MICHAEL MADSEN / FILM DIRECTOR
We call it Onkalo. Onkalo means “hiding place”. In my time it is still unfinished though work began in the 20th century when I was just a child. Work would be completed in the 22nd century long after my death.
Onkalo must last one hundred thousand years. Nothing built by man has lasted even a tenth of that time span. But we consider ourselves a very potent civilization.
If we succeed, Onkalo will most likely be the longest lasting remains of our civilization. If you, sometime far into the future, find this, what will it tell you about us?
The voice of Danish artist and film maker Michael Madsen from the opening of his film: Into Eternity. These words were first heard in the US in early 2011 when Into Eternity was released in North American.
Onkalo is the first in the world – after Yucca Mountain failed technologically as well as politically in the U.S. – and the only project to create a permanent storage for waste from nuclear power plants.
Madsen takes us to the remote island of Olkiluoto (“ol-key-lu-oh-toe”) on the shores of the Baltic Sea in Finland. Underground we meet the blasters who set off the explosions that create the vast system of tunnels. And above the various technicians, scientists, and regulators involved in this project.
For the next hundred years the multiple tunnels and chambers of Onkalo, which stretch to a depth of fifteen hundred feet [500 metres], will house all of Finland’s nuclear waste, until it is filled and sealed with cement in 2120.
No person working on the facility today will live to see it completed. To protect life from the highly radioactive nuclear power plant fuel, the waste must lay untouched for 100,000 years. Onkalo is being designed to far outlast any structure or institution ever created by mankind.
What are 100,000 years in relation to known history? Since it is so difficult to predict the future, we usually look back:
- The Great Pyramid of Giza was completed around 4,500 years ago,
- the transition from nomadic hunter gathering to farming and permanent settlement occurred between 7 and 10 thousand years ago,
- the last ice age was 20,000 years ago,
- our Homo sapiens ancestors only reached Europe 40 thousand years ago, where Neanderthals did not become extinct until 30 thousand years ago
- and the great original Homo sapiens migration out of Africa took place between 125 and 60 thousand years ago.
My thoughts, in viewing the film, Into Eternity, post-Fukushima, were that as insane as it appears to embark on a project of building storage to last 100,000 years, it is even more insane to continue the practice of keeping the so-called “spent” nuclear fuel right next to the most dangerous places on earth, in unprotected fuel pools next to nuclear power plants. And most insane, I think and we may soon all realize to produce electricity with nuclear fuel in the first place.
At the moment there is at least 250,000 tonnes of radioactive waste on Earth. Onkalo, after all these efforts, will be able to hold a tiny fraction of 6,500 tonnes.
For some time the nuclear industry has claimed nuclear fuel will be re-processed. However, in this chain of mounting absurdities, reprocessing creates plutonium, that will have to be kept safe not for 100,000 but for one million years. Unless it is used in a nuclear weapons with the potential to destroy the planet instantly.