Fukushima has pushed nuclear reactor safety – rather understandably – into mainstream political debate once again. But strange as it may sound, reactor safety is not at the top of my list of nuclear concerns.

There’s been much less discussion on the longevity of nuclear waste. There’s been no real appreciation in the public mind of just how long-lasting (and long-lasting isn’t a strong enough phrase to explain what I’m talking about) committing to using nuclear power really is. And going into any depth on this starts to bring up questions and concepts – such as the legacy of humanity and the issue of our mortality as a species – that should be incorporated more firmly into the debate we have over whether to support nuclear power.

Many of us haven’t made up our minds, but from a different perspective away from the reactor safety debate, I’d recommend watching ‘Into Eternity’ by Danish director Micheal Madsen. ‘Into Eternity’ focuses on the efforts of the Finnish authorities to construct Onkalo (“Hiding Place” or “Cave”), an underground nuclear waste repository whose objective will be to store the country’s nuclear waste five kilometres under the surface of the earth. Their law requires that all nuclear waste produced in Finland is stored in Finland.

Construction will finish in the 22nd century, long after you and I are both dead. But much more startling than that is the fact that the waste will be hazardous to life for a hundred thousand years.

Those involved in Onkalo face the challenge of staring into the black, unpredictable abyss of the future. They must plan to shield the nuclear waste from the outside world for a period of time we cannot properly appreciate the enormity of.

The construction of the Pyramids. The birth of Christ. The rise and fall of countless empires. The sum total of all recorded human endeavour – is but a tiny fraction of the timescale that the waste will be dangerous for. It reveals a problem with nuclear power so vast in scale that it’s hard for us to comprehend.

In that time period, the only certainties are geological certainties. Ice ages will come and go. Humankind could be long-gone from the face of the earth.

Onkalo’s creators must discuss humanity’s mortality in a cold, calculating way. We fill up our lives with countless distractions to stop us thinking too much about our own individual mortality. Our collective mortality as a civilization – even as a species – is not often thought of. Onkalo must tackle the challenge of warning the far-flung future of the dangers buried inside. One expert confidently states that he personally believes that once Onkalo is sealed, it will never be discovered by humans.

The way they attempt to communicate the danger to beings unknown by using pictures, diagrams, different languages, is fairly reminiscent of the pictograms on the Pioneer spacecraft, the first manmade objects to leave the solar system, in case they should be found by extraterrestrial life. The nuclear tomb’s constructors are forced to try and second-guess the psychology and motivations of someone – or something – that they will never know and can’t even begin to imagine. How best to put across that what is stored there isn’t valuable, should never be discovered, and is dangerous? There are hieroglyphics of ancient civilisations just a few thousand years ago that we cannot understand in the present day. How can we communicate on a timescale immensely larger than that? And even if it was understood, would curiosity not override concern?

Back home, such discussions are in their infancy. The Department of Energy & Climate Change published a report on geological nuclear waste disposal sites a few weeks ago. The UK could have its first Onkalo by 2029. Finland has just four reactors. We have 19. The USA has 104. How many “hiding places” will we need?

Readers can draw their own conclusions on whether it’s economical for us to continue going down this path. Or whether it’s indeed safe. The scale of the challenge makes the apparent eagerness of some to have the material buried in their locales appear insane. I’m primarily thinking here of the mind-blowing idea of leaving behind something so toxic, so long-lasting, that it will surely outlast anything we can even imagine.

That is at least as terrifying as reactor safety concerns, if not more.


Into Eternity’s official trailer can be viewed here.