Documentary Explores the Nuclear Waste that Humans Leave Behind
CREDIT: Magic Hour Films
If humanity buried some of the most dangerous substances ever created deep within the Earth, would it be better to leave warnings for future generations or try and forget such a place exists? That question about nuclear waste splits expert opinions in Michael Madsen's documentary film, "Into Eternity," which considers the possibility of safeguarding future generations against such waste.
The film, which opened in limited release February 2nd, explores the most ambitious future hiding place for nuclear waste, called Onkalo, which is an underground complex being built near Finland's Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant. The main tunnel has a length of 3 miles (5 km), and spirals downward to a depth of about 1,378 feet (420 meters), or about half the height of the world's current record-holder for tallest building in the world. Once sealed in the 2100s, it must hold the waste for 100,000 years before the radioactivity ceases to threaten humans.
Ironically, the most unpredictable threat to Onkalo turns out to be human. All the experts in the film agree that preventing future humans from breaching the underground facility remains an unknown factor and Madsen uses that weak point to begin chipping away confidence and widening the uncertainty gap.
To forget or not
In one approach, planners and nuclear regulators propose installing warnings signs around Onkalo. Possible designs included monolithic markers covered in all the United Nations languages. The experts even consider fantastical monuments resembling giant thorns or imposing cliff-like facades, so as to simply convey a sense of dread.
Yet such warnings could easily prove futile as languages are lost over time and as humans may evolve into different creatures, the experts admit. Homo sapiens is thought to have emerged just 200,000 years ago, and humans have undergone rapid cultural shifts since then that defy the fastest biological changes.
The second solution for safeguarding Onkalo was to simply bury any knowledge of the facility. A predicted ice age 60,000 years from now would even more surely transform the landscape above and scrape away any surface signs.
But that solution cannot rule out the possibility of future humans discovering the facility by accident as they dig down. Said humans might possess industrial age technologies that allowed them to reach Onkalo's depths even as they remained ignorant about the radioactive danger.
The birth of myth
Humans might even strive to uncover Onkalo's secrets despite comprehending the warnings about the danger within because of sheer curiosity, Madsen suggests. Modern archaeologists have routinely ignored warnings inscribed by earlier civilizations in their most sacred places, and there's a danger that future humans could interpret Onkalo as such a sacred place.
Perhaps human descendants may tell stories to their children about why they must remember to never go down into Onkalo, Madsen says. His reminder about how easily knowledge can fade into history and myth blends easily with some of the fantastical warnings proposed for Onkalo. The camera's slow crawl through the tunnels even evokes a sense of Gandalf and the hobbits stumbling toward the dangerous Balrog in the dark Mines of Moria.
Madsen further heightens the drama by speaking to viewers as though talking to humanity's descendants who have stumbled upon his film in some future archaeological dig.
"You are heading towards a place where you should never go," Madsen says gravely in the film. "You should not have come here."
The film ultimately serves the best as a meditation upon humanity rather than a sober risk assessment of nuclear power. It makes no comparisons between the risks of nuclear power and the more popular fossil fuel energy sources that come with their own dangers. After all, coal use alone is estimated to kill tens of thousands of people every year around the world, and may cost the U.S. as much as half a trillion dollars annually in economic, environmental and health terms.
But Madsen does raise valid questions about whether humans are ready to face the consequences stemming from long-term storage of nuclear waste. His expert interviewees also deserve credit for their openness and willingness to consider the long-term scenarios despite having no solid answers.
In the end, Finland's construction of Onkalo still looks incredibly farsighted compared to countries that have yet to figure out how to deal with their nuclear waste storage. The impending termination of the proposed Yucca Mountain project in Nevada leaves the U.S. without any hiding place of its own.