Where is the beauty in nuclear architecture?

Nuclear power stations are an example of some of the latest engineering and architectural minds at work, but still fears of safety are rising around the world.  While many parts of the nuclear process are likewise breathtaking and stunning, the stations and buildings themselves are generally interpreted as intimidating and obtrusive structures, could this correlate with the safety of nuclear power plants?

Anyone who has had the opportunity to examine any of the many architectural wonders around the world experiences the sheer power and will of man.  Architecture has the ability to take our breath away, and leave us standing in awe at the beauty before our eyes. 

Throughout history the brightest and most creative minds in both the architectural and engineering fields have been constructing some of the most incredible ‘wonders’ that exceed the scope of imagination for thousands of years.

The architecture of a nuclear power plant is extremely complex, a nuclear reactor is a form of art in itself, and requires a vast amount of architectural and engineering knowledge to even conceptualize in working theory.  Today, some of the most experienced and knowledgeable professionals in these fields are working to create new nuclear technology, which they hope will answer the world’s energy need for the foreseeable future.

The forms of buildings are far from being arbitrary in their design or accidental.  The materials used, the exact placement, and character of the workers is influenced on the structures that they create.   

Whatever is created, is produced and transferred to other people and other countries, but shares the same fate, until some artist with incredible talent forms a new and consistent creation out of it.

Architecture, more than any other art, depends on the influence of religion; the “wonder” or building of status being with many empires, its highest object.   These examples of human skill would be constructed in focal points to be set apart as a symbol of the advancement or pursuit of excellence in the given area.

But nuclear reactors are also prone to the NIMBY syndrome, or ‘Not in my backyard!’.  Buildings the size of nuclear power stations would normally only be easily accommodated within a city, or on its fringes, but for obvious reasons they have to be built as far as possible from populated areas, and beside large bodies of water.

Beauty +  Design + Functionality = Safer?

Form follows function is a principle associated with modern architecture and industrial design in the 20th century. The principle is that the shape of a building or object should be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose.

American architect Louis Sullivan is quoted;

“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function. This is the law.”

Georg Moller (born January 21, 1784 in Diepholz; died March 13, 1852 in Darmstadt) was an architect and a town planner who worked in the South of Germany.  Moller is considered, along with Karl Friedrich Schinkel and Leo von Klenze, as one of the most important German architects.

Moller taught that two principles could be applied in forming opinions regarding structures of all ages and nations, and believed they were a sure test of any partial over or underrating.

  1. Any structure should correspond with all requirements including; the climate, style of construction, materials, and all sentiment and manners of the creators and time.
  2. All structures constitute in their principle forms, or well designed and built should reflect a harmony within itself, which would exclude or reject anything foreign or unsuitable.


In his book ‘Conduct of Life’, Ralph Waldo Emerson expands on this concept.

“Moller, in his Essay on Architecture, taught that the building which was fitted accurately to answer its end, would turn out to be beautiful, though beauty had not been intended.”

This is visible in architecture throughout history.  Symmetry and natural beauty will be present in a well designed and constructed structure. 

Even if you consider the simple braiding of a cord, the strength is found in the parallel arrangement of that same number of fibers which are then netted together by meshes.  The more uniform and perfect the arrangement, the stronger and more appealing it becomes.

Moller believed that architecture was a way to understand the knowledge and powers of the builders.  His experience taught him that an accurate view could only be obtained by gaining an accurate and complete knowledge of the most ancient monuments of any art, up to its improvements and over-refinements.

Today there are many questions being raised about the construction and placement of nuclear power plants around the world.  Many nuclear reactors like the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant in California are built on or close to fault lines, significantly increasing the risk of an accident. 

At San Onofre there have also been questions about the quality of work and the requirements for ensuring work is done appropriately after it was found that a 420 ton reactor vessel had been installed backwards at the plant.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission admitted that his inaction was one of “a series of lax behavior” by the workers there.

It is important to examine the sources from which we derive information.  We are warned that proponents to the creation or implementation of a certain structure would boldly publish anything to ensure its completion. 

Moller said that he found many statements could be also described as “the most ridiculous legendary tales spoken as undoubted facts, which are calculated to inspire us to much confidence. I know from my own experience, that those statements which unfortunately are often the only statements available in times of need, have no greater value than popular folklore…

…In such a case, nothing but the strictest inquiry of scholars, as well as artists of sound judgment, capable of judging how far the statements are worthy of belief, can guard us against errors.”

In the fall of 2007, workers at the Byron nuclear power plant in Illinois were using a wire brush to clean a badly corroded steel pipe — one in a series that circulate cooling water to essential emergency equipment — when something unexpected happened: the brush poked through. 

The plant’s owner, the Exelon Corporation, had long known that corrosion was thinning most of these pipes. But rather than fix them, it repeatedly lowered the minimum thickness it deemed safe.

By the time the pipe broke, Exelon had declared that pipe walls just three-hundredths of an inch thick — less than one-tenth the original minimum thickness — would be good enough.

Moller believed the only way to judge the credibility of statements was to be mindful of the past.  When judging the credibility of statements regarding a type of structure, one must not look at individual statements, but also include statements about earlier, contemporary, and later works. 

He did leave us with a stern warning in this regard however, in that above all, the history of a building is never to be separated from the history of the nation, “whose fate it shares alike in its’ progress and decay.”

Structures Match The Creators Characteristics

The durability of such a building depends chiefly on two circumstances;

  1. The parts essential to support be sufficiently strong;
  2. All parts intended to bear any weight, continue fixed in their original position, without unnatural bending or thrusting.


Buildings can generally give way by individual parts bending or thrusting, so destroying the equilibrium that some of them afford no support, while much greater weight and pressure than original calculated are thrown on others.  Rarely does every part experience equal increased pressure or weight universally over the whole structure.

The key to the art and skillfulness of ancient builders was their ability to ascertain during creation and design which parts of a building were essential to its firmness, and what parts were, merely a skin or a covering.   This knowledge helped architects to distribute and unite essential parts as to make it impossible for any such strain or thrust to take place.

In ancient Rome, after Constantine’s time, there was a decay of arts, and decline of general prosperity, and a custom of pulling down old buildings to erect new ones with their materials.  It is clear that certain columns or parts of old buildings would not suite the new structures, and the mismatching of materials led to a neglect of exact proportions in architecture. 

These types of buildings were not as stable as the original structures they had replaced, and frequent updates and reconstruction was required.  In this manner the architecture of the times grew to match the characteristics of the nation and its builders. 

This is also true in fields of construction, not only on a state, national, or global scale.


Harmony, beauty, and propriety are not limited to one style of building, every work of art is to be judged only by the laws of inherent perfection[an unsurpassable degree of accuracy or excellence]; every building which appears discordant in its parts and unsuitable to its purpose, is to be critically analyzed, whether it is nuclear, industrial, or residential. 

Nuclear engineers claim that from new designs, they have learned how to extend the lives of existing reactors.  This is also financially appealing to utilities, once a reactor is paid for additional years are extremely lucrative, as the debt has been paid off.  However many architects have published many reports explaining that new designs are rarely based off of models with a significant amount of predetermined flaws, and even less frequent is it more profitable in the final tally to retrofit or reconstruct existing similarly defect structures.

Many of the vast differences between locations, fuel types, and other variances make upgrading a nightmare as each plant would have specific requirements that need research and identification.   Considering the large expansion of the nuclear industry globally over the last 5 years, and the dwindling numbers of qualified engineers to properly staff each project, it is extremely unlikely each station will get the full inspection and updates required.

Descriptions of the experience left by buildings can be enlightening, especially concerning architecture.

“It contains the combination of the simplicity and majesty of the groves of the forest, with the richness and beauty of its flowers and leaves; – all is variety, greatness, and sublimity.”  – Georg Moller describing his experience at the Cathedral of Cologne

“We went to the steam generator together. That was the first time I saw the generator with my own eyes… Inside was dark, and the air was dense and stagnant. It felt as though something sinister was living inside. My expression glazed over. A slight sensation of dread came over me.   As I approached the manhole, I noticed a ringing in my ears and felt reluctant to go in… The atmosphere inside was ghastly and I had to desperately fight off the urge to flee. I might not have wanted to enter, but I was in no position to refuse….”  – Takeshi Kawakami describing his experience at the Hamaoka nuclear power plant

Nuclear Reactor Designs

The style of art which produced the initial nuclear designs were a result of the times, the condition of the public and private life at that period, and the relationships between nations and individual states to each other, the situation of commerce, and above all the nuclear zeal. 

 In an age where global war had become a constant threat, and having the biggest guns meant having the biggest voice, nuclear power was born to fuel our need for nuclear weapons.

We may produce many new types of reactors today, but new designs are a reproduction of the same motives, and the circumstances under which the original designs were created are still much the same.  Initial reactor designs were normally created for a safety case of 20-30 years, and laterally 40 years. 

Now, despite many reports of increase wear on functional parts greater than estimated, and the looming recognition that multiple on-site catastrophes can lead to a global crisis, many regulators are standing firm that licensing should be extended, before the Fukushima crisis has even been brought under any semblance of control.

Nuclear power has forced us to start conceptualizing new types of architecture to deal with nuclear waste, which must last longer than any existing wonder on earth.  We are no closer today to answering this problem than we were 50 years ago, and the waste levels are becoming a strain for many nations to manage.

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