In 1983, eco-philosopher Joanna Macy was among the first to raise the issue of Nuclear Guardianship, “a citizen commitment to present and future generations to keep radioactive materials out of the biosphere.” Macy challenged people to consider what it would take to safely isolate nuclear wastes for millennia — and how to leave behind a warning on burial sites that could be understood by any future survivors who might stumble across a still-deadly atomic garbage pit.
Well, it turns out that Finland, way back in 1972, had become the first country to make the extraordinary commitment to become a Nuclear Guardian and Danish artist Michael Madsen has made a stark and memorable documentary film about the effort. Into Eternity, winner of the 2010 Green Screen Award, explores the science, engineering and philosophy behind what may become the greatest undertaking in the history of mankind — the construction of a buried nuclear waste vault that will outlast the pyramids.
For nuclear entombment to be even moderately successful, a storage facility must remain intact for at least 10,000 years but no man-made structure has ever survived for 10,000 years (Egypt’s pyramids were built around 5,000 years ago).
The US had a plan for long-term storage of nuclear wastes at the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada. Yucca Mountain was supposed to operate until 2133—at a cost topping $99 billion (in 2011 dollars) but, earlier this year, the White House bowed to criticism that the site was too flawed to open. It was located near an earthquake fault in fractured bedrock that could allow radioactive seepage into groundwater. (The White House decision is now the target of a nuclear-industry-backed legal challenge and, on June 3, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is set to hear arguments contesting plans to close Yucca Mountain.)
With Yucca Mountain’s fate uncertain, the world’s only permanent nuclear waste repository still under construction is the Finnish site located 186 miles northwest of Helskini.Work on Onkalo (the Finnish word for “Hidden”) began 11 years before work began on the Nevada site and construction will not be completed until sometime in the 22nd Century. Finland plans to store the waste in two-inch-thick copper containers interred 1,600 feet deep in bedrock that has remained stable for 1.8 billion years. The site is being reinforced to withstand the weight of a two-mile-thick layer of ice that is expected to arrive with the next Ice Age. When (and if) it is completed, Onkalo would only have room for Finland’s nuclear wastes—only one percent of the world’s 250,000 to 300,000 tons of stockpiled radioactive garbage.
Onkalo must remain secure for 100,000 years — about as long as humans have walked the Earth. In 10,000 years (let alone 100,000), most modern languages may likely be long forgotten which gives rise to the question raised by Macy: “What kind of warning message can we leave behind that will be understood so far in the future?”
This beautiful, somber and challenging film will give viewers a new perspective on the word “perspective.” It forces us to contemplate timeframes that extend beyond the survival of the human race. This is the world of the Long Now, where short-term human goals dim to insignificance. Into Eternity reveals that the promise of “cheap, clean, abundant” nuclear power was a tragic hoax perpetrated by the military-industrial complex.
Ironically, the only artifact of our civilization that stands a chance of outlasting the centuries may well be this single graveyard of toxic trash buried in Finland’s crystalline gneiss bedrock. Meanwhile, thanks to our hubris and denial, we will be leaving behind a much deadlier legacy for future generations — 300,000 tons of radioactive wastes that will most likely be left untended in thousands of crumbling surface storage sites around the world.