(Directed and narrated by Michael Madsen, A Magic Hour Films release, January 2010, 75 minutes)
There's a growing sense that we modern-day humans are morally obligated to protect our descendants from the hazards of our nuclear waste. Yet the task of providing this protection may be a fool's errand. The most obvious way of doing it, which is to leave some sort of warning, could prove completely ineffectual and could even backfire. If future humans are as different from us as we are from our prehistoric forebears, they may not understand our warnings. Or they may partially understand them and be enticed to discover the rest by venturing inside a nuclear waste repository, like archaeologists exploring a pyramid. Could it be, then, that the best way to keep humanity safe from radioactive waste is to say nothing about it, and make sure to hide it well enough that no one's likely to ever chance upon it?
Michael Madsen's documentary Into Eternity is an inquiry into all of these questions. It provides an in-depth look at a facility known as Onkalo, a permanent repository for high-level nuclear waste that a Finnish firm called Posiva has been building since 2004. Its name means "cave" or "cavern" in Finnish, and indeed Madsen provides one of his first monologues from inside one of its tunnels, his face starkly lit by a match in his hand. Addressing future inhabitants of the surrounding area, he admonishes, "This place is not a place of honor. No esteemed deeds are commemorated here. You should not have come here. You are heading toward 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."
Once completed, Onkalo will be one of the world's first permanent storage sites for high-level radioactive waste. Made up of tunnels carved out of solid granite, it extends to a depth of 1,500 feet. The spent nuclear fuel will be stored inside boron steel canisters encased in copper capsules, which in turn will be buried in bentonite clay, all of which will be surrounded by impermeable bedrock. Onkalo is intended to hold a century's worth of Finnish nuclear waste, and once filled to capacity in around 2120, will be closed off for good. As required by EU law, it is designed to keep its contents sealed off for at least 100,000 years, by which time the spent fuel is expected to be only as radioactive as the uranium ore originally used to produce it.1
There is some question as to whether Onkalo can really endure for 100,000 years, a point touched on by Madsen but not explored in depth–again, his focus is on the semantic difficulties inherent in trying to warn people of the future. And these difficulties are formidable indeed. In whatever form humans exist in 100,000 years, we can count on them sharing none of our languages, symbols or other modern-day frames of reference. Alan Weisman, in his book The World Without Us, points out that languages have a way of morphing beyond recognition in intervals of about one two-hundredth of that time.2 Thus, it would seem that there's little point in marking Onkalo with warnings in today's most prominent languages, since they will be incomprehensible to people living 100,000 years from now.
Mikael Jensen, an analyst with Sweden's Radiation Safety Authority, believes that the message could most effectively be conveyed using simple, cartoon-like graphical representations "where you have low sophistication but you have a robust message." As an example, he points to a mural titled "Landscape of Thorns," which was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for use at its Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. The mural depicts a devastated place of barren dirt and thorn-like spires reeling under a brown sky.
Edvard Munch's famous expressionist painting "The Scream" provides a similar example. It shows a man standing against a roiling red sky with his mouth agape, a stricken look on his face and his hands clasped to the sides of his head. Jensen says this painting has "a fair chance" of being comprehensible far into the future, so primal are the emotions that it arouses.
To explain the phenomenon of radioactivity, Madsen uses what he believes to be another universal concept, that of fire. Standing again in a match-lit corridor, he describes how one day humankind discovered "a new fire," one so potent that it could never be put out, and so insidious that it's kept burning inside all living beings, even inside his children. Horrified and panicked, humankind looked around frantically for help, to no avail. "And so," recounts Madsen, "he built a burial chamber deep in the bowels of the earth, a hiding place for the fire to burn, into eternity."
Some experts, like Onkalo's executive vice president of engineering, Timo Äikäs, assume that a society with the technology to dig down to Onkalo will also have the technology to detect its dangers. "What if someone finds the repository?" Madsen asks Äikäs. "How should they know what it is?" Äikäs replies, "Well, they should have some measuring tools to measure the radiation." Madsen presses him, asking, "What if they don't have that?" To which Äikäs responds with a nervous laugh, "Well, then, they have to make a chemical analysis." Madsen presses still further: "What if they can't do that?" The unequivocal answer this time is, "Well, if they cannot do that, then they cannot do the drilling either."
However, Berit Lundqvist, who is science editor for the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company (SKB), tells Madsen that she's "not so sure" about that. She believes that Onkalo could be interpreted as a religious monument, a burial ground or a treasure. Jensen agrees with this assessment, saying of our descendants, "They might go up in technology, they might go down, and we don't really know." Jensen thinks it's entirely conceivable that future societies will have the technology to dig deep underground but not to understand all that they encounter during their digging. Alternately, he foresees a future in which Onkalo's contents are known to be hazardous but are also valuable because of the steel, copper and other essential materials that they contain, making them a target for scavengers.
Those who are adamantly against posting warning markers at Onkalo, on the grounds that they would only fuel curiosity, have historical examples to support their argument. Jensen refers to the case of a Norwegian rune stone discovered by 20th-century archaeologists, which bore a plea not to disturb it or flip it over. The archaeologists, of course, disregarded this message, believing that such primitive superstition did not apply to them. Could it be that there's some present-day menace we would have been spared if only we'd heeded the ancients' request and let the rune stone be?
The team at Onkalo sometimes debates what Äikäs calls "the ice age question." According to scientists, the next ice age likely will come well before 100,000 years from now. If Onkalo were to be buried under ice and tundra for many generations, would it be forgotten? Äikäs believes that it would be.
Madsen's fine documentary has scooped up nearly 20 awards at festivals, and Madsen an additional two for his directing and writing. The film is passionate, comprehensive in its scope and prodigiously thought through and researched. The filmmaker has also chosen a good selection of experts to interview. The people at Onkalo are very knowledgeable, even if they're compelled to exude confidence about the project and to soft-pedal its uncertainties. And the other interviewees, who mostly work for nuclear safety authorities, supply a good counterpoint to Onkalo's perspective.
But those hoping to learn the filmmaker's own take on how, and whether, to caution our descendants will be thwarted. For though he repeatedly pleads with viewers of the future to turn around and follow him no further, he also closes the film with a scene in which they've kept on going. "Down here radiation is everywhere," he tells them. "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." Are we to interpret this outcome as a cautionary tale against leaving warnings? Or does Madsen think that we must leave as much information as possible, even if it might backfire and drive people toward the very things that we need them to avoid?
1. "Nuclear Power in Finland," World Nuclear Association, http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf76.html (last updated Dec. 2013; accessed Jan. 14, 2014); Manson Benedict, Thomas H. Pigford, Hans Levi, Nuclear Chemical Engineering (Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1981; ISBN 0-07-004531-3), Figure 11.2.
2. Alan Weisman, "Hot Legacy," Chapter 15, The World Without Us (New York: Picador; Reprint edition, 2008), 256-78.