Why you should care
Because not every former nuclear site is an abandoned wasteland.
All that’s left is a gaping hole in the floor. Behind a door marked “escape route” in Swedish, if you descend dizzying flights of stairs, stairs that go on forever, you’ll find yourself in a whole new kind of basement. It’s the heart of what was once Sweden’s first nuclear reactor — now used to house experimental performances, traveling operas, fashion shows and the occasional conference, for those bored of eating their canapés in swanky hotels.
Built in 1954 as a research tool, R1 never actually powered anything. Instead, it was a symbol of Sweden’s hopeful attitude toward nuclear power and the opportunities it afforded. The country wanted to be out ahead on the science — and the power plants, and the potential weaponry. So it built R1, in the heart of Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), and then two more like it about 60 miles south of the city. But in the late 1960s, when the tide of political opinion against nuclear power began to turn, the reactor and its study of neutrons was decommissioned. The tide has turned back — modern Sweden gets 40 percent of its power from its 10 nuclear reactors — but R1 sat abandoned, 82 feet underground.
On the glass between the control room and the reactor is printed one phrase: “The future is too important to be left to men.”
That’s how Leif Handberg found it. When he came to KTH in the ’90s, “it was forgotten,” he says. “Nobody cared about it.” So his campaign to reclaim it began, borrowing the keys for a few weeks at a time, slowly turning the gaping warehouse scarred by a giant hole in the floor into a performance space. It’s still marked by its nuclear past, and not just by the hole — the ceiling, walls and floor are drawn up in a grid, each square assigned a letter and number combination to allow for more organized testing of the space for potential lingering radiation. Handberg’s not a nuclear scientist himself, but says those responsible for the testing assured him that not only is the space not contaminated, it’s got lower radiation readings than your typical not-underground space, because the normal background radiation is lower.
He’s kept around a few souvenirs from the old days in what once was the control room: a wall hanging of the periodic table, a desk, various scopes and gauges that no longer measure anything. There’s a foot-high black statue of a man in a gas mask he found at the bottom of the hole — the work, he suspects, of urban explorers marking their territory. On the glass between the control room and the reactor is printed one phrase: “The future is too important to be left to men.” That’s not original, it turns out — it’s just two months old, from an event in the space encouraging high school girls to go into the sciences. But Handberg left it, thinking it seemed appropriate. There’s a hulking 1926 Wurlitzer organ, which looks like a cross between a piano and a jukebox — until you realize that most of the organ is contained in the large boxy room directly behind it. It’s been painstakingly restored over several years (on top of the six years spent hunting for the rare Wurlitzer, which had been stored away in boxes and lost) and can play the sounds of trumpets, human voices, horse hooves and bird whistles. When this organ was built, the neutron had not even been discovered, and now it’s living out its days inside an eerie memorial to the nuclear age.
“People ask me whether the reactor was built as a secret,” Handberg says, fanning out postcards with a photo of the original facility in his hands. “And I say: Look! They made postcards!”