There’s nothing like a topical nuclear disaster to give your nuclear waste d o c u m e nt a r y the proper PR leverage it needs. Promotion of that origin is, of course, undesirable. But with impeccable timing, it can’t be ignored that the devastation surrounding Japan’s recent earthquake and tsunami, leading to the nuclear accidents at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, have accelerated the immediacy of Michael Madsen’s newest documentary, Into Eternity.
Due to the recent catastrophe in Japan, the nuclear debate is back on top, prompting the reevaluation of existing and future nuclear energy programs. The German government is jumping to abandon nuclear energy all together with the plans to shut down seven power plants in the coming months, while the world’s superpowers are currently undergoing inspections at their nuclear facilities, promising to take into consideration the calamity wrought upon Japan when devising their nuclear plans. Lessons appear to have been learned, as both fears and rumours sail across the pacific – will they carry radioactive fumes with them? Only time will tell. And the notion of time is indeed probed in Madsen’s film. Since civilization opted for the use of nuclear energy, there has never been a permanent solution for its waste, until now.
Onkalo (which means hiding place) is a village in the northern region of Lappi, Finland, which is home to the radioactive waste of Finnish power plants. Cryptlike, Onkalo’s storage facility is an elaborate underground tunnelling system that buries the waste deep in the bedrock. Currently, Finland is dealing with 250,000 tons of nuclear waste that is estimated to have a 100,000-year shelf life, with a no- guarantee policy on safety or stability. But it might be the best solution yet. We’ve heard the hairbrained ideas before – sink it to the bottom of the ocean, blast it into space. What makes Into Eternity’s dilemma concerning nuclear waste so significant is that it does not necessarily bother with the ethics behind the decision to bury the waste, but rather how we can explain it to the future once it’s underground. Like a warning letter, Michael Madsen’s documentary is scripted with the poetics of the myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the Gods. Between the film’s chapters, Madsen stares into the camera like a fortune-telling narrator and recites his soliloquies, drawing parallels between the Greek myth and the history of nuclear energy. From the cold and pitch-dark caves of Onkalo, Madsen asks future generations to “always remember to forget this place.” It’s a brilliant philosophical premise. Faced with filming talking heads and the frozen landscapes of northern Finland, questions of how to deal with a future generation we know nothing about, can be ceaselessly posed, debated and revisited throughout the course of the film.
Interviewing nuclear specialists and scientists from across Scandinavia, Madsen tackles the practical, political and philosophical implications of nuclear energy by asking them to visualize the future 100 000 years from now. How can they warn our descendants of what lies in the earth below them, because how will we ever know who, or what, will inherit the earth that far in the future?
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