tarpaulin, ready to be flooded. The filled pool later appears dark blue in the cool lighting. The upper core structure is removed from the reactor, and the loading machine can now be moved back and forth between reactor and cooling pond, to exchange and rearrange the fuel elements. And there, at the bottom of the reactor, where the fuel rods are, you can see it: the faint blue glow of Cherenkov radiation.
Right on my very first visit to a nuclear power plant, I noticed a singular working atmosphere. Beyond the access checkpoints, inside the administrative buildings, there was a quiet, unhurried and even informal mood that I would have more expected to find in a local council office. Employees gave each other back massages and made little jokes, and I never saw anyone walking hurriedly, let alone running. I was struck by this atmosphere again and again, inside other power plants, outside near the perimeter fence, in control rooms, and at meetings discussing a reactor’s opening. It felt like being in a kind of sanctuary where nothing can go wrong, and nothing is rushed. One worker commented to me, only half-jokingly, that people there were so meticulous they had become too slow to be employable outside the nuclear industry.
There is also the usual workplace humour, though perhaps at a more heightened level. If you’re responsible for technical safety, it takes a degree of self-irony to hang a huge picture of a comic strip in your office – at least when the picture shows Homer Simpson, sitting in despair at the flashing consoles of the nuclear power plant where he works. Besides that, there is a remarkable willingness to help, and I have often been the recipient of such friendliness. Often, nothing was too much trouble to fulfil a spontaneous request, and many small favours were asked, and granted. Radiation protection personnel would almost routinely crack jokes about my beautiful camera, which would undoubtedly become immediately contaminated and unfortunately have to be left behind – and then did what was necessary to prevent just that. As I was leaving Angra, in Brazil, it was forgotten to take a “body counter” measurement – a lengthy radiation protection procedure which is not needed after similar visits in Europe. However, its absence was now a problem. Could I perhaps get this done at a nuclear power plant nearby back in Germany? So during my next visit to Brunsbüttel, I asked the crew. The device was almost no longer in use, and the person in charge was already on his way home. But we found a colleague who was able to operate the counter and, although he too was already supposed to have been off work for an hour, with some effort we unearthed the key to the measuring chamber and carried out the lengthy scan.
It’s no coincidence that experiences like this are common. A shift supervisor once told me that, as part of the application procedure for his job, he was sent to an assessment centre. There, all the applicants were given some bits of information, which had to be supplemented by different bits of information that had been given to other applicants. The first applicant to gather all the necessary information would apparently be the winner – a typical assertiveness test. But what happened was that the pushy egocentrics were weeded out, leaving the more helpfully-inclined candidates behind. As a result, nuclear power plants tend to be populated by calm, friendly people.
In addition, people in the industry are very much aware of the hostility in society and the media towards nuclear power. Operating firms are at pains to avoid attracting further criticism. In Grafenrheinfeld, for example, staff were told not to climb up the cooling tower so as not to disturb a birds-nest up above. Heated luxury bird-houses were built for pigeons to prevent bird droppings falling on the plant’s buildings. And an underwater “fish deterrent system” ensured that cooling water drawn into the plant would not cause unnecessary casualties among the local river-dwellers. Every piece of corroded fence was quickly replaced, to prevent anti-nuclear campaigners from depicting the whole reactor as rusty. In many places, you can pick up a sense of latent sadness among the workforce. The nuclear world is in decline and being dismantled. Few young people see a future here, and many visitor centres have already closed. Almost everyone seems to be proud of the technology in the plants at which they work. My desire to photograph it, however, is repeatedly met with incomprehension. As I stand among the workers at the edge of the pool, as we all look down at the silvery spectacle below, someone asks me why I am taking photos. “A book? No-one will want to look at that.”