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‘Into Eternity’ weighs on the mind

Into Eternity

Directed by Michael Madsen

2010, Denmark | Finland | Sweden | Italy

As human beings, we quantify the world in measurements relative to our biological experience of it. Distance is defined in terms of our physical ability to traverse it, and time is divided in to collective generations at one extreme, and individual acts of consumption at the other.  The sinister joke is that many of the byproducts of our consumptions are not subject to a biological time scale, but to a geological one; those byproducts will in all likelihood outlast mankind, including the most pernicious: nuclear waste.

The current and future use of nuclear power to meet our energy needs is a political and moral issue, but the waste already derived from spent nuclear fuel is a material fact.  A fact that the vast majority of us fail to appreciate because we have little idea what that waste is; we can’t intuitively feel the texture or heft of depleted uranium and other isotopes.  Michael Madsen’s hushed, existential documentary Into Eternity never pictures any nuclear material – the closest we come to glimpsing the ore is while it is encased in sleek metal cylinders being robotically carried through the air to a temporary underwater holding tank.  The film prefers to keep nuclear waste in the abstract to remind us that the danger is the invisible, intangible radiation emanating from the waste, which Madsen describes as ‘an all-consuming fire.’

Into Eternity’s central subject is not nuclear waste though, but rather how the permanent storage of that waste. And while the film is not heavy on numbers, there are three figures that remain in the mind: there is currently between 200,000 and 300,000 tons of radioactive waste in existence; the atomic half life of that spent nuclear fuel is at least 100,000 years; no man-made structure has survived a 10th of that time.

The grandest permanent storage solution yet envisioned is the Onkalo Nuclear Waste Repository, currently under construction in northern Finland.  When Onkalo is completed sometime next century, it will reach 500 meters down into the 1.8 billion-year-old bedrock, where canisters will be stacked in hive-like structures throughout tunnels that will spread like veins under the ground.  Through Madsen’s camera, Onkalo is seen as a multi-generational project not unlike a gothic cathedral, in that it is both a conceptual and a physical structure.  But whereas cathedrals climb towards heaven’s light, the drills of Onkalo head deeper into the dark.

Through a series of well-staged talking-head interviews, Madsen shows that, conceptually, Onkalo was born out of an inability to guarantee the constant level of precision and attention that ground-level nuclear waste storage requires.  “The Earth’s surface is not a stable place,” says one project advisor, voicing concern not so much for earthquakes and radical climate shifts as for man-made instability: war, economic crises, and, ironically, the ever-growing competition for energy resources.  Underground storage is passive, unreliant on active benevolence.  Each of Madsen’s interview subjects – scientists, engineers, medical doctors, and, in a wonderfully Scandinavian touch, a theologian – each has a face that hangs heavy from too much time spent contemplating how best to keep the worst aspects of human nature separated from mankind’s most dangerous creation.

Particularly controversial among Onkalo’s planners is how to alert future generations to the location and contents of the repository, if at all.  Human intrusion, whether purposeful or accidental, is considered the greatest threat to Onkalo’s future security, and some advocate marking the area with a sort of runestone, detailing the site’s purpose in all known languages (even though an arcane law says that the information must only be preserved in perpetuity in Finish).  Others say that written language is too specific, and that the site must be marked with general symbols, with suggestions ranging from concrete spikes to the image of Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream.’  And yet still others say that Onkalo should be paved over and forgotten.  The duration of the site’s function will far exceed any expectation of the ability to preserve knowledge of it intact.  100,000 years is a time frame beyond shifts in language and custom, it is evolutionary.  How can you plan for a time beyond language and law, but not beyond the innate curiosity of sentient beings?

Physically, Onkalo is hard, dark shadows punctuated by the soft, florescent glow of work lights.  Madsen follows the demolition crews underground, his camera gliding balletically over their equipment, taking in the forms and mechanics.  Shooting in dark spaces, Madsen relies on high-speed film that slows movement to a crawl and focuses our attention on the tiniest gestures, from the pumping of plastic explosives into a hole in the rock wall, to one worker brushing dust off the face of another.  Madsen also employs time lapse and composite shots, all of which works to make us visually aware of not just how we move through time and space, but that time and space, like language and law, are human constructs.  They are matters of our perception, but they are beyond our control.  Time and space are not defined by our ability to manipulate the physical world – such as splitting atoms in nuclear reactor – but by how the world acts on us, resisting the movement of our muscles and slowly breaking down our bones.

Above ground, Madsen’s images of the Finnish landscape surrounding Onkalo are hazy and sapped of color. The terrestrial world feels bleached and cold.  When Madsen films other man-made structures, such as houses, skyscrapers and power plants, they look magnificent, but they also feel flimsy and temporary.  They lack the feeling the feeling of safety that the bedrock seems to provide.

But are we too quick to trust the security of Onkalo?  For all of Madsen’s pretensions – and they are many, including some twee narration directed at future audiences – Into Eternity weighs on the mind because it never fully trusts the space it is in, nor does it relinquish an undercurrent of dread.  That dread creeps out from the disconnect between our mathematic projections for the future, and the inexact physicality of measuring everything from radioactive decay to the burning of a match.  As finely laid as our plans may be, it is inherently impossible to plan for a world after the extinction of the human race.

Louis Godfrey