- Considering the Desire to Mark Our Buried Nuclear WasteInto Eternity and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
I am now in this place where you should never come. We call it Onkalo. Onkalo means “hiding place.” In my time it is still unfinished, though work began in the twentieth century, when I was just a child. Work would be completed in the twenty-second century, long after my death. Onkalo must last 100,000 years. Nothing built by man has even lasted even a tenth of that time span. But we consider ourselves a very potent civilization. If we succeed, Onkalo will most likely be the longest-lasting remains of our civilization.Michael Madsen, director and narrator of Into Eternity
Perhaps it is reasonable for the Finns to worry that in tens of thousands of years, after no one left on earth speaks any known language, someone will be trodding through their frozen forest and exhume, half a kilometer beneath its granite bedrock, all the poison they hid there. This will be radioactive waste from Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant, an industrial park that quietly puffs away alongside the beautiful west coast of Finland. The poison from Olkiluoto will be lethal for a hundred thousand years, roughly [End Page 101] twice as long as humans have existed, suffering at the hands of the gods for Prometheus’s igneous discovery and Epimetheus’s mishap with Pandora’s jar. A thousand centuries is mythical time, and as such no one can really be expected to rationally solve a problem ordained to occur within it. Into Eternity (2010) is Danish film-maker Michael Madsen’s recent attempt to meditate on just such a problem: how to remind the next four thousand generations not to dig beneath the Finnish forest floor.
Finland, of course, is not the only country without a repository for its radioactive refuse. In 2007 the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that more than 439 nuclear power reactors were operating in thirty-one countries.1 All currently house their nuclear waste in above-ground facilities, of which not one has been deemed safe for the half-life of its isotopes. Most are considering constructing massive underground waste-storage facilities. Building such sites is one very expensive problem. Both the United States and Finland have chosen to pose themselves another astonishing moral and rhetorical problem: communicating these sites’ lethal toxicity to posterity “forever”—that is, for 100,000 years. Given the millions of euros and dollars about to be spent on what could prove a hopeless task, we might wonder what desire this project is actually fulfilling. To be sure, if no language, symbols, or aesthetic values have ever lasted as long as high-level radiation, what are these marking projects for? An answer to this question can be found in Madsen’s recent film, as well as in the proposals for a site in Carlsbad, New Mexico, commissioned by the US Department of Energy. These marking projects reveal that it is, despite a strong will to the contrary, rather difficult to conceive of our most dangerous and abject waste as something other than a sacred treasure. Madsen’s film, which documents the most recent struggle to theorize such a project, will provide both an entry and a coda to this problem, for its subjects’ exasperation with designing such eternal deterrents points us toward the rather commonsense solution to the problem that has eluded both scientists and policymakers.
Unlike the nuclear-disaster output of the twentieth century, Into Eternity features no Russia, no Homer Simpson, no terrorist with a finger or doughnut on the button. Instead, for protagonists it [End Page 102] offers us Swedish engineers who seem to find the premise of Madsen’s film the least interesting part of their job. Though they have succeeded in designing radiation-proof containers for Olkiluoto’s waste, Finnish law has demanded that they also devise a “permanent” warning system for the granite grave. Despite the appealing intellectual challenge of designing such a marker, none of the engineers seems intrigued by how they might inform or scare people forever. In their hesitation to answer Madsen’s questions, they display a reluctant...