I am now in this place where you should never come. We call it Onkalo. Onkalo means hiding place. In my time it is still unfinished, though work began in the 20th century when I was just a child. Work will be completed in the 22nd century, long after my death. Onkalo must last 100,000 years. Nothing built by man has lasted even a tenth of that time span. But we consider ourselves a very potent civilization.
If we succeed, Onkalo will most likely be the longest lasting remains of our civilization. If you, some time far into the future find this, what will it tell you about us?
It isn’t often that you find people seriously thinking about deep time in a concrete way. Usually it’s abstract, just a thought experiment, not an engineering problem or a gut wrenching moral quandry. But this is apparently not the case for the Scandinavians who have taken on the task of storing their spent nuclear fuel. Finland has decided to go forward with permanent storage, in a typically responsible, deliberate, earnest Nordic way.
Michael Madsen’s Into Eternity isn’t about the engineering or the politics; it’s about the gravity and scale of the task. Regardless of what we decide to do with nuclear energy in the future there already exists 250,000 tons of spent fuel, and we have to do something with it. We have committed to that. It will persist in one form or another no matter what.
It’s this the aspect of nuclear energy that I found most interesting in David Bodansky’s book. The problem of our relationship with the future. Bodansky pointed out that it may not make much sense to be so meticulous about nuclear waste if we’re going to be so cavalier about other equally serious problems of long term sustainability. I agree — we should be more careful about a lot of things — but for some reason, nuclear waste is one of the few long term problems that seems to be taken seriously, maybe because it’s ultimately in the hands of so few people, or because it’s novel in comparison to soil salinization and other ancient and prosaic dangers, or maybe because of public fear that’s leaked over from nuclear weapons. It’s still a beautiful case study, in what kind of thinking we’re capable of when we try.
The film is loosely framed as a message to the distant future, to someone who has entered Onkalo. Periodically Madsen appears in the total darkness of the tunnels, lit by a single match, mythologizing the story of nuclear waste, or asking questions of his future audience, who may be far beyond us in their technology, or who might have fallen far into a dark ahistorical age, reverting to the hunter gatherer way of life. There’s no way to know.
Once upon a time man learned to master fire, something no other living creature had done before him. Man conquered the entire world. One day he found a new fire, a fire so powerful that it could never be extinguished. Man reveled in the thought that he now possessed the powers of the Universe. Then in horror he realized that his new fire could not only create, but also destroy. Not only could it burn on land, but inside all living creatures, inside his children, the animals, and crops. Man looked around for help, but found none, and so he built a burial chamber deep in the bowels of the earth — a hiding place for the fire to burn into eternity.
When the burial chamber was complete, Man laid his new fire to rest, and tried to forget about it, for he knew that only through oblivion would he be free from it. But then he started to worry that his children might find the burial chamber and awaken the fire from its sleep. So he bade his children to tell their children, and their children’s children too, to remember forever to consign the burial chamber to oblivion. To remember forever… to forget.
We are story tellers. Something about couching the task in mythological language makes it easier to understand in a visceral way. In the Greek myths, our acquisition of fire and thus technology is mediated by Prometheus, whose name means fore-thought, but nuclear energy seems much more likely to have come to us from his brother Epimetheus, who looks backward while charging forward instead. Epimetheus, who accepted Pandora from Zeus.
There seems to be a consensus among the interviewees that probably the best thing that could happen would be for humanity to completely forget where these repositories are. The technical problem of isolating the waste from geology is tractable. The social problem of ensuring several thousand generations of humans never dig it up is more difficult.
We will fill the chambers of Onkalo with the nuclear waste of Finland, from just one little country in the north. After one century we will seal Onkalo for all eternity, just like the tombs of the Pharaohs in the pyramids were sealed thousands of years ago never to be opened again.
Except of course, they were opened. Repeatedly. First by grave robbers and later archaeologists. In this context, getting a century of energy, or even a few centuries of energy, in exchange for an eternal commitment to curate the waste seems dubious. We aren’t capable of making eternal commitments.
My civilization depends on energy as no civilization before us. Energy is the main currency for us. Is it the same for you? Does your way of life also depend on unlimited energy? 100,000 years is beyond our understanding and imagination. Our history is so short in comparison. How is it with you? How far into the future will your way of life have consequences?
The questions that are reasonable to ask when your audience is those who have opened the repository can seem bizarre and poignant. They know how things turned out.
If this waste spills out into nature it will cause death and destruction. Large areas will become uninhabitable for a long, long time. Did that happen? Are there forbidden zones with no life in your time?
Our law states that we must inform you about Onkalo. Maybe you will need to enter if we overlook something or if repairs are required. Were our calculations and assumptions accurate? Did we make mistakes? Is that why you are here?
Throughout the film there are scenes of workers digging the tunnel slowly, methodically. Lonely, in their dark, claustrophobic industrial landscapes. They have more than a century until it needs to be completed, so there’s no rush. These scenes are overlaid with narration that plays with the idea that these aren’t people in the present day, but rather future diggers, exploring this strange archaeological site:
You are now in the tunnel. This place is not a place of honor. No esteemed deeds are commemorated here. You should not have come here. You are heading towards a place where you should never go. What is there is dangerous and repulsive. The danger will still be present in your time as it is in ours. Please turn around and never come back. There is nothing here for you. Go no further.
You have now gone deeper into the tunnel, and you have reached a place where you should never have come. Down here radiation is everywhere. You do not know it, but something is happening to your body right now. It is beyond your senses. You feel nothing. You smell nothing. An invisible light is shining right through you. It is the last glow of my civilization, that harvested the powers of the Universe.
It isn’t just scientists and engineers, it’s also solemn philosophers and theologians, thinking about issues that sound like science fiction. So much of the present seems to come from the future. Almost everyone he speaks to has a shocking candor that I can’t imagine US policymakers displaying. He asks if the waste might have the value of gold in the future, or even more?
“Yes, to answer honestly, yes, it could. And it is a treasure, a lot of copper, and also uranium and plutonium.”
What do we know about future generations? About communicating with them?
“The quick answer is that nobody knows anything at all.”
When Madsen asks one interviewee “Do you basically trust the future generations?”, he actually looks pained. Almost ill. Clearly the plan of record as encoded in Finnish law — to ensure that the waste remains buried forever but also inform the future of its nature and location — assumes that we can trust them.
“It is very difficult to answer that question… I can’t say that I trust, but I cannot say that I don’t trust.”
As with so many of our current plans, it’s at least a little bit insane. In the case of nuclear energy, the question seems to be which possible plan is less insane. Eternal storage of vast amounts of waste that still contains ~99% of the available nuclear energy? Or expensive and proliferation prone re-processing, transmutation, and breeder reactors? It’s hard to know. Both options make serious investment in renewable energy seem prudent.