Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 2, 2011

Into Eternity

Filed under: Film,nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 4:18 pm

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.


  1. Awwww, did the big tough revolutionary see a scary film?

    Does all the complicated technology give you butterflies in your tummy?

    Just make sure you stamp out the ‘rampant materialism’ of Chinese, Indian and working-class people and privileged white people like you will be just fine, comrade! You might want to start off by encouraging Mubarak to crush the protests in Egypt. You never know: they might ask for improved living standards next! The horror!

    Viva la revolucion!

    PS. 100,000 is 100 times 1,000, not 10 times.

    Better double check your sums before you set about hacking back humanity’s living standards.

    Comment by optimismsaturation — February 3, 2011 @ 5:13 pm

  2. Thanks for the heads up on the typo, Frank Furedi. Will fix my review now.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 3, 2011 @ 8:59 pm

  3. There is a difference between being a Luddite and being cautious about potentially dangerous technology that has proven disastrous in the past. The fact is, safe, clean nuclear power is still a dream. There is no such thing as a fool-proof reactor, and the mining and transportation of uranium ore is quite fossil fuel intensive. Not to mention the fact that nuclear energy is not renewable. The amount of quality ore in the Earth is far from inexhaustible. Also, breeder reactors, which are supposed to run on the plutonium created by regular reactors, have historically failed time and time again, leaving bomb manufacturing the only use for the excess plutonium.
    No one sane wants to send humanity back to the middle ages, but Western consumer culture is hardly the be all end all standard of living. We have the technology and tools to increase standard of living for the world’s poor, and that involves renewable energy and a dismantling of the existing capitalist order.

    Comment by Rob — February 3, 2011 @ 9:43 pm

  4. ‘Better double check your sums before you set about hacking back humanity’s living standards.’

    living standards? Dose mass pollution of lakes rivers and seas, the nuking of the Gulf of Mexico, Chernobyl, Bhopal etc etc seem like a ‘livig standard’ or a ‘dying’ standard?

    Comment by brian — February 3, 2011 @ 11:04 pm

  5. ‘There is a difference between being a Luddite ‘

    why be afraid of being called aluddite? The luddites were workers whose livelihoods were under attack, and they themselves set oupon by govt troops simply for demonstrating againsta technology that threatened their livilihod and livng standards!
    The same govt that committed the enclosures, and the industrial mass pollution that we still endure today.
    If criticising nuclear power and its pollution (a problem that has no solution) is to be a luddite im happy to be called one

    Comment by brian — February 3, 2011 @ 11:07 pm

  6. FYI: If you’d like a very readable look at the US nuclear industry from the inside during good times and bad, try the novel “Rad Decision” at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com . It covers the operating side of the equation. It’s free.

    Comment by James Aach — February 3, 2011 @ 11:40 pm

  7. #1

    Do you think radiation sickness, cancer, leukemia, birth defects, etc are likely to improve people’s material living standards in India, China, or anywhere else? Until there is a solution to the problem of what to do with nuclear waste, then nuclear power is not the answer. And who will suffer from it? Who will have this poisonous shit dumped on, or buried under, the land they live on? Who do you fucking think?

    And nuclear power stations are not going to stop people being poor & being exploited. Only revolution is going to do that. The problem is not the amount (of energy, money, food, fuel, resources, etc…) available in the world today, but who controls it & how it is distributed.

    Protecting the environment & improving living standards are not seperate or opposed issues, or at least don’t have to be.

    Comment by JN — February 4, 2011 @ 12:37 am

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