into eternity

"I am now in the place where you should not come". Image from the film Into Eternity.

Features nuclear storage gone awry

In Michael Madsen’s film Into Eternity, the safe storage of nuclear waste has gone awry: distant descendants of ours from a civilization unknown to us have penetrated the defenses of Onkalo, the final repository of nuclear waste on Finland’s west coast.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Pages 4-5, Vol 4:2010
Published on balticworlds.com on januari 10, 2011

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In Michael Madsen’s film Into Eternity, the safe storage of nuclear waste has gone awry: distant descendants of ours from a civilization unknown to us have penetrated the defenses of Onkalo, the final repository of nuclear waste on Finland’s west coast. “What drove you to enter?” the voice of the Danish director asks the unknown people of the future after they have gained access to the world’s first final repository for deadly radioactive waste. “Was it the scars we left on the surface? Or a rumor?” Hadn’t the pictures we left behind of “forbidden landscapes” frightened them away, asks Madsen? Or was it precisely these pictures that had aroused their curiosity in the first place?

These are fascinating questions about a truly far-reaching topic. Two hundred and fifty thousand tons of highly radioactive waste worldwide must be hermetically sealed for 100,000 years to protect future life from the deadly rays. No one knows how to do this save for the Finns (and, in their wake, the Swedes), who are drilling a giant underground tomb four kilometers deep in the rocky territory of the Gulf of Bothnia for their own 5,000 tons of nuclear waste. In his 75-minute documentary, the Danish-born Madsen is not only introducing it to cinema and TV audiences, he is addressing the future.

Madsen asks Berit Lundqvist of Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management (SKB) to do the same. She speaks into the camera, aiming her words at those who are going to force their way into Onkalo: “Go back to the surface and take better care of the world than we did. Good luck.” Good luck? Don’t all the other experts in charge of building the facility say that neither an intrusion from outside nor the opening of the radioactive final repository because of climate, wars, or other breakdowns in civilization are to be expected during these 100,000 years?

Madsen does not   have one single opponent of nuclear power speak in his film. All of those who discuss the Onkalo project on camera are experts actively involved in the undertaking (or in the corresponding Swedish facility, not yet under construction). Timo Äikäs, deputy head of the construction project, imagines how, after an ice age (expected in 60,000 years), people might try to drill a hole down to this strange repository — something that could seem even odder, more curious, and possibly even more fascinating than the pyramids still do to us, after a mere couple of thousand years. And have we obeyed the Egyptians’ decree that the burial chambers should be left sealed forever?

But what good is all that? The radioactive waste is here, after all, and it has to be “disposed of”. “You cannot make nuclear waste go away”, explains Onkalo manager Äikäs, with an earnest expression, to the Danish interviewer’s camera. One of the strengths of this powerful documentary is that we can read the faces of the participants. We can see from those actively involved in Onkalo that everything is at stake here; they are dealing with fundamental questions that no one in his right mind can maneuver around.

The questions are extremely difficult, yet cannot be sidestepped: Should one try to leave behind information about the dangers of the nuclear waste repository for generations existing more than 100,000 years into the future? With what symbols, in what languages, and by means of what media? Or is it more prudent to let Onkalo be completely forgotten, so that no one will know anything about the copper drums, sealed with huge amounts of concrete, and their radioactive contents?

It is devastating   beyond measure to hear and see how Mikael Jensen, analyst with the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority, explains matter-of-factly that this dangerous nuclear waste burial site will in fact be a “treasure chest” for future generations because of all the copper, uranium, and plutonium. “People want to get at treasure. Hasn’t that always been the case in the history of mankind?”

“I am now in the place where you should not come”, says the director to the generations of the future, with only a match for light and maybe a little too much emotion for this film, which is otherwise so calm. What gives it life is the contrast between the experts’ statements, which shock us repeatedly, along with the film’s exquisite visual aesthetics and haunting soundtrack. Madsen’s shots of the giant caverns are accompanied by a Sibelius waltz. It is no coincidence that we hear echoes of Stanley Kubrick’s waltz music from the universe in 2001: A Space Odyssey. His camera almost always moves slowly — there is not a single picture that aims to shock. The extremely careful work with radioactive material in water as a temporary storage medium was thought out to the last detail and holds a beauty all its own. The atomic waste experts presented are reminiscent of figures from the films of Aki Kaurismäki, so dry and sober in tone, and with minimal gestures when they, who perhaps know more about this than anyone, utter apocalyptic-sounding sentences.

Carl Reinhold Bråkenhielm, theology professor and member of the Stockholm National Council for Nuclear Waste, believes that it is impossible for us to imagine what it will be like a few hundred years from now. Yet, we have to deal with the atomic waste we have now, which will radiate for nearly an eternity. The director, again with a lit match held in front of his face, gives his time perspective: Construction of Onkalo began in the 20th century when he was a child. The facility is to be sealed in the 22nd century by which time he will be long dead. And then it must remain sealed shut for 100,000 years. No building in the history of humanity has ever lasted for even a tenth of this length of time.

Whoever has seen the movie will be all the more astonished by the current status of the nuclear debate in Finland: The construction of a nuclear reactor, to supplement two older ones at the Olkuliuto nuclear power station, in the immediate vicinity of Onkalo, is plagued by breaches in security, delays, and cost overruns. Neither that nor the growing doubts of Finnish geologists about the Onkalo project have prevented the parliament in Helsinki from green-lighting construction of two more new reactors. However, there is no room in the world’s first final repository for nuclear waste for the additional waste from these plants. Ah well, we’ll just find another repository somehow, say industry and government. As Berit Lundqvist says in the film, staring directly into the camera and addressing future generations: “Good luck!” ≈

Note. Information about the film can be found at http://www.intoeternitythemovie.com.