As a student of history and American studies, the subject that always interested me the most was the Cold War, and how the Atomic Age was viewed in popular culture. I published a paper on images of the Space Race in advertising, and how nuclear science captured public imagination in the 1950s and 60s.
One of the images rescued off my old hard drive by Justin.
I was also particularly fascinated with the specter of nuclear warfare. I saw just about every film on the subject, from the satire of Dr. Strangelove to the dead-seriousness of The Day After. I read books ranging from the philosophical musings on the atomic legacy in Oh Pure and Radiant Heart to the gut-wrenching first-hand recollections of atomic bombing survivors in Hiroshima. It's probably safe to say that I've spent more time thinking about the possibility of nuclear annihilation than most people.
Hence, I've been following the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Power Plant with an interest that extends beyond the devastating humanitarian tragedy it represents. The press surrounding the catastrophe has rekindled my interest in nuclear policy, and I have been devouring news and opinion pieces at a prodigious rate. Of particular interest was the republication of a fascinating article I found on Slate about the ethics of nuclear waste disposal. It raised a number of interesting questions about how to dispose of material that has the potential to be deadly for 100,000 years, when human beings as we recognize them only go back some 50,000 years. How do you communicate with the future? It's a question that boggles the mind.
When I saw that the Siskel Film Center was screening Into Eternity, a documentary about Onkalo, a three mile deep tunnel being hewn from the Finnish bedrock as a storage site for Finland's nuclear waste, I knew I had to attend. I found the film fascinating, and was glad that I went, though Justin called it, "one of the scariest films I've ever seen." It would seem that a lot of people agreed with his assessment, and stayed away from the theater in the first place, as it was one of the most poorly-attended screenings I've caught there in ages. Clearly, philosophical discussion about how to protect the future from the damage we've wrought in our time isn't a palatable topic for most people.
For me, the documentary hearkened back to the conceit of one of my favorite college courses on Cold War culture in literature: how do you express the inexpressible? The danger of radioactive waste exists on a scale that humans cannot begin to wrap their minds around. There is literally not a single assumption that can be made about how people in the future will interpret the site, or how they will interact with it.
Consider, for a moment, that the earliest forms of human writing came into existence only 5,000 years ago, but today, only highly-trained scholars can read such texts. We have no way of knowing how people will communicate so far into the future in order to be able to warn them of the danger that lurks beneath the ground. And who is to say they would listen to us even if we could? The ancient Egyptians covered their tombs with warnings of the dire fates that befall any who disturbed them, but curious and greedy individuals of later generations dug them up anyway.
Furthermore, how do we know that radiation will still be dangerous so far into the future. An optimistic view might posit that future civilizations might find a way to neutralize radioactive materials, or even harness them for some sort of good that we cannot even conceive of today. As little as a couple hundred years ago, the idea of splitting an atom to harness its energy would have been an inconceivable concept. If society continues down a path of technological and scientific advancement, we have no way of predicting what kind of advances will be possible.
The film, though somewhat heavy-handed at times (though, in all honesty, what topic could be more deserving of such high drama?), does a masterful job of raising these questions and exploring a range of possible answers from a series of experts. There are no definitive answers, and Into Eternity doesn't try to give us any. Instead, it does its best to inform, explore, and raise the audience's consciousness of the issues at stake. It succeeds in making what could be a very dry subject entertaining (though, as Justin said, terrifying), and although it doesn't necessarily motivate the audience to action (since the average person has no bearing on nuclear energy policy), it does make them more educated citizens of the world.
Moreover, Into Eternity is a timely yet timeless tale. In all likelihood, it's probably not possible for you to catch it in theaters yourself and it's not currently available on Netflix, but I highly encourage you to at least read the Slate article. It's an intriguing read, and you might just learn something...