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?
It’s a twisting discourse that hinges on semantics at some points, as many round-faced middle-aged energy experts stare dumbstruck into the camera, never too shy to admit they simply do not know how to answer. And really, how could they? Some partake in Madsen’s descent into philosophical no-man’s land, while others are quick to end the debate, because what everyone involved is actually dealing with are decisions made in uncertainty, where engineers are forced to deal in abstracts. There is no logic that can be projected upon a generation so far in the future, we cannot even define it. And so the permanent solution to nuclear waste rides the carousel in looped ambivalence. as a canvas for the discussion, Madsen has created a captivating and alienated world, coaxing us into the deadly labyrinth of Onkalo – inside, outside and underground – and ultimately inventing a new genre: the Sci-fi documentary. Like a ubiquitous entity, Madsen’s camera ‘floats’ across the grounds of Onkalo, framed as a haunted spaceship, and into the winter landscapes that forecast the imminent ice age. Even the employees, especially those who work underground, have been characterized as condemned gravediggers of some kind of purgatory. Deep in the vast and boundless abyss of caves and rocks, they silently bury a substance that, if found, could be the earth’s undoing. The central question comes back to whether it’s best to ignore the facility or leave direct warning signs of its danger. And even if the signs were to be posted, in what language would they read, with what images and numbers, and how should such markers be erected?
The marker is designed as an enormous monolith that tapers to a slender point high in the sky, serving as a tablature of the warnings. Even with such architectural signage, Madsen’s concern is primarily, how do we prevent future inhabitants of earth from thinking they have found the pyramids of our time? He alludes to mystical burial grounds and hidden treasures with heavy religious undertones. Just as we believe that the artefacts and architecture of ancient civilizations, like the pyramids, represent something holy and religious, so might future generations assume that the buried vaults of nuclear waste are spiritual keys to the past. And what would be the consequence if, heedless of the warnings, they were ever excavated, a decision not uncharacteristic to human curiosity in the past. So perhaps it’s better, and safer, to forget. Yet what Madsen finds so fascinating about the predicament surrounding the future of Onkalo is how to go about creating oblivion.
«Finland is dealing with 250,000 tons of nuclear waste that is estimated to have a 100,000year shelf life»
Those involved with Onkalo have agreed to keep an archive chronicling the process and the decisions concerning Finland’s nuclear waste. Likely an arbitrary task, because really, who is to ensure its shelf-life? In 120 years, Onkalo will presumably be finished and sealed off for all eternity. But as Mother Nature continues to wield her worldly ways while the ethics surrounding mankind’s use and abuse of nuclear energy are thrown into the ring of global debate, such a deadline could quickly become obsolete, long before 100 000 years is up. Or maybe not. Perhaps more ‘Onkalos’ will be dug out, creating a lethal underground network of something we must always remember to forget. But while we’re still dealing with ‘to produce or not to produce’ nuclear energy, we need to remember the consequences when nuclear meets negligence.
It’s been reported that Japan had been producing more nuclear waste than has been accounted for. Scientists claim that the recent events reveal insufficient oversight of the nuclear industry, resulting in pleas from critics to redefine the mandate of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Economically too, the repercussions are severe, with Japan ranking third largest of the world’s economies. On a positive note, in just the short time since the country’s nuclear accidents, the stock prices of many energy companies reliant on nuclear sources have dropped, while the value of renewable energy companies has risen. But in the interim, caution must extend to future practices – and consciences to future Earth dwellers. Anyone who sees Michael Madsen’s eerie glimpse into a foreseeable future, however, will likely feel the extra weight of such a responsibility.