Into Eternity raises questions for the ages

No one has ever argued that the use of nuclear power is risk free, but the focus has long been on preventing disasters directly related to active power plants. Meltdowns and fires are the focus of safety efforts as they can have disastrous consequences, as demonstrated by the Chernobyl disaster. Over time, through diligence and safety regulations, the incidence of accidents at power plants has decreased. There is, however, a new rising spectre casting its shadow over nuclear power: what do we do with the waste?

This question lies at the heart of Michael Madsen’s documentary, Into Eternity. The movie focuses on Finnish efforts to deal with the waste from their nuclear power plants that currently supply 25 per cent of the country’s energy. It is currently impossible to process nuclear waste which remains dangerously radioactive. The waste is stored in interim storage facilities above ground, with giant tanks of waste submerged in cool water to contain the radiation, but there are worries about how long this solution will last. Experts don’t agree, but estimates lie anywhere between 10 years and 100 years. The interim storages facilities are also susceptible to natural disasters because of their proximity to the earth’s surface. An earthquake, volcanic eruption or other kind of disaster could expose the waste and cause another calamity like Chernobyl.

Finland has found a solution — a giant underground facility called Onkalo (literally “cavern”) to store the country’s nuclear waste. When the facility buried in the heart of the Finnish bedrock is finished, it will hypothetically be able to store the waste for 100,000 years.

Madsen’s documentary chronicles some of Onkalo’s construction, a mammoth undertaking. The footage of construction is interspersed with interviews with a wide array of experts that weigh in on the issues facing the facility.

Madsen unflinchingly asks pointed questions that highlight the philosophical and ethical concerns of Onkalo. How long will it really last? What happens if a civilization not our own finds the site in 500 years? 5,000 years? 50,000 years? How will we be able to communicate the danger of such an important facility to these future civilizations? Do experts really think that the facility will last that long?

Madsen uncovers fascinating answers as he probes deeper and deeper into the issue. Nuclear power plants currently supply 14-15 per cent of the world’s electricity, and as that number increases, we are going to have to figure out how to deal with the byproduct.

The one weakness of Madsen’s film is its lack of generalizability — though some of the lessons and answers he gleans from the Finnish experts could be extrapolated to deal with other plants in the world, it would have been interesting if Madsen had tackled the issue more broadly. Many countries around the world don’t have plans in place to deal with their nuclear waste and much of it sits in these interim storage facilities. It would have been nice if Madsen had policy experts from other countries weigh in.

Still, Into Eternity is an excellent look at an often-ignored problem and will certainly inspire discussions about this issue, one that has to be dealt with. The cinematography is excellent and the scenes from underground construction are fantastic. The experts Madsen consulted are all informative and the movie is well worth watching.

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