Into Eternity

15 August 2011

A film on limited release documents the world’s first underground spent fuel repository currently being constructed at Onkalo near Olkiluoto in Finland. By Penny Hitchin

The movie explores practical and philosophical issues involved in planning to secure nuclear waste for 100,000 years and considers the mind-boggling scenario of how to communicate about this with society of the distant future.

The documentary, released in 2010, remains detached from the debate about nuclear energy, focusing on Finnish plans to keep Onkalo entombed safely, long into the inconceivable future. Dreamy footage of the site’s snowy winter pine forests alternates with underground excavation and discussions with experts involved with designing, building and regulating the repository. Scientists and engineers from Posiva Oy, Finnish regulators STUK (the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority), the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority, as well as the Swedish National Council for Nuclear Waste’s Theology Professor explore the issues.

Once spent fuel is emplaced, the tunnels at Onkalo will be so toxic they must never be dug up. But how do to ensure the repository remains isolated long into the future? Should it be marked, or left anonymous to disappear? If marked, how can the dangers be made comprehensible in a future whose scale—100,000 years—is hard to imagine?

“Man built a burial chamber deep in the bowels of the earth, a hiding place deep into eternity,” the commentary says. “The hiding place must be proof against human intrusion long into the future, isolating the waste from all living organisms. What would a future society make of this? “We used to have a joke that when we started digging the first thing we found was a copper canister,” one of the Finns joked, briefly lightening the sombre, thoughtful mood.

Danish director Michael Madsen told Nuclear Engineering International: “This is the first time in human history that we are producing things that will have such long-term consequences. If we cannot comprehend then it moves into the realm of being abstract, which perhaps has the tendency to slip away and become unimportant. The Onkalo facility says something about our time.”

He decided to make the film because he was interested in the time scale the project must envisage. He said, “When I first heard about this project I was intrigued by the 100,000 year perspective. It was clear that some people would have to relate to this time span and I figured that they would have to be working with different scenarios for the future. I was curious to learn what they might be. It also occurred to me that this was the first time in human history that we were building something for almost eternity.”

The film (www.intoeternitythemovie.com) addresses future civilisations, explaining that with energy as the main currency for our society, we created a fire that must be buried. Warning against entering Onkalo, Madsen addresses an imaginary intruder: “You are entering a place you should never go. It is dangerous. There is nothing here for you. Go no further.”

Reactions at the showing

The film was screening in the USA in spring 2011. A recent showing in West Cumbria, the only area participating in the UK process to find a host community for a repository, was followed by a debate on the subject of radioactive waste disposal. The three panel members, (Jean McSorley of Greenpeace, Councillor Tim Knowles of the Cumbria Managing Radioactive Waste Safely Partnership, and Cherry Tweed from the UK government Nuclear Decommissioning Agency) representing a wide spectrum of opinion, comment on the film:

‘I thought the film, as a piece of cinema, was interesting. The imagery of the physical scale of the project reflected the scale of the dilemmas that those involved are facing. I thought the interviews were insightful—and many of the replies honest in a way that I don’t think would (for a number of reasons) happen in the UK. I very much liked the way the producer spoke to people in the future.
It is a very clever and thought-provoking film. I can’t see how, after watching this, anyone could think it reasonable to create more nuclear waste, particularly when there are clean and sustainable renewables energy technologies.’
Jean McSorley
Nuclear Campaigner, Greenpeace

‘Into Eternity is a challenging film which addresses a key aspect of nuclear waste disposal—the impact on future generations. For reasons which I find saddening, it seems that it takes a Scandinavian to initiate serious consideration of this complex issue. In the UK we seem only to indulge ourselves with the superficial and short-term, rather than address such matters head on.
I welcome both the film and the debate I hope it will create.’
Tim Knowles
West Cumbria Managing Radioactive Waste Safely Partnership

‘I enjoyed this film because it raises awareness of an important topic. It does contain some very powerful images, and certainly the image of the director with a single match has remained very clearly in my memory. It contains three very important messages about radioactive waste:
Radioactive waste already exists
Geological disposal is the solution for the very long term
Disposal is achievable, and the film gives a very clear idea of the scale of the underground facilities with very little to see at the surface.’
Cherry Tweed
Chief Scientific Advisor, Radioactive Waste Management Directorate, NDA

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