THE trouble with worrying about the environment is an inability to grasp chronological scale. To illustrate, I’d like to bring in a guest speaker, Mr. Arthur C. Clarke:
“Few governments had ever looked more than an election ahead, few individuals beyond the lifetimes of their grandchildren. And, anyway, the astronomers might be wrong … Even if humanity was under sentence of death, the date of execution was still indefinite. The Sun would not blow up for a thousand years; and who could weep for the fortieth generation?”
That’s a passage from The Songs of Distant Earth, a novel in which the population of Earth has spread among the stars to survive. An exploding Sun isn’t particularly relatable, but there’s something scarily understandable about the thought of moving on to a greener world, leaving behind a used-up husk of a planet. It would be a very human thing to do.
But now we move from science fiction to something far more terrifying – science fact. The spectre of nuclear power has long haunted cinemas and media outlets, as is evident in everything from the back catalogue of Troma Entertainment to the frontlines of Fukushima City. More than power, there is the issue of all that waste – how do we dispose of it? How do we store it?
Finland thinks it has an answer. In the wilderness, almost 200 miles north-west of the capital of Helsinki, a massive network of tunnels and chambers is being hewn from the rock. It is a permanent repository for nuclear waste, the first of its kind in the world, and it is called Onkalo.
Onkalo is the subject of Into Eternity, a feature-length documentary by Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen that examines the physical and philosophical effort required for its construction. The former is easy to appreciate, for Onkalo is enormous enough for even Tolkien’s dwarves to appreciate its scale. It will reach a depth of 500 metres, and seal its deadly contents in copper canisters swaddled in steel and concrete.
The latter, however, is not so easy. Onkalo has been built to last 100,000 years, long enough for radioactive matter to turn inert. It is an unfathomable amount of time; recorded human history makes up but a tiny percentage of that span. Some of those currently working in the facility were there when construction began in the 1970s. None will be alive when it is finished, some time before the year 2200.
There is something magnificently ironic about this; for all our posturings of art and architecture, culture in all its forms, there is a possibility that our enduring legacy will be a very, very sturdy dustbin. This is perhaps the most interesting of the debates – should Onkalo be signposted? Should there be a memorial, a monument, a warning to those who might seek rewards and unleash radiation? Or should it be closed and covered, forever forgotten?
Madsen’s documentary, released in 2010, is well worth tracking down. It’s structured as a wry, speculative look at what the descendants of our descendants’ descendants might think should Onkalo be forgotten and then discovered. He alternates the sober reality of the material with entertaining bouts of theatricality, the most common of which are solo pieces-to-camera in which the only illumination comes from the light of a match.
It is during one of these soliloquies that Madsen discusses the issue that is central to the creation of this poison-filled abscess in the earth. It is the concept that haunts every survivor of trauma physical or psychological, the painful dilemma at the heart of the healing process – the need to remember, forever, to forget.
> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own