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Synthesis/Regeneration 56   (Fall 2011)

The World’s First Permanent Nuclear Waste Repository

by Jenny McBride

Into Eternity. Director: Michael Madsen. Producer: Lise Lense Møller. 2010.

The narrator of Into Eternity asks many questions. Some he poses to various representatives and officials from Finland’s nuclear power industry, but others are addressed to the invisible target of his film. “Why did you come here?”

The 2009 documentary directed by Michael Madsen tells the story of Onkalo, the world’s first attempt at a permanent repository for nuclear waste. Onkalo, a Finnish word for hiding place, is about 300 km northwest of Helsinki. A three-mile-long, downward-winding network of tunnels is being excavated in the bedrock, with the radioactive waste to be deposited at an eventual depth of 500 meters. The timescale associated with this repository is all but unknown.

The European security standard requires that nuclear waste be isolated from all living organisms for a minimum of 100,000 years. (The US minimum isolation period is a million years.) It is hard to fathom how people can be capable of planning for such a dwarfing expanse of time. The human species as we know it today is believed to have existed for approximately 100,000 years. The oldest cave paintings date from about 30,000 years ago.

Work on this gargantuan storage facility was begun in the 1970s and is expected to be completed in the 2100s. After the used fuel rods have been deposited at the bottom of the tunnel, the opening will be sealed with layers of steel and concrete. There is still a long way to go; how certain are we that the work will proceed as planned throughout this century and into the next?

It is hard to fathom how people can be capable of planning for such a dwarfing expanse of time.

Onkalo personnel interviewed in the film include an engineering vice president, a communications manager, a research vice president and a blaster. We also hear from a radiologist and principal advisor employed by Finland’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority. Although most of the industry spokespeople in the film appear confident and comfortable with the site’s storage plans, there are some who are clearly pained by the questions put to them. Yet even with the assured responses from the experts, it’s hard to imagine many viewers coming away from the film with a positive view of nuclear energy.

In between interviews, Madsen poses questions to humans who might discover Onkalo tens of thousands of years in the future. He also provides many facts about the facility and nuclear waste in general, neither condemning nor advocating for nuclear power, but rather outlining the incredible divide between the enormity of Onkalo’s possible success and the duration of its possible failure.

We see the blasters dynamiting their way deeper into the earth, battering the rock to make room for the sorry by-product of our power supply. We also see the huge pools where nuclear waste is stored while waiting for something more permanent. There are currently between 250,000 and 300,000 tons of nuclear waste in the world. Finland will bury all of its nuclear waste at Onkalo, yet only Finland’s waste will be contained here. (Sweden is in the design phase of a similar repository.) Interspersed with the interviews and haunting narration are shots of native wildlife: reindeer alert to the noise of the film crew, a moose dropping its own temporary and proportionally very small waste.

Perhaps the strangest part of the film revolves around the need for precautionary signage to be placed above the storage site. Acknowledging that we can’t expect any of our modern languages to survive for tens of thousands of years, nuclear experts admit that perhaps we will be trying to warn a very different kind of species. How can we leave messages for beings so unlike us, so far removed into the future? Designers decided a skull would have the greatest communication potential.

Future archaeologist-types might find some clues and get the wrong idea.

But why would anybody dig into this monumental tunnel? Well, future archaeologist-types might find some clues and get the wrong idea. Many thousand years from now, the history of Onkalo will be forgotten, and if someone chances upon a relic – or even one of the warning signs, they might want to know more.

Onkalo may or may not succeed in its mission, but one thing is for certain: our nuclear waste will be the longest-lasting remains of our society. Michael Madsen asks several of the nuclear industry employees what they would say to our descendents, who many thousand years from now might be investigating Onkalo. One woman responded emphatically, “Go back up to the surface and take better care of the earth than we did. Good luck.”

Jenny McBride is a member of the Synthesis/Regeneration editorial board. She lives in Illinois, the US state with the most nuclear power plants.

[12 dec 11]

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