For all the tragic and mind-boggling downsides to the recent Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, one silver lining emerges from that dark cloud: At least we’re talking with some degree of seriousness about the substantial dangers in so-called “clean” nuclear energy.
Waste not, want not
A recent film out of Finland, Into Eternity by Danish director Michael Madsen (not to be confused with the American actor of the same name), explores those dangers in a quiet but persistent meditation on just how unclean nuclear really is and just how long it will linger in our world as a reminder of this toxic — and some might say immoral — energy source.
The documentary tells the story of the Onkolo Waste Repository, the world’s first permanent nuclear-waste storage facility. As the film’s title suggests, Onkalo is built to last into eternity. The reason? That’s how long the joys of nuclear waste, in all its cancer-causing splendor, and in all its harmful gene-mutating diversity, lasts.
It’s because of the staggering time period in which nuclear waste continues to leave its unforgiving calling card that nations have had to wrestle with how to deal with the “spent” fuel rods — the waste material, which is still dangerous for tens of thousands of years or longer — resulting from choosing nuclear power.
Too many governments, led by Washington, have shown gutless leadership in this regard, leaving spent fuel rods in open pools for their 100,000-year cooling off period. This is a “solution” with myriad problems, from the energy required to cool such pools to the national security issues that an impermanent strategy invites.
Only Finland has gone the distance, deciding in 1994 to amend the Finnish Nuclear Energy Act to require that all nuclear waste resulting from Finnish nuclear production be stored in Finland. To make a long story short, thus was born Onkalo.
But the story really can’t be shortened too much. The reality is that Onkalo, a storage site that the film explains was painstakingly chosen from among many options, is 1,710 feet underground, built into solid bedrock in a process that is taking years to complete, blast by daily blast. Ultimately the facility is designed to hold 100 years worth of used fuel rods, meaning it wont technically be completed until the 22nd century, when it was finally sealed up after the last waste rod was deposited.
There’s your backstory on Onkalo.
What the film does, and brilliantly I might add, is tell the story with a characteristically Nordic temperament — methodical, unrepentant, quietly insistent, with a gravity foreign to the US social, political and cultural scene.
Between its deadpan seriousness and the film’s oddly luscious visual and graphic styling, the film could have been directed by Swedish darling Ingmar Bergman.
But in spite of the grave subject matter, this beautifully filmed journey deep underground and far into eternity is truly a delight to watch. This may be because after years of living under the clownish US cultural milieu (as James Howard Kunstler might put it), it’s a welcome breath of fresh Nordic air to see and hear some truth.
That truth is that nuclear waste is an unending nightmare and nuclear facilities are not any kind of clean-energy dream come true.
From the mining of uranium and plutonium to the massive energy inputs required to build and maintain the facilities to living perched, like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, one wave or switch or blast from certain disaster, nuclear power too easily boasts its “clean energy” cred without the substance to back it up.
And as for how these plants get financed — privatize the profits and socialize the costs — not even the Tea Party Patriots are sucker enough to back these taxpayer behemoths. That, of course, is another story, but it’s one that could use a documentary of its own.
Slow build, tense narrative
Into Eternity moves slowly, but not in an “I’m-bored-where-are-the-nuclear-superheros-when-you-need-them” kind of slowly.
Instead the lush shots of the wooded Finnish landscape above ground, the camera lingering on the sterile and yet oddly organic nuclear facility controls and industrial engineering, the variously gloomy and then magnetic lighting of interior and exterior pans and the clinical and yet emotive interviews with scientists and government officials related to Onkalo’s development, draw the viewer in to a soulful reflection on nuclear energy laid bare.
It is, as I said, a kind of meditation, and one you’re not inclined to break for the fast cuts and montages that tell today’s stories for ADHD nation. See the trailer here.
By taking a reflective approach, the filmmakers help explain just how difficult it is to not only store the spent rods, but also how vexing is it to think in terms of a hundred-thousand-year future, when Earth residents will inherit Onkalo’s troubled contents.
Will we be able to effectively warn them from curiously reaching in to the tunnels and tombs holding 21st century toxic remnants? In just 3,000 years we barely understood the Egyptian pyramids, and our archaeologists were hungry to dig in to their perceived treasures which, while full of both metallic and historiographical gold, were, admittedly, their culture’s places of death.
Will future generations be well enough cautioned against exploring Onkalo? Can it be hidden? And what if it is found and opened anyway? These moral conundrums clearly weight on the minds of Onkalo’s architects and workers, along with nuclear officials in Finland.
But forget the future for a moment. Will the warnings from this film be enough to make people in all nations with nuclear power pause to reflect? Can we start to grow up on the energy front and begin taking responsibility for our energy use, its sources and its often-horrific pollution?
Madsen’s documentary opens the door to dialogue. Finding ways to get this film shown can begin the conversation. It’s a perfect conversation starter for Transition groups, anti-nuclear activists and citizens who want a larger voice in energy choice.
Produced in 2010 by Magic Hour Films with a bevy of support by various Nordic film institutes, the film opened in US theaters earlier this year. To buy a copy of the film for public screenings contact Films Transit International.
– Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice
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