'Into Eternity' Examines Nuclear Waste Dilemma

Nevada's Yucca Mountain is no longer an option for long-term storage of nuclear waste. But construction of a similar project is under way in Finland. In his film Into Eternity, director Michael Madsen questions the feasibility of safely storing waste for hundreds of thousands of years.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, E.O. Wilson is here to talk about his first novel, "Anthill."

But first, after years of delay, the plan to stash nuclear waste deep inside Nevada's Yucca Mountain has come to a halt. But there is a similar project under way on an island off the coast of Finland, at a site called Onkalo. Workers are there tunneling into bedrock, carving out a series of chambers that may someday be home to 12,000 metric tons of nuclear waste.

My next guest has made a film about that project. The film is called "Into Eternity," and storing nuclear waste long-term pretty much amounts to an eternity. According to this film, at least in terms of human lifespan, this project aims to store waste there for about 100,000 years. How do you plan for 100,000 years? How do you communicate the dangers of this waste being there, for humans 100,000 years from now, if there are humans a few hundred thousand years from now?

And what about earthquakes and ice ages and rising sea levels? And these are just a few of the issues and the questions raised during the film, and the film is opening at the Tribeca Film Festival this weekend in New York. And if you'd like to see some of that film, you can go over to our website at sciencefriday.com, where we have a link to their website.

Also, we're streaming SCIENCE FRIDAY live on the Web. Go to sciencefriday.com and you can watch us here live in the studio. Our number, 1-800-989-8255, also if you'd like to participate, and you can tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I.

Michael Madsen is the director of "Into Eternity." He's based in Copenhagen. He joins us in our studios here in New York. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. MICHAEL MADSEN (Director, "Into Eternity"): Thank you very much.

FLATOW: How did you stumble on this idea to do a film like this?

Mr. MADSEN: Well, I was actually doing my dishes at home and trying to get through this rather tiresome task when I was listening to the radio. And I heard about this project in Finland of trying to build something to last, that must last, for 100,000 years. And I got intrigued because I do not understand that time span. So...

FLATOW: And they don't seem to understand, in the film, that time span either.

Mr. MADSEN: Well, this of course, I didn't know at that time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MADSEN: But of course I was also thinking that 100,000 years from now would most likely, in my mind, also mean another kind of human beings. It's perhaps 100,000 years that we left Africa, the human, the Homo sapiens species; 40,000 years ago in Europe there were Neanderthals, a different kind of human species.

So in 100,000 years from now, I think that we humans will be something different from today, and when you're building something to last for that time span and to be safe under all circumstances, I thought that these people, they must have some considerations about the scenarios that might arise in the future and how to counteract upon these scenarios.

FLATOW: And one of the scenarios they discuss is forgetting about the place. And forget - so people don't even know it's there.

Mr. MADSEN: Yes, that was perhaps the most eerie surprise for me in my research, my initial research trip, to learn that perhaps it would be best if everything is forgotten.

The difficulty with this project is, of course, the same thing which perhaps led to nuclear power in the first place, human ingenuity, which is based on curiosity, to find out about things. And curiosity is perhaps the main threat to this facility in the future.

FLATOW: That some people might want to just dig it up.

Mr. MADSEN: Yes.

FLATOW: To find out - if you think what we do now, when we find something 100,000 years old, we want to dig it up.

Mr. MADSEN: Exactly. Yes.

FLATOW: And that would be the wrong thing to do in this situation.

Mr. MADSEN: It would be because the main sort of design feature of the facility is that it should be possible to operate in silence; that is, no human surveillance, no power supply, no nothing. So within the very design, there is an expectancy that the Western civilization, or civilization as we know it today, will cease to exist within 100,000 years. Something else will come.

So there will be oblivion. There will be no knowledge about nuclear power, no knowledge about radioactivity. So if somebody opens this facility, they won't know what it is, and of course the problem about radioactivity is that - cancer and so on, but you may only get that years after exposure. So it would be very, very difficult for future generations to determine what caused this at all.

FLATOW: Why did they decide to seal it up, as opposed to keeping it open and creating a society like we've talked about in this country, of caretakers who would always take care of it?

Mr. MADSEN: This concept is called atomic priesthood, and it holds, of course, the problem that you would then need to maintain a kind of society of experts for 100,000 years, and these experts, of course, they would also have to have the knowledge about nuclear power even after the time of nuclear energy has ceased to be a technology, because we will have perhaps uranium for the next 200 years, and after that there'll be no more nuclear power. And this is expert knowledge.

And of course if you have a special group of persons who can protect the rest of the society by their knowledge, there is the risk of corruption. We can protect you if - that's the big problem.

FLATOW: Right. The movie is very eerie. It has elements, I think, of "The Blair Witch Project," with you with a match in these tunnels, these really spooky tunnels. We know there's a danger around us, and we're not quite sure what it is. But also of "2001: A Space Odyssey." We have wonderful classical music coming through the film.

How did you get access? I can't imagine that these people wanted to let you access to their construction site.

Mr. MADSEN: Oh, it was very difficult, and it took nine months of very tough negotiation with lawyers and so on just to get in there. This, of course, only happened after the company realized that we were actually going to make the film, to fund the film, because in the beginning they were quite open.

Finland would prefer this building just to go on without any noticing because then it's much easier for them just to build. So it was...

FLATOW: They want to set it and forget it.

Mr. MADSEN: That's what they want to do, yes, and of course, that - if you really mean that, you have to be very, very certain that it works, it's foolproof for 100,000 years.

FLATOW: But do they really mean it? Are they serious about this, or is this sort of a test to their own society? Because this hasn't been certified yet, has it?

Mr. MADSEN: No. I think that a lot of the communication concerning such a facility is actually about the present. It's to convince the politicians that this, a facility like this will be safe. And the concerns about how to warn the future, I've never really gotten the actual company to say much about that, and this is why there are other people from other companies and other nuclear authorities in the film. But it's only people working directly with this facility who are in the film.

And the lack of interest in warning the future can, of course, also signify an expectancy from the Finnish company that this waste will never go down there for that long, and it's also, I think, very significant to know that nuclear waste is not termed that way within the industry. It's called spent nuclear fuel.

And there are still 97 percent of energy left in the waste, but if you start to re-process it, take more energy out of it, that's when you can also create bombs. But at a time in the future with scarce energy supply, it is perhaps a tempting thought to dig energy up in your own...

FLATOW: Drill it down, open it up...

Mr. MADSEN: Open it up, take it back.

FLATOW: How do know that it's not all just going to turn into a puddle encased in concrete? Because you're talking thousands of years for the materials in there.

Mr. MADSEN: There's a very interesting difference between the United States and Finland, because in Finland they're talking about 100,000 years; in the States it's one million years for the same type of waste.

I don't know why there is this difference, but this difference shows, of course, that the scientist does not agree upon what is the timescale of the danger of this. But perhaps this was - in addition, another surprise for me in the beginning when I started to research on this - it's only scientists working with this. There are no other sort of cross-interdisciplinary discussions concerning this facility, and perhaps this is much more a moral question than a scientific question.

FLATOW: Has the film been shown in Finland?

Mr. MADSEN: Yes, it has, and it's going to...

FLATOW: And the reaction to it?

Mr. MADSEN: Well, the reaction has been a little bit like yours, that people, they get scared. And a person came to me and said I'm ashamed of my country that we are doing things like this without a proper public debate. But on May the 4th it'll be screened inside the Finnish parliament for the politicians.

FLATOW: And after it leaves the film festival, where else can we see it?

Mr. MADSEN: Well, it's going to Hot Docs and Silverdocs and a host of other festivals around the world.

FLATOW: And do you see this having a life after you're done with it as a film? Is this part of your new life? Do you think you can - they'll let you leave this film alone when you're done with it?

Mr. MADSEN: Well, I am of course looking into other projects now, but I do think that the film is important to consider. I mean, at the very least, the people who decide upon the use of nuclear power, especially under the argument of it being carbon-free and so on, they should be aware that the waste problem is not solved.

FLATOW: Did you enter this with an opinion about nuclear power?

Mr. MADSEN: No, I didn't.

FLATOW: Come away with an opinion?

Mr. MADSEN: No, no, and I think that it's very, very important to realize that the waste emanating from nuclear power, this time span of consequence is something new to mankind, and it was as such, as this phenomenon, something new for us, all of us, that was my initial interest.

FLATOW: Do you think that scientists will find a way?

Mr. MADSEN: Well, the scientists in the film, they say themselves that there are no solutions to nuclear waste.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. MADSEN: You will have it anyway.

FLATOW: That was, I think, one of the most striking statements, to hear a scientist say: I don't know. You know, I don't know what the solution is. And that gets you worried even more as you watch the film. The way that you filmed it, did you want to scare people?

Mr. MADSEN: I didn't want to scare people, but it was very important for me to say, to create a sensation that you were perhaps in the future watching back into the past when we were doing things like this. We have to imagine that if the main strategy is to let everything be forgotten, we could in principle one day dig a hole in the ground in New York City and find something, realize its extreme danger and have to evacuate the whole of the state - because nobody told you.

FLATOW: And as you say, one of the big problems is, how do you make -how do you put markers around that will last for 100,000 years?

Mr. MADSEN: That's a problem, and it's interesting to know that some of the same American scientists who worked on these - the Voyager space shuttles with these - this golden plate on the side, they are -some of these people are also working on some American studies on how to communicate the dangers around this facility.

But in 1995, the Academy of Science was asked whether it is possible to, on a scientific ground, to say that it is possible to communicate to the future and it is possible to deter inadvertent human intrusion. And the question - the answer on that was, in both cases, no. It's not possible to, on a scientific ground, to guarantee this.

FLATOW: A fascinating film. Congratulations to you.

Mr. MADSEN: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Very, very thought-provoking, well made. Michael Madsen is the director of "Into Eternity," based in Copenhagen, and it's playing at the Tribeca Film Festival here, and you can go to their website by linking to ours, and we'll get you right over there to look at a trailer. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Mr. MADSEN: You're welcome.

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