Movie Review: Into Eternity

Into Eternity poster

This weekend, my wife and I saw Into Eternity, a gripping documentary by the Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen. It’s well worth a wider audience, so here’s a review of it that I hope will provoke some interest.

Every nuclear power plant in the world produces several tons of high-level radioactive waste each year. In total, there exists in the world about 250,000 tons of radioactive waste, which is potentially deadly and will be for tens of thousands of years. Most countries that rely on nuclear power have no clear plan for disposing of it permanently (such as the U.S., where the proposed Yucca Mountain repository was canceled), and are resorting to temporary storage in water pools until a long-term solution is decided on.

One of the few exceptions is Finland, which is building a repository called Onkalo – Finnish for “hiding place” – drilled thousands of feet deep into the granite bedrock on an island 300 kilometers northwest of Helsinki. When Onkalo is finished, probably around 2020, it will be large enough to store all the radioactive waste Finland will generate in the next hundred years, after which it will be closed and sealed permanently.

But even though Onkalo will be open for about a hundred years, the wastes that it will contain will be dangerous for the next 100,000 years, and must be kept safe for that entire enormous span of time. That’s the almost unimaginable challenge that its builders face, and that’s the underlying idea that motivates this documentary and suffuses it with an eerily mythic, almost apocalyptic feel.

100,000 years is a span of time difficult for the human mind to grasp. The oldest pyramids of Egypt are less than 5,000 years old; the most ancient human settlements in the world, like Jericho and Çatalhöyük, are about 10,000 years old. Even the cave paintings of Lascaux are only about 17,000 years old. Onkalo will have to outlast all of these, and Madsen very effectively conveys the awful grandeur of that idea, the sense of standing at the lip of a vast abyss of time. In between interviews with the engineers, lawmakers, and scientific advisors of the project, he juxtaposes scenes of ghostly white, snow-shrouded Finnish woods with the vast, cavernous tunnels of Onkalo far below, where gloved and masked workers use heavy industrial equipment to drill ever deeper into the earth. Madsen’s narration is addressed to a hypothetical far-future audience, explaining to them why we built this place and wondering what they may think of us.

The engineering challenges in building Onkalo are formidable. For one, it’s essential that the repository be entirely passive, able to safeguard its contents without needing human beings to guard or maintain it. The engineers building Onkalo designed it to be immune to fires, floods, earthquakes – even to withstand the glaciation of the next ice age.

But natural disasters, over these long time scales, are a predictable quantity. The biggest threat to Onkalo by far is human intrusion. We can’t predict the twists and turns of contingency; we can’t be certain how long our society will endure, what may cause it to fall, or what might rise in its place. If Onkalo is ever rediscovered, some day in the far future, the people who find it may not have anything in common with us: not culture, not language, not even our scientific understanding of the world. How can we make them comprehend the danger, how can we persuade them to leave this place alone? How can we possibly communicate across the gulf of a thousand centuries?

This is where nuclear waste storage becomes less an engineering issue and more a philosophical problem. Into Eternity discusses some of the ideas that have been proposed: stone monuments engraved with warnings in every U.N. language, or more imaginative proposals that convey ideas on a level deeper than words, like huge, forbidding black monoliths or a jagged “landscape of thorns” protruding from the earth. One interview subject suggests reproductions of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”. Still others suggest that any marker at all will only invite curiosity, and the best thing we can do for our descendants is to seal up Onkalo and leave it entirely unmarked and forgotten, hoping they never stumble across it.

Although this isn’t explicitly an environmental documentary, the subject looms unavoidably in the background. Paradoxically, the building of Onkalo shows both the worst and the best of humanity: how insanely selfish and short-sighted it is to light our homes and offices today with a poison that will endanger our descendants for hundreds of generations; and how inspiring it is that we’re able to think this far into the future and be willing to consider such extreme measures to safeguard them. But the most terrifying idea of all is that Onkalo, as huge as it is, will only store the nuclear waste of one country. Ultimately, the world will need dozens or hundreds of places like this. How many hidden dangers, how many buried traps, are we going to have to leave for those who live after us?

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.noforbiddenquestions.com NFQ

    This sounds amazing. The link to the WIPP marker proposals is especially mind-blowing. Definitely adding this to my list of movies to watch.

  • Katie M

    “Definitely adding this to my list of movies to watch.”

    As am I.

  • Jim Baerg

    To someone like myself who has studied earth sciences, 100,000 years doesn’t sound all that long. I’ll note that the rocks underlying Finland are over 1,000,000,000 years old.

    I’ll also note that nuclear wastes are small enough per unit energy that it is economically feasible to store them underground rather than dump them onto the surface or into the air, unlike the waste products from other energy sources.

  • http://peternothnagle.com Peter N

    I wonder why, or if, such a waste storage facility is needed. I know next to nothing about atomic energy, but this installment of the Skeptoid podcast made a persuasive case that radioactive waste from nuclear power plants are essentially a thing of the past — reactors of modern (and future) design produce byproducts that are mostly recyclable, and dangerous waste is almost insignificant (I would be happy to be set straight on this if it is not correct).

  • Jon Jermey

    The best way to protect a site from human curiosity for 100,000 years would be to make it completely unremarkable: “Nothing to see here. Move on.” Big obelisks or thorn sculptures are only going to attract interested crowds.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    When I saw the name Michael Madsen, I was like “Mr. Blonde from Reservoir Dogs!”

  • Jormungund

    “how insanely selfish and short-sighted it is to light our homes and offices today with a poison that will endanger our descendants for hundreds of generations”
    Hmm. This does not match my understanding of the radionuclides produced by nuclear power plants.
    I took a college class on nuclear power and learned in it that the radioactivity and toxicity of the radionuclides produced by nuclear power plants decreases down to that of the uranium ore that was mined in a few thousand years.
    I also learned how the U.S. stores all nuclear waste in temporary containers because we just can’t get our shit together and act like Sweden does.
    We did learn about the proposed field of thorns or ugly, misshapen monuments that were proposed. Anthropologists also recommended newspaper comic style warnings showing happy people touching nuclear trefoils and then dying in agony and disease with nuclear trefoils on their bodies. Apparently disease and unhealth was the focus of how you would scare people away from something.

    Here is a link to the pdf we read in that class. It is real interesting, but is a large download, so fair warning. I can recognize some of the things that Ebonmuse said was in that documentary as elements of this report. It seems to be at least partially what that documentary was based on, so think of it as a basis or supplement to what Ebonmuse was talking about.
    http://infoserve.sandia.gov/sand_doc/1992/921382.pdf
    Appendixes F and G are the real meat of the report. See pages F-13, F-61 and the next few pages of diagrams, and G-19 and the next few pages of diagrams for some of the more interesting parts.

    The memorable passage of the report that some people like to quote is the main list of messages that the hypothetical ignorant future humans need to understand about a nuclear waste site:

    This place is not a place of honor.
    No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here.
    Nothing valued is here.
    This place is a message and part of a system of messages.
    Pay attention to it!
    Sending this message was important to us.
    We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

  • Penguin_Factory

    Into Eternity discusses some of the ideas that have been proposed: stone monuments engraved with warnings in every U.N. language, or more imaginative proposals that convey ideas on a level deeper than words, like huge, forbidding black monoliths or a jagged “landscape of thorns” protruding from the earth.

    I remember reading about this in another website and finding the idea fascinating. Although I think the people suggesting that simply leaving the site unmarked would be for the best- if there were massive structures near me built by a powerful lost civilization absolutely nothing would keep me from poking around it.

  • Bryan Elliott

    Huh. An entire article discussing nuclear energy and waste in the US without a single mention of reprocessing. Look it up; it’s what france does to turn that 250,000 tonnes and 250,000 years into 4,000 tonnes and 500 years.

    The basics: separate the fission products that are the real waste of an LWR from the actinides that are essentially new fuel. Build new MOX fuel pellets out of the actinides, and dispose of the FP’s carefully.

    Since the actinides are what are largely responsible for the backgrounding time of spent fuel, this means the resultant real waste has a much shorter backgrounding time – theoretical lower limit is 300 years if we also harvest things like Sr-90 (good for betavoltaics) and Cs-131 (used in radiomedicine), but france doesn’t do that at this time, so it takes 500 years.

    We, as a country, do not behave rationally about much. We also do not behave rationally about energy, on either side of the aisle.

  • Alex Weaver

    If something is buried a mile or so deep where the geology isn’t particularly favorable to finding either water or valuable ores, it’s probably pretty safe for 100,000 years.

  • DSimon

    If future societies have video games, then they will all be very familiar with the Primary Lesson: If you’re told you should do something, there’s a good chance you should do it, and if you’re told you should never do something, there’s a good chance you should definitely do it.

    Curiousity is why I’m in favor of the “unmarked site” idea, though maybe with buried warning markers so that if the site is discovered, there’s at least a chance of inspiring some caution.

  • DSimon

    Alternate solution: build space elevator, use it to carefully fling nuclear waste into the sun.

    Alternate alternate solution: build high-powered matter accelerator, use it to not at all carefully fling nuclear waste into the sun.

  • 2-D Man

    Reprocessing is what I immediately thought of as well. Keep in mind that Uranium-238 has a half-life of 4.5 billion years, so even as is, the documentary has to be including some idea of reprocessing, even if they’re not mentioning it.

    Peter N. You make a good point, that newer reactors will generate refissionable products, but old ones probably don’t. The thing is, ~85% of France’s electrical grid is run off nuclear energy, and they didn’t do this in the last five years, nor do they want to replace it all in the next.

    If future societies have video games, then they will all be very familiar with the Primary Lesson: If you’re told you should do something, there’s a good chance you should do it, and if you’re told you should never do something, there’s a good chance you should definitely do it.

    I agree, but such actions ought to be considered… foolish if you have no quickload button.

    Alternate solution: build space elevator, use it to carefully fling nuclear waste into the sun.

    That’s why I want to see a space elevator: so we can do things on other planets without having to worry about this “environment” or “worker safety” nonsense.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Burying still-active nuclear “waste” underground has got to be one of the dumbest crackpot ideas that humanity has yet come up with. Some of the other commenters picked up on this point as well: if it takes a hundred thousand years to decay to a safe level of radioactivity, there’s still a ton of energy left in it.

    Reprocess it. Process it again and again until there’s nothing worth talking about left. Then you can consider burying it, perhaps in your backyard.

    Even the idea of launching nuclear fuel into space is better than this pitiful idea of burying it deep underground. No location anywhere is going to be secure for 100,000 years.

    What’s holding us back from harnessing nuclear fuels as a proper energy source, instead of these quarter-hearted measures we take, is simple fear. It’s long past time we had the courage to do what makes sense, rather than what is politically convenient.

  • Quath

    Short term, we need to use breeder reactors and reprocess. If I remember correctly, the current way we burn uranium will make it last about 200 years. If we go with breeder reactors and reprocessing it should last ten of thousands of years. This does not count getting uranium from sea water, which would make it go very long into the future.

    There are several reactor designs that build up a subcritical assembly and then pulse neutrons into it to generate energy while also burning up the rest of the high level waste. So there is no need to store it for tens of thousands of years since in decades we could set up the technology to get rid of most of it.

    Fusion married to fission is a common technique to handle this since fusion produces a huge amount of neutrons that could power a subcritical assembly. One example is the Life project (https://lasers.llnl.gov/about/missions/energy_for_the_future/life/) from Lawrence Livermore National Lab. Their goal is use something like the Nuclear Ignition Facility (NIF) (which is lasers compressing gas for fusion) which is surrounded by a subcritical blanket.

  • neosnowqueen

    Ironically, I recently finished reading a pulp novel, Deep Storm, that covered this same issue. Aliens used binary and mathematic equations that could never be solved (plus hitech guards) to warn away Earth’s inhabitants. There was another issue that cropped up, a philosophical question that is irrelevant here, but I find it interesting that the documentary covered the real-life application of the fiction.

  • Dark Jaguar

    Lost things tend to be found eventually. I don’t think making it “unremarkable” is the way to go. Making it inhospitable with a clear “not a place of honor” seems like a good way to go, though not to such a grand extent as in that article. One idea would be to place a small easily accessible sample of the material near the main body of it, preferably in a small locked up box with a removable divider leading to an empty part where a lab rat or the future’s version of a lab rat would be placed, with a clear message to anyone looking in to “experiment and see for yourself what this does to living things”, and another clear message that the only thing inside the “Keep” is more of the same stuff, nothing else.

  • the alchemist

    You can watch a 60 min version here for free until March 6th (http://svtplay.se/t/102869/k_special__into_eternity)

  • Samuel

    Why bother burying it? Even if you don’t reprocess it, the level of radioactivity drops of by 75% every time you double the distance. Just put it in a countryside warehouse and coat the walls with a thick coat of lead.

    Really, this reacts of NIMBY. Remember, uranium is only at a 3% concentration in nuclear power plants- this isn’t something that is highly dangerous. You can also use plutonium, but the 238 isotope has a half-life of 87.74 years and is mostly an alpha emitter making it easy to shield.

    I should note that ironically enough, out of all the stuff we leave behind, plastic is probably the one that will survive the longest. Radioactives will decay, organic chemicals will break down, metals will rust, but plastic will last a long time.

    Of course, telling people that they need to watch the stuff they are throwing away and recycle has never been as popular as demonizing the scary nuclear power. Meanwhile people continue to use coal which kills more people. Apparently having your lungs jammed with radioactive dust is okay if it is from a coal plant. On the bright side the power companies aren’t evil so they are trying to solve that problem… although they still haven’t solved the fact that strip mining is the most economic method of acquisition.

  • JW

    I came to DA today to check out some feminism related posts and comments. When I saw this post, I thought “Oh no. Oh no oh no oh no.” It seems nearly any time a discussion is brought up about nuclear waste disposal, I’m expecting the plethora of predictable (and in my opinion) incorrect call for the end of nuclear energy.
    (Full disclosure, I work for a company that provides key parts and services for nuclear, coal, natural gas and solar powered power plants.)
    I work along side nuclear engineers. They understand how to work with nuclear materials and waste – and the business behind it. Their opinions are almost unanimous: reprocessing will turn nuclear energy into one of the most revolutionary energy sources the world has seen. With breeder reactors, we can eliminate proliferation concerns and extract insane amounts of energy from our uranium and thorium resources.
    I have yet to meet a respected nuclear engineer who is against nuclear energy used responsibly. (The few non-respected nuclear engineers who have left the field and currently speak as critics to the field I have met have left the field not of their own free will – they were pushed out for different reasons.)

    Anyway, these comments are refreshing. I do not expect Earth to use Nuclear Energy for very long, but until we find and harness the next greatest thing, it’s the best baseload power option we have.

  • http://GodlessPoetry.blogspot.com Zietlos

    The “Scream” might work, ideally trap the place like in Indiana Jones too…

    But then again, I can’t help but be reminded of Fallout3, with the cult that worshipped the active atomic bomb. It is totally possible if society regresses, people will find it, some die, and much like our current religious odd customs came out, clearly a deity says this is evil stuff to mess with! Worship the death-cave! The cave entrance would be long enough that even door-left-open, radiation wouldn’t cause too many problems.

    “Go into the death-cave, if you are innocent, it shall spare your life”…

    We’d slowly breed a race of radioactivity-resistant humans! :)

  • Ugg

    Remember that when you dug the ores up to use them they were already radioactive and poisonous and they had just been sitting around in the earth for billions of years being all horrid and poisonous without doing any harm.

  • Samuel

    The flaw with that arguement is that the earth provided shielding and that radioactivity, like gravity, gets less intense with distance because it gets more diffuse. Not to mention concentrating it allows it to react faster. So it is much safer in the ground. Above ground it is mildly dangerous, but no more so than just about everything else. More people in the US have been killed by Molasses spills than by accidents at nuclear power plants.