If you walk into a screening of Michael Madsen's* documentary Into Eternity expecting to be reassured about nuclear energy and its safe handling, you are probably going to leave the theater more than a little horrified, but not for the reason you might think. This film is not an Erin Brockovich-style exposé of the nuclear power industry, nor does it really attempt to scare you with its presentation (except for a few rather jarring musical cues). Rather, it is a disturbing and thought-provoking look at a problem of unprecedented scale, namely how to ensure that spent nuclear fuel is handled in a way where it will not harm anyone or anything for the 100,000 years that is remains dangerous. The truly chilling part of this is coming to realize while viewing the movie just how much of what needs to be a very tight plan to work is based on variables that cannot possibly be known.
The main "narrative" of the film is about the construction of Onkalo, a four-kilometer deep tunnel the size of a city, which will be needed to store spent nuclear fuel for the aforementioned hundred millennia time period. In a film that explores in great detail how long the lifespan of our waste is in comparison to our own, even the time from the beginning of Onkalo's construction to its finally being sealed - an astounding 125 years - seems insignificant next to the amount of time the structure is expected to exist and to serve the purpose for which is designed. It might inspire one to feel pride for living in a time and society where such things are possible, but when cast in the harsh light of that gargantuan expanse of time, I began to wonder how much of that accomplishment is real and how much of it is wishful thinking.
If there's one thing I learned from the recent accidents at the Fukushima Dai-ichi facility, it's that even careful planning can prove disastrously ineffective when faced with the unforeseen -- the plant was designed to withstand earthquakes, but not one of the magnitude of the March 2011 quake. Similarly, it's not out of the realm of possibility that even a well-designed and cared-for storage repository might encounter unforeseen geologic conditions with tragic results.
However, the film is very even-handed about this approach to the problem of what to do with nuclear waste, taking care not to outright make it seem like a bad idea. True, it never makes it seem like a fantastic solution to the problem either, but rather has the effect of framing it as a "damned if you do/damned if you don't" scenario and emphasizing that inaction is simply not an option. More often than not, the interview subjects come off as humble about the task ahead of them, although a couple of them seem disturbingly not to appreciate the full weight of what the filmmaker is asking them to address. Perhaps what the director is driving at is that a better solution to nuclear waste would be to stop making it, but this is an idea that nobody he speaks with seems to take seriously, for various reasons.
For them, it seems a foregone conclusion that efforts such as Onkalo are the price of the energy we get from nuclear power and that the utility of this cost for what we do to our future is above question. In this sense, the filmmaker has discovered the heart of the real problem with storing spent nuclear fuel - the best solution is not merely to bury the nuclear fuel we have, it is to do that and stop making more of it. The tragedy, of course, is that the people who can and are building Onkalo and sites like it are not interested in going that extra step. After all, it would mean the end of their industry, and though it might be good for us in the long run, most people are understandably unwilling to give it all up to make that happen.
In a film full of chilling ideas, one that certainly ranks up there is the notion that we as a society are not merely unwilling but perhaps even unable to let go of something with so many negative consequences and ramifications for the future of life on Earth. This is probably true of more than just nuclear power, but nonetheless this particular issue forces us to confront this hard reality.
Although at some times it comes off as a little melodramatic, Madsen uses an interesting and effective rhetorical device in periodically addressing his film not to the audience watching it in 2011 (or the near future) but to those who might discover his film generations later, maybe even centuries or millennia later, if such a thing is indeed possible. Although I have to admit that it's probably more effective on a contemporary audience -- one interview subject makes the point that we don't know how language will change in the future - it's still interesting to try to view the issue from a fresh set of eyes, try to consider what someone who doesn't know what we know might think of discovering a site like Onkalo.
Would they find our words of warning meaningful and heed them, or dismiss them as hokum and laugh at our bravado as they began digging? Might they even suspect that we were trying to hide something of value and dig faster? How might they respond to what they found? These are all questions that are unknowable, but nonetheless important and even stimulating to consider, as the filmmaker asks us to think of our legacy on a human level and by doing so attempts to make the numbers more fathomable.
Into Eternity is a scary movie, in that it makes us aware how many knowledge gaps there are in a scheme that, although far from the longest construction project ever, still represents a sizeable endeavor. Although it is on some level comforting to know that something is being done to address the problem, that comfort is short-lived when you cone to realize that 1) the problem of what to do with nuclear waste is far from solved, even by a drastic and necessary site such as Onkalo, and 2) What is essentially being built into the Finnish bedrock, as important as it is, might as well be our culture's version of Pandora's box - a hidden secret just waiting to be opened by someone curious and naive to the detriment of all. It is my hope that thousands more will not be necessary.
*Not the Chicago-born actor who played Vic Vega in Reservoir Dogs, in case you were wondering.