Opening today at the Film Forum in New York, the documentary “Into Eternity” examines the political and philosophical ramifications of nuclear waste, now amounting to over 250,000 tons worldwide. Danish Director Michael Madsen was inspired to make the film after learning about the Onkalo project in Finland, an underground repository that is intended to last for over 100,000 years—twenty times longer than the pyramids.
While Madsen makes no secret about his opposition to nuclear power, the movie is not exactly agitprop. Mostly it is “night thoughts” about the follies of civilization, at least a civilization that revolves around commodity production.
Furthermore, the technicians involved with Onkalo are hardly the Doctor Strangelove types. They come across as thoughtful and ethical even as they are conflicted. When Madsen asks a particularly challenging question, they frequently are at a loss for words and confess that they don’t have the answer.
It is difficult to conceptualize what it means to have nuclear waste under the earth in Finland 100,000 years from now. Try to imagine what the globe will look like 1000 years from now, let alone 100 times that length. One of the major problems foreseen by the development team working on Onkalo is the problem of communication. Will the languages of the future be the same as today? This is not an outlandish question if you consider what problems the general reader of English would have understanding Chaucer, who wrote only about 600 years ago.
Madsen, who is described as a conceptual artist in the press notes, is fairly obsessed with this question. He asks the technicians how they would communicate to future generations about the danger underground. They raise the possibility of using graphics rather than words, including a reproduction of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, an apt symbol for the nuclear age.
If Onkalo appears problematic, the current day solutions to the disposal of nuclear waste would strike the average person as bordering on insane. As the press notes point out:
Spent nuclear fuel is normally kept in water pools in interim storage facilities. Almost all interim storage facilities are on the ground surface, where they are vulnerable to natural or man-made disasters, and extensive surveillance, security management, and maintenance is required. The water in the pools cools the fuel rods, as the heat emanating from them may otherwise result in radioactive fire, and at the same time, water creates a shield for radioactivity. It takes 40 – 60 years to cool the fuel rods down to a temperature below 100 degrees Celsius. Only below this temperature may the spent fuel be handled or processed further. Most interim storage facilities are situated near nuclear power plants, as the transportation of waste is complicated, and subject to extensive security issues.
Although “Into Eternity” says almost nothing about trends favoring nuclear power, there are signs that the proliferation of new plants will require the building of Onkalos almost everywhere. One of the scientists interviewed by Madsen states that if India and China are to enjoy the same standard of living as the West in the next twenty years, it will be necessary to rapidly expand the number of nuclear power plants. This kind of “progressive” spin on behalf of nuclear power jibes with the statements made by some climate scientists and environmentalists about the advantage nuclear power has over greenhouse-gas emitting carbon-based fuels.
What is needed for the survival of civilization is a thorough going re-examination of the value of the West’s “standard of living”. While nobody would gainsay the need for adequate food, shelter and health care, the rampant materialism of the privileged classes in both the West and the rest of the world are hardly equivalent to “civilization”. In effect, that is what the Egyptian street is saying loud and clear right now.