World and Nation

Finland’s 100,000-year plan to banish its nuclear waste

It is, in the words of the Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen, “a place we must remember to forget.”

On a wooded island more than a hundred miles northwest of Helsinki, in the town of Eurajoki, Finnish engineers are digging a tunnel. When it is done 10 years from now, it will corkscrew three miles in and 1,600 feet down into crystalline gneiss bedrock that has been the foundation of Finland for 1.8 billion years.

And there, in a darkness that is still being created, the used fuel rods from Finland’s nuclear reactors — full of radioactive elements from the periodic table as dreamed up by Lord Voldemort, spitting neutrons and gamma rays — are to be sealed away forever, or at least 100,000 years.

The place is called Onkalo (Finnish for “hidden”) and it is the subject of “Into Eternity,” a new documentary by Madsen.

Watching it during the recent Tribeca Film Festival brought me into a more visceral contact with the vicissitudes of geologic time than I might have really wanted. These days I find that I can barely envision the future more than about six months ahead — hardly enough time even to plan for a proper summer vacation. My images of the deep future have always been vaguely utopian, like “Star Trek,” but “Star Trek” takes place only a few hundred years into the future, not 100,000 years.

Onkalo, on the other hand, is supposed to last 20 times as long as the pyramids have so far — so long that the builders of the site have to take into account the next ice age, when the weight of two miles of ice on top of Finland will be added to the stress on the buried waste containers, copper canisters two inches thick.

It might seem crazy, if not criminal, to obligate 3,000 future generations of humans to take care of our poisonous waste just so that we can continue running our electric toothbrushes. But it’s already too late to wave off the nuclear age, and Madsen’s film comes at a perfect time to join a worldwide conversation about what to do with its ashes. On June 3, administrative law judges from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will begin hearing arguments about whether the Department of Energy can proceed with shutting down development of the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, where the United States had been planning since 1987 to store its own nuclear waste.

If the Obama administration prevails, the United States will be back to square one in figuring out how to get rid of its own 77,000 radioactive tons, including 53 million gallons left over from the dawn of the nuclear age sitting in leaky tanks in the Washington desert near the Columbia River. There are somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste already in the world, much of it in pools on the sites of nuclear power plants where the rods have to cool for years before they can be put into containers.

Onkalo is being built to do its job without human intervention or maintenance. Once it is done and sealed back up a hundred years or so from now, the problem is less with keeping all the radioactivity in than keeping people out.