From here to Eternity

“Man, there’s a lot of nuclear waste piling up.”

“Yeah. Hey! I know! Let’s put it underground! Outta sight, outta mind.”

Sound familiar?

But this time the conversation isn’t about Yucca Mountain—the proposed nuclear waste depository underway in Nevada until the feds put the brakes on it in 2009. It’s not even about the United States. This time, it’s Finland.

Onkalo, which means “hiding place” in Finnish, is being built in northern Finland as the world’s first permanent nuclear repository. Director Michael Madsen (not the Madsen of Reservoir Dogs) has made a documentary about it called Into Eternity, released in the United States this month. The storage site is being designed to last for 100,000 years. To put that in perspective, the Roman Coliseum is not quite 2,000 years old; Stonehenge is about 3,800 years old, and the earliest cave drawings date back about 30,000 years ago.

The film’s website makes the case for permanent storage: “To ensure that the waste is kept isolated from all living organisms and does not spill into nature, permanent storages are needed, as we cannot ensure continuous surveillance, security management, or maintenance of interim storage for the duration of the security standard period of 100,000 (EU) to 1,000,000 (US) years.”

So Onkalo is being built in solid bedrock that’s had about 1 billion years to show it’s not susceptible to earthquakes. Once the repository is full, it’s to be sealed off, forever. Ideally, designers surmise, the land would return to a natural state. (Is there such a thing as “sustainable” nuclear repository design?)

Yet, the film examines some unanswerable questions, such as how “to warn our descendants of the deadly waste we left behind? … And if they understand, will they respect our instructions?”