by Michael Madsen
Magic Hour Films, Seattle, WA, 2010
DVD, 58 mins. and 75 mins. col.
Sales: Colleges, Institutions, & Businesses: $295; K-12 Schools & Public
Libraries: $89; Home Screening: $29.95
Distributor’s website: http://www.intoeternitythemovie.com/.
Review by Enzo Ferrara
Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca Metrologica (INRIM) and Istituto di Ricerca Interdisciplinare sulla Sostenibilità (IRIS)
In 2001 a small spot on the island of Olkiluoto facing the Gulf of Bothnia, Baltic Sea, was chosen as the final disposal site for spent fuels from the two nuclear power plants operated in Finland. The place – which is also near to the unique-in-the-world third generation nuclear reactor, not yet operating as security problems delayed its assembly – was given the name Onkalo, Finnish for "hiding place". It is one of the first designated underground storage facilities, like Yucca Mountain in Nevada, thought as solutions for the enduring hazardous legacy of nuclear plants. Actually, depleted radioactive wastes are stocked in refrigerated pools with high risk as they need constant cooling and are under endangerment in case of earthquake, blackout or just human mistakes.
The American filmmaker, Michael Madsen, took the chance of entering Onkalo to itemize the astounding questions posed by the perspective of long-term nuclear waste storage. Its documentary, “Into Eternity”, is structured as a message to future inhabitants of our planet come by chance across Onkalo: Madsen proposes them the ethical and practical dilemmas we have to deal with when the persistent threat of nuclear power is involved. The result is a refined meditation on modern technological overconfidence – or faith.
At Onkalo excavations commenced in 2004 and prosecuted using a drill and blast method at an approximate rate of 25 meters for week with a slope near to 10 %. The deposit is still under completion: the quarry of its repository chambers, 455 meters underground, is foreseen to start harboring nuclear waste in 2020, filling is to be concluded within 2100. Declared costs amount to 2.5 billion euros for construction, plus 3 billions for disposal operations granted by the Finnish Government. The volume available as storehouse for fuel rods enclosed in thick copper cylinders will be equal to 330.000 cubic meters that is half the size of Yankee Stadium carved out of bedrock at the bottom of a 6 km labyrinth with the shape of a giant water slide. After 2100 the site will be definitely sealed in concrete and hopefully no further maintenance will be needed – if not to avoid disturbances of any kind – until nuclear radiation are exhausted and harmless, i.e. not before than the next 100.000 years, at least.
The documentary provides spectators with the opportunity to travel along the corridors deep into Onkalo, observe how excavation is going on, and know the viewpoint of engineers, politicians, scientists and others involved with the making of this facility. As the interviewees are prone to address only the technical aspects of the project, Madsen exhorts them at going beyond the duty of their work, using imagination, and explicitly declaring their own expectancies. They are confronted with crucial although trivial questions like how to keep future generations from opening the site; which markers are to be posted and in what language; which symbol is best for "keep out"; how to ensure that climate and geological changes will not impact the structural integrity of Onkalo so far in future. Persons in charge of the deposit struggle to find speech and words apt to answer such unanswerable questions. Inevitably, the human cognitive and imaginative limitations emerge dealing with the unconceivable duration of 100.000 years.
Just to offer an idea of the time scale: 100.000 years ago homo sapiens did not ever exist in its actual form; the oldest civilizations we barely know (Mesopotamian) are estimated to extend merely 7.500 years in the past; the last surviving constructions of the ancient times are the Pyramids of the Pharaohs, still standing in Egypt only 4.000 years after their building.
Entrenched between the chances of supporting a never-ending memory of Onkalo, or covering forever its very existence, “Into Eternity” challenges a moment where the human and the geologic converge. Madsen periodically appears on the scene inviting reflection on the limits of human knowledge and on our responsibility towards upcoming generations. He communicates directly with his (improbable) future spectators cast into the site: “This place is not a place of honor – he warns – No esteemed deeds are commemorated here. You should not have come here. You are heading towards a place where you should never go (…) there is nothing here for you”.
Since their beginning in the 50’s of the last century, the world’s nuclear power plants have generated an estimated 300.000 tons of high-level radioactive waste. Every year, they produce another 12.000 tons of high-level waste. All of that must be safely stored for the next 100.000 years. Even if nobody will be able to watch this film 100.000 years from now, the nuclear waste buried in repository sites under the taiga, or elsewhere, will be eloquent enough to speak for us.