This article is part of The Motherboard Guide to Cinema, a semi-regular column exploring foreign and obscure speculative films.
The oldest known examples of writing—stone tablets inscribed with ancient Sumerian symbols—are no more than 5,500 years old. The pyramid of Giza is 4,500 years old. The Great Wall of China: 2,000. And a quarter of a mile underground in Finland, nuclear scientists and engineers are working on a project that will outlast them all.
It’s called Onkalo, and it’s designed to exist for 100,000 years.
Onkalo (Finnish for “small cave”) is a deep geological repository, a massive tunnel system that will eventually host 6,500 tons of nuclear waste. When all of it is in place, sometime around 2100, it will be backfilled to prevent the intrusion of future humans. Its radioactive contents have half-lives of tens of thousands of years, and if they leaked into the surrounding Earth, the consequences would be disastrous.
It’s this incredible sense of time and the magnitude that is so beautifully captured in Into Eternity, a 2010 documentary by Michael Madsen that chronicles the excavation of Onkalo, which began in 2004.
There are many pressing engineering problems posed by Onkalo, but these are easily solved when compared with the difficulty of trying to figure out how to convey a warning message about the contents of this site to a person thousands of generations distant.
At this point, scientists have proposed everything from a nuclear priesthood to radioactive cats as ways of conveying the idea of danger about the nuclear repository sites to future generation. Madsen was the first to adapt this dire warning to the future for the cinema.
I spoke with him on Skype about his time in Onkalo and what he learned about the present while making a film for the future.
Motherboard: Hi Michael, why’d you want to make a film about Onkalo?
Michael Madsen: When I first learned that somebody is trying to build something that has to last for 100,000 years, I thought that would tell me something about the time that I live in. This hasn’t been attempted before except in some kind of religious dimension: the cathedrals, the pyramids, and so on. So I thought this might hold some significance beyond just digging a hole in the ground. These people have to understand what 100,000 years means, and that’s quite interesting because I can’t fathom that time span.
What was it like being so deep underground, and knowing that in 100 years, the place where you were standing will be one of the deadliest places on the planet?
At the time I was there, I think it was 300 meters deep, and took about 20 minutes to drive down. You could feel the pressure was changing. I had this feeling that this was not a place for humans to be, but that was of course also something I was curious about. How does it feel to go to this place? And when you look at all these numbers and figures on the walls that mapped the fault lines in the bedrock, then of course you think about whether these will be the cave paintings of our age to some distant future.
Was it hard to get clearance to visit Onkalo? Were people reluctant to speak to you?
Initially they were very open because I simply told them: I am genuinely interested in what you’re trying to achieve. Even if you were against nuclear energy, you’d still have to realize that this waste exists. But once this private company realized this film was going to be made, they became extremely reluctant to speak, to the point where I began to suspect that there was something they wanted to conceal.
Is Into Eternity a message for the future, or us? Do you think it’s truly possible to warn the future about Onkalo?
It was a consideration not to make the film once I learned about the fundamental strategy behind the construction: to conceal it. If you want to hide the facility, it’s something of a paradox because it’s being built in our time. How can you consciously forget something?
On the other hand, it’s also been a consideration that the film should be given away for free so that maybe it would sort of migrate from computer system to computer system into the future. Then you’d have some kind of understanding of the facility, if a copy or a version of the film would survive into the far future.
In ‘Ten Thousand Years of Solitude?,’ a paper on the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in the US, the suggestion is [that] to mark this facility you’d have to have lots of different markers. Heaps of them. There’d be enough that something would be found if someone starts digging.
So you think Onkalo will inevitably be opened?
Communication to such a far future is very, very difficult. It’s similar to trying to communicate with aliens, like with the Pioneer plaque. Who am I talking to? How do they think? Even if this is possible, people in the future might still want to see what’s down there out of curiosity. I realized that the fundamental threat to this facility is not corrosion or these different barriers, it’s humans. The whole facility is just a delay mechanism, really. Eventually the groundwater will come in and flush whatever’s left out.
Do you think it’s better to try to warn the future, or hide Onkalo and forget about it?
I understand the case you can make for trying to hide it. But I think our era is obliged to tell the future about what this is. We must expect this technology to be forgotten. Once there is no more uranium in the world there will be no more nuclear power. That might be not that many years away.
You’re saying our species might forget about nuclear power and its dangers?
No new nuclear reactors have been completed for many years and the new reactor that’s intended to be built next to Onkalo in Finland has been delayed for almost 10 years now. In a way, nuclear energy is a technology that already doesn’t exist anymore. And with solar cells dropping in price, it will become increasingly obsolete. That means that the knowledge about what the waste is will also become even more difficult to handle or transmit. Therefore some kind of information should be kept, and conveyed. That would be the sensible way to try to act responsibly in our time toward the future.
Into Eternity is a very original approach to the documentary genre. Who do you draw inspiration from as a filmmaker?
Why do you want to make a documentary film? I think the only reason can be that you want to try to explore the nature of this time and reality. It’s a philosophical vehicle, you might say. The directors I am interested in and inspired by are Kubrick or Antonioni, for example. I think they were also trying to explore their own time by means of film.
Did making Into Eternity change the way you thought about nuclear energy?
No, because I didn’t start out with any opinion of whether this was good or bad. I think I would not have been able to make the film in the way, if I did. I am genuinely interested in how to solve this problem. It raises so many fundamental questions and it also shows the limits of human understanding. I don’t think it’s really easy to understand or relate to what 100,000 years is. But this technology raises these questions. For the first time, one generation can do something that affects generations thousands of years into the future.