On May 29, 2011, in the months following the disaster at Fukushima, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Germany would close all of its nuclear power plants by 2022. After almost 40 years of nuclear energy (and accompanying anti-nuclear protests), the country's nuclear energy experiment was destined for extinction.
But what will be left behind when the last plant closes? Nuclear waste is, of course, notoriously long-lasting. And besides the waste, what about the iconic cooling towers, the thousands of jobs, the human settlements that surround each power plant? The United States is littered with boom-and-bust oil towns, economically depressed coal country — is Germany facing its own, oddly undramatic form of nuclear disaster?
Enter photographer Michael Danner's book Critical Mass. From 2007-2011, Danner documented his personal exploration of the history, contradictions, and daily realities of nuclear power in Germany. What was conceived as a social commentary was transformed into a historical, material archive. While the debate about the plants' future has been largely settled, Danner's photographs capture the structures' undeniable, physical presence. Again, what will remain?
While journeying from the outside of the plants to their core, Danner shows the endless complexity of what's been built. Besides that, what stands out in the photos are the endless tiny, human touches they contain: a trophy case, a messy desk, a forgotten briefcase.
But for all these traces, there is not a single human being present in Danner's book. Is this what the world would look like after a nuclear disaster? Or is this what it will actually look like in 10 years? Most nuclear apocalypses result in unimaginable destruction: an empty, burned out world. Perhaps the real conclusion of nuclear power will be totally silent but just as empty.
Critical Mass by Michael Danner
Publisher: Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg