A Legacy: The Eternal Nuclear Dump

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I got an email this morning inviting me to host a screening for a documentary film titled “Into Eternity.” It’s the story of Onkalo which means hiding place or cave, a nuclear waste repository being constructed in Finland.  The film delves into the ethical questions of storing nuclear waste for centuries and the building of a facility that is supposed to last 100,000 years when no structure that we know of has lasted a tenth that long.

Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plants 1 & 2 in Eurajoki, Finland.
Olkiluoto Nuclear Plant

I’ve been against the continued development of nuclear power and weapons since grade school when they used to send us to the basement to prepare for a Russian nuclear attack by crouching in the boiler room, covering our heads with our arms and kissing our little butts goodbye.

Many of us from that generation lived with nightmares of mushroom clouds and the human silhouettes burned into Hiroshima’s sidewalks until we were in our teens.

The facility is the Onkalo nuclear waste repository and it’s currently being dug to a depth of some 1700 meters on the island of Olkiluoto, Finland. The idea here, like the ill-fated project at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, is to create a long-term solution for the disposal of high-level nuclear waste.

The reactors at Olkiluoto are two Boiling Water Reactors, (think old, think Westinghouse and, yes, think Fukushima).  Another unit is under construction (a European Pressurized Water Reactor) and suffering the problems of workmanship and design that arise when various parties begin disputing issues of responsibility and profit. It is suffering lengthy delays and cost overruns.  A fourth reactor is planned and has been licensed.

I’ve always been bothered by the term repository. I prefer the word dump. I think it’s a more honest and direct description of what’s being done. I find it difficult to think of something as evil as plutonium and other long-term products of our nuclear follies laying in quiet repose deep in the earth for the 100,000 years they intend. I fear that when this stuff is finally unearthed it will still have a malignant smile on its face. Repose, indeed,.. I think waiting for opportunity is more likely.

They estimate that the facility will hold about a hundred years worth of this toxic trash and then they will simply cover it up, seal the whole mess in the ground and walk away like a cat from his litter box daintily shaking his paws. Problem buried, case closed.

For tens of thousands of years, we’ve been discarding our trash, old broken pottery, bent swords, dented helmets, ancient Roman spare-rib bones, every bit of the detritus of our societies, in dumps. We generally place them on the outskirts of town (NIMBY has been around for awhile) and build anew on top of them. I suspect that if we ever scrape away all the landfills we may find that the earth was originally no more impressive than the now demoted Pluto.

We remember our ancestors largely from what they have discarded in their trash dumps, some of which they may wish had been better hidden and we may share that wish.

A central theme of the Into Eternity film is: what will our descendants find and when will they find it? We believe that the most dangerous and long-lived elements in the waste will be safe after 100,000 years or so. How can we keep some future Indiana Jones from digging it up and causing death and destruction in a future civilization? Have we the right to leave this dark bonus of a time capsule?

How can we warn them, what language might they understand, what symbols might we use to convey the message?

But its nice to think that we’re more considerate of some future race of Elois or Morlocks and we take more care to protect them from harm than our present neighbors whom we are happy to simply slaughter wholesale.

Admittedly, I haven’t seen the film, I’m just passing on what the producers told me by email, and what I saw on the impressive trailer but if you want to host a screening or help to promote this worthy film, please go here.

It’s for a good cause.

Photo by kallerna (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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