Onkalo, Into Eternity, and Faulkner’s homemade spaceship

In the forests of the remote island of Olkiluoto, on the shores of the Baltic Sea in western Finland, engineers are constructing a giant underground tomb to store all of Finland’s nuclear waste. The project is called Onkalo, literally meaning ‘hiding place’, and construction is expected to be completed in 2020. For the next hundred years the multiple tunnels and chambers of Onkalo, which stretch to a depth of 500 metres, will house all of Finland’s nuclear waste, until it is filled with cement and sealed in 2120. To ensure its safety, the waste must lay untouched for 100,000 years. Onkalo is being designed to far outlast any institution ever created by man or his ancestors. Last year a Finnish filmmaker, Michael Madsen, released a documentary about it called Into Eternity.

The appearance of dates on their own can sometimes appear meaningless, so here are a few landmarks to put 100,000 years in some kind of perspective. 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 7-10,000 years ago, the last ice age was 20,000 years ago, our Homo sapien ancestors only reached Europe 40,000 years ago, where Neanderthals did not become extinct until 30,000 years ago and the great original Homo sapien migration out of Africa took place between 125-60,000 years ago.

At the present time, the world’s nuclear waste is held in water storage facilities dotted around the globe. These facilities are expensive, reliant on power, need permanent maintainance requiring a constant human presence, and are completely at the mercy of world events. As one expert interviewed in Into Eternity puts it, ‘There has been two world wars in the last hundred years, the world above ground is too unstable’. A major war in itself would be enough to empty a facility such as this of its workers and scientists, leaving it without power and vulnerable, without considering an even more major catastrophe. Watching Into Eternity does what very few other documentaries can; it leads the viewer to consider the entire breadth of human history, and leaves us to think about ‘bigger questions’ that entirely dwarf the ‘big questions’ that, in our times, we have shied away from even considering.

Commenting on the continuity of history that he felt the culture of the postmodern world had rejected, what he called the ‘crisis of historicity’, the cultural critic Fredric Jameson considered that;

“there no longer does seem to be any organic relationship between the American history we learn from schoolbooks and the lived experience of the current, multinational, high-rise, stagflated city of the newspapers and of our own everyday life”

And the thought is a very pertinent one, if we consider our own era as independent or unconnected to our recent historical past, what we might read in a school history book, how on earth is it possible for us to consider the implications of something that is intended to last for 100,000 years?

In what is a thoroughly overused phrase, Into Eternity can be described as ‘haunting’. It shifts between images from inside Onkalo of engineers quietly working underground, to interviews with various experts involved with the project, including scientists from the company behind the project, and a theology professor. Madsen’s narration takes the form of a quietly spoken, Herzog-esque, message to a hypothetical person of the future who has discovered Onkalo, and he poses questions to this hypothetical viewer throughout. He asks whether ‘you’ were warned of the dangers of Onkalo by your ancestors, presumably through the form of folk tales.

The interviews with the experts themselves are the most interesting aspect of the film, and what we are presented with is a collection of completely fallible human beings who seem to be desperately trying to handle the metaphysical problems of the consequences of Onkalo as best they can. One, who is identified as a regulator from the Finnish Nuclear Safety Authority, looks as if he is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and punctuates his slowly considered answers to Madsen’s questions with a continual nervous laughter. The questions and answers between Madsen and the experts have a roundabout feel to them, and their often jaded responses give the feeling of a collection of people for whom any questions about Onkalo will throw up a million others, and it is best to address them as best as they can, prepare in the same way for an eventuality, and commit to the project with a certain amount of fingers crossed.

The dynamic of the roundabout questioning in the film is not confined between Madsen and the experts, and the film reveals open disagreements between the Onkalo team themselves. One of these, and probably the most important, is over the question of how, if at all, future generations should be warned about the dangers of Onkalo.

For the time being, Onkalo is the responsibility of the Finnish state, but the idea of the Finnish state surviving for the next 100,000 years is far-fetched to say the least. Should archives be maintained to warn people? A war could destroy an archive or leave it forgotten along with any other official warnings and records, and could depopulate the entire area, or Finland itself, so even a historical warning provided by word of mouth and local tradition would be unavailable. War seems a predictable scenario, and over 100,000 years humans will have to deal with far more calamitous events, such as mass human migration, or probably several, or another ice age. Again, to put this in some perspective, the great Migration Period which saw the end of Roman civilisation and the resettlement of tribes across Europe occurred only 1,700 years ago, the Earth is due for another ice age in at least the next 60,000 years, and during the last one Finland, with the rest of northern Europe, was under a permanent ice sheet.

Aside from questions of responsibility for Onkalo, the experts are also split on whether or not to erect actual physical markers at the site as warnings. Some believe that is best to warn anyone who comes across the site to stay away, while others believe that any warning markers will arouse the curiosity of whoever comes across them. If warnings are left, what form would they take? The outlines presented in the film are shown as large stone towers, with various warning symbols designed to be universally understood as representing danger, as well as warnings in every major world language. These are problems in themselves, symbols in use today will certainly be meaningless in 100,000 years time, as evidenced by our lack of understanding of many ancient runic languages, and the languages used around the world in the 21st century will definitely be useless. We only have to look at the progression of English in the last 2,000 years to see this, as shown in these translations of the Gospel of Luke, verse 2:1, in Old English, Middle English, and Early Modern English, taken from the Wessex Gospels, the Wycliffe Bible, and the King James Bible respectively;

‘Soþlice on þam dagum wæs geworden gebod fram þam casere augusto. þæt eall ymbehwyrft wære tomearcod

Forsoþe it is don, in þo daȝis a maundement wente out fro cesar august, þat al þe world shulde ben discriued

And it came to passe in those dayes, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed’

Granted, it is possible for us to now understand and translate the progression of English, but this is only over a period of 2,000 years, a tiny proportion of the time these markers would be expected to last. Compare this to the origins of the Basque language; historically surrounded by Indo-European Romance languages, Basque is classified as a language isolate, it has no apparent relation to any other European languages, and almost nothing is known of its origins or how it came into existence.

Given these considerations, the Onkalo experts were honestly considering, at one point, displaying stone carvings of Edvard Munch’s The Scream as a universal sign of danger. Other ideas floated included erecting massive spiked stone structures around the site to give the effect of a giant thorn bush, creating a sense of foreboding ahead for any traveller.

Few arguments are made by the experts as an absolute guarantee of the safety of Onkalo, and it is obvious that any statements guaranteeing the safety of anything for 100,000 years would be folly, even if it is 500m underground. One expert adopts the position that any desire to interfere with Onkalo in the future would be directly prohibited by the technological level of whatever civilisation is doing the interfering, and this technological expertise would in turn render them intelligent enough to be able to carry out scientific tests and realise that what they are doing is dangerous. This seems to be another divergent point in expert opinion. One expert says that, ‘they should have some measuring tools to measure the radiation’, and when asked by Madsen what would happen if they didn’t have access to this technology, he says that, ‘they have to make a chemical analysis’, and when asked the same question again he says, ‘If they don’t have that, then they cannot do the drilling either’.

This is raised again by another expert who says that,

‘If someone in the future is able to dig down to the repository then it will probably be a civilisation of the same kind as we have presently, and in such a case they will also be knowledgeable to know that this is a radioactive material’,

His colleague then interjects, pointing out that pervious civilisations have achieved just as extraordinary things while lacking the obvious means to do so. She points to the mining industry in Sweden in the 16th century, and their ability to excavate hundreds of metres under the ground. Advanced knowledge of mining and engineering is also documented in the De re metallica, a book dating from 1556 that catalogued the process of mining and smelting metals hundreds of years before radiation was discovered. Making the connection between ability to excavate into the ground and scientific knowledge sounds even more dangerous when we consider that tin mining in Cornwall has been undertaken for at least 4,000 years, and the mines at Grimes Graves in East Anglia were mined for flint in Neolithic times, over 5,000 years ago.

And out of these contradictions and plausible predictions are aspects of the future that cannot be reasonably speculated on, one being the question of human evolution, which Madsen raises. Will humans appear the same as us in 100,000 years, will they have the same physiology as us, or even the same senses? Their needs, level of knowledge, and ways of life will certainly be completely alien to our own. The sheer impossibility of predicting for the thousands of questions and problems raised by Onkalo are shown when Madsen asks a blunt but simple question of the beleaguered nuclear regulator he is interviewing; whether or not he ‘trusts the future generations’. To do what, he doesn’t specify. But the question seems to take all the problems of Onkalo and unify them into one. At this, the man is speechless, and slumps down into his chair, the camera cuts to another expert and he answers with what seems like the only answer possible;

‘It may be a complete open question whether there is a possibility that someone will interpret anything at all in this timescale. The quick answer is that nobody knows anything…at all’

On a global level, the scientists interviewed view the idea of storing waste underground, and the idea of nuclear generated energy in itself as unsustainable. At the moment there is at least 250,000 tonnes of radioactive waste on Earth, Onkalo will be able to hold around 6,500 tonnes. With concern over global warming growing, so is use of nuclear power. It seems unlikely that the construction of Onkalo-like storage facilities will be able to keep up with rising levels of nuclear waste.

Onkalo is probably the most ambitious human endeavour ever put into practise, and in its quiet, reflective style, Into Eternity presents the project in its full madness. It makes us consider the big questions in a way that we, in the 21st century, don’t usually don’t do outside of theological and philosophical circles, and the big questions themselves, war, economic collapse, mass migration, ecological catastrophe, societal structure, all seem to pale away when we are faced with a time period that, in reverse, stretches back tens of thousands of years beyond our recorded history, to when Homo sapiens, or modern humans, were not the only species of human on this Earth. This is an idea that is almost inconceivable to us now. For all the questions and unanswered hypotheses thrown up by Onkalo, and of all the possible and predicted events occurring in its lifespan, only one can approach definite status as a likely event over others, and it is revealed in Madsen’s narration, directed at the hypothetical future explorer of Onkalo. It is inevitable that one day, in the next 100,000 years, Onkalo will be discovered by someone. Any argument against this seems the utmost in arrogance and wishful thinking. And in the face of this, a fitting addition would be William Faulkner’s timeless judgement on the quality of human persistence;

‘The last sound on the worthless earth will be two human beings trying to launch a homemade spaceship and already quarreling about where they are going next.’

A lot more people should be talking about Onkalo.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Onkalo, Into Eternity, and Faulkner’s homemade spaceship

  1. Pingback: Anonymous

  2. Found this good piece while trying to make sense of the intersection of Fukushima and Chernobyl on April 26. Wish I could say more but I have not yet been able to see the film.
    Thank you for now!
    Maria

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