Into Eternity, on our Waste Containments and Energy Futures

This is the text of paper that I delivered at the Science Fiction/ Fantasy Now conference at University of Warwick in August. Thanks to Mark Bould, Valerie Savard, and Rhys Williams.

The first shot of Michael Madsen’s documentary film Into Eternity (2010) captures the border between the snowy Finnish woods and what appears to be a transformer station in grayscale. The shot draws a visual comparison between the skeletal trees, standing silently, and the vertical structures interlaced with cables in the background. Several large stones sit in the foreground of the shot. The only sound comes from the low rumble of bass drum. The shot fades to black and a new shot fades in. The camera tracks down a well-lit concrete tunnel and the title fades into focus “Into Eternity: A Film for the Future by Michael Madsen.” A few more rumbles of the bass drum sound as the camera rounds a corner, revealing a narrowing of the tunnel that fades into pitch black in the back ground. Here, the voice over beings:

I would say that you are now in a place where we have buried something from you to protect you and we have taken great pain to be sure that you are protected. We also need you to know that this place should not be disturbed and we want you to know that this is not a place for you to live in. You should stay away from this place and then you will be safe. (Madsen 2010)

The shot cuts from the tunnel to a rock wall covered with signs and diagrams in the deep dark. Trickling water can be heard. At this point two minutes into the film, even before Madsen speaks to the camera and to the audience from the dark of the tunnel, a central problematic has already been established. The opening voiceover launches the film’s science fictional stylistic conceit as an address to the future in so far as it asks the viewer to imagine a fictional being receiving the message—“you should stay away from this place”—thousands of years from when it was recorded. The reason for the ban on entry to “this place” has not yet been revealed, and still the visual comparison of the trees and the rock with the power lines and cables, the slow movement of discovery down into the earth while an audible warning plays, and even the low rumble of the bass notes speak to the core problem of the film: how to keep future entities—human, post-human, or alien—from entering Onkalo, Finland’s nuclear waste storage facility, for at least one hundred thousand years.
Through Into Eternity’s science fictional conceit of addressing the future, we discover that the working components of Onkalo are deceptively simple—the signs of warning and the entombed waste. To reach a future when the waste will no longer cause harm, the warning signs must remain constant and undisturbed, while the tomb must maintain a stable state for the waste. Later in the film, Madsen explains to the camera that “it is quite possible that we will not be understood by the future, especially by the distant future” (Madsen 2010). The historian of technology Maja Fjaestad describes one of the film’s main themes as the “imagined technological competencies of future humans” (Fjaestad 372), while, in film scholar Andrew Moisey’s words, the project captured by the film seems to want to “lure the distant future closer to the past” (Moisey 114-115). This “luring” names precisely the temporal negotiation undertaken by the film, and is captured in its opening scene as its talking heads try to conceive of how to keep future generations away from the toxic spent by-product of the energy generation of the recent past. By following the development of Finland’s solution to nuclear waste storage, Into Eternity presents an account of the impasse between the consequences of modernity’s energy use and the continuation of life on Earth as we know it.
Nuclear energy has been receiving more attention of late. In the face of anthropogenic global warming, much of this can be accounted for due to nuclear fuel’s zero level of carbon emissions, but framingnuclear energy as relatively environmentally responsible raises a set of concerns not imagined in the nuclear debates of the mid- to late-twentieth century. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), while recognizing the clear advantage of a zero-emissions energy source, are quick to elaborate the barriers to increasing use of nuclear energy, including “concerns about operational safety and (nuclear weapon) proliferation risks, unresolved waste management issues as well as financial and regulatory risks” (Bruckner et al. 5). Of these prospective threats, it is waste that is the most difficult to incorporate into the calculation of environmental sustainability. To begin with, the risks of nuclear energy frustrate existing territorial frameworks of measurement and jurisdiction, even as decisions about the future of nuclear energy remain largely in the hands of individual state actors. “Embracing nuclear power,” historian of science and technology A. Bowdoin Van Riper suggests, “saddles national governments—and, by extension, the entire human species—with the problem of dealing with spent nuclear fuel” (Van Riper 99). Compounding the difficulty of distinguishing the jurisdiction of nation and species is the radically more challenging prospect of calculating the time of nuclear waste.
Timothy Morton describes the time of nuclear waste, in his book Hyperobjects (2013): “There is no away to which we can meaningfully sweep the radioactive dust. Nowhere is far enough or long-lasting-enough…The future of plutonium exerts a causal influence on the present, casting its shadow backwards though time” (Morton 120). For Morton, then, the time of nuclear waste involves a thinking of two times at once. The present and the future are one way to name these temporalities, which could be measured by the time when the waste is toxic and when it is not. Another way would be to think of the time scale of the human next to the time scale of the waste. That we do not have access to an epistemology of geological time is at the source of our concern about the radioactive half life of nuclear waste. Neither of these conceptions of time thinks about the energy created in the first place. The whole problem of nuclear waste arrives on the scene precisely because of the energy demands of late capital. Whichever formulation of plutonium’s “causal influence” and overshadowing of the present, Into Eternity manages the temporal crux of nuclear waste through the science fictional conceit of an address to the future.
The figure of the earth as container cuts across these two novel challenges—jurisdiction and temporality—in the contemporary debates about nuclear energy’s relative ecological costs and benefits. The IPCC has suggested that in order to maintain life on the planet as we know it we must leave all remaining reserves of oil in the ground (NewScientist2013). In an odd inversion, relying more heavily on nuclear energy in a turn away from oil and natural gas will mean placing a whole lot more material into the ground in long term storage facilities like Onkalo. This inversion does pinpoint the way that debates about the time of energy—from concerns about peak oil to carbon reduction measures and from the energy demand met by nuclear fission compared with the shelf life of nuclear waste—are insistently emplotted in space, in this case the ground, in the very earth itself. The level of risk involved in this plan remains palpable throughout Madsen’s documentary in a way that sets the film apart from other recent documentaries concerned with the legacies of nuclear power.
Madsen’s film takes an approach to the topic that one might hope for in this complex situation: a presentation of facts. The film engages the engineers, scientists, and technocrats of the Olkiluoto nuclear power plant and the tomb they are constructing to house its spent nuclear fuel, while simultaneously grappling with “the disturbing idea” that our “most lasting legacy will be the nuclear waste we bury” (Van Ripper 102). Construction on Onkalo began in 2002 and the storage facility is slated to accept the first shipments of nuclear waste in 2020. Estimates indicate that the site will remain open for a century before being sealed and will eventually house 5500 tons of highly radioactive waste: “Placed in copper canisters insulated with a layer of dense, impermeable clay and sealed using advanced welding techniques, the waste will be inserted into a network of horizontal shafts bored through solid granite 450 meters (1500 feet) below the surface” (Van Riper 99). Onkalo is the Finnish word for “cave” or “hiding place.”
Madsen’s film does a compelling job of uncovering the inconsistencies in the plan to construct Onkalo. Despite its simplicity, the architects at Onkalo, like those at the U.S. waste containment project in Carlsbad, New Mexico, cannot settle on a method to keep future human, post-human, or alien others, out of the tomb. Michael Brill, the architect for the New Mexico facility designed seven options to keep intrudes out: A landscape of thorns, “a dark masonry slab, evoking an enormous ‘black hole,’ an immense no-thing, a void,  land removed from use, worthless,” spikes bursting through a grid, or a rubble landscape (Brill 1993). To add this list, the experts at Onkalo suggest using many reproductions of Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893) to keep people out. While these methods of keeping out curious entities would seem suitable for the present, they may not keep out the very addressees of the film—countless unknown and unknowable others from the future. Madsen address these imagined future viewers of the documentary promising that “We will leave written information for you in all the major languages of our time” and telling them that these are attempts to “give you a feeling, rather than give you a detailed message” (Madsen 2010). Similarly, the plan to pass on information about Onkalo by telling future generations founders when Madsen points out that keeping information about the long term waste storage in a “permanent manner” (Madsen 2010) shares the same risks as short-term nuclear waste storage—the power might go out, conditions might change in the archives, or wars might cause the political climate to change on the surface.
Used heavily in the film, the technique of the sound bridge mirrors the desire for consistency and transmission from one moment to the next. On screen, as the Kraftwerk song “Radioactivity” plays, cameras move attached to the automated arms that cycle the rods of radioactive material into the reactor, as the engineers and scientists in the film puzzle over this temporal problem of representation—that the sign for Danger! will change over the course of one hundred thousand years. Cameras track slowly down long hallways, behind supply trucks outside of facilities. Crane shots, dolly shots, and careful tracking shots show workers preparing a vat of material for water storage. These sequences are shot at a higher frame rate and the figures move in a slight slow-motion, mimicking a music video effect. They are unified by the beat of the song as shot cuts into shot. Another deployment of the sound bridge happens with the experts that are interviewed. Similarly, talking heads are introduced with a title and a shot, but sometimes as they speak the shot cuts to another expert who appears to sit listening, attentively, to the words of the first. Here the sound bridge suggests that they have received the message attentively just like the viewer should, just like the future view may. The experience of the film as an aesthetic object stands out as an affective experience that supports the problematic described through its dialogue and interviews. Put differently, the science fictional atmosphere remains in productive tension with the film’s documentary elements.
Even without the formal element of the sound bridge, the talking heads generate uncertainty. Van Ripper contributes to this observation through his own treatment of the talking heads and he suggests that the interviewees “project none of the confidence of traditional documentary ‘talking heads,’” speaking instead in “soft, halting voices with long pauses between and after thoughts” and, rather than cutting to a new shot after the subject has stopped speaking, “Madsen frequently holds the camera on the subject’s face, waiting—like a patient but disappointed teacher—for something more substantive” (Van Riper 101). The bind that I identified in the opening shot between quiet storage in the earth and the intervention of some future being repeats itself in these moments as the film never allows its viewer to forget the sheer impossibility of imagining how the future will divert from the present.  This insistence provokes the productive realization that Madsen and each of his experts are not actually addressing the future. Instead they imply a far future viewer who, for the interim can only, disappointingly, be a viewer from their own present. One problem with nuclear waste and the human temporality is that time cannot pass quickly enough. Even though we can conceive of multiple future possibilities for Onkalo—nuclear waste containment, cultural consistency, cultural change, breach by humans, or breach by unknown others—which emphasize that the present is a moment where decisions need to, and can, be made, geological time still only crawls by. The logic of containment in the film seems to insist that whatever our energy future looks like, something will be left below in the deep dark.
Patricia Yaeger offers a language to name the problem Into Eternity grapples with in her PMLAeditor’s column, “Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale Oil, Gasoline, Atomic Power, and Other Energy Sources.” She raises the idea of an “energy unconscious,” (Yaeger 306) a structuring presence that is often outside the described events of a narrative and suggests that “…energy invisibilities may constitute different kinds of erasures” (Yaeger 309). This energy unconscious follows Jameson’s assessment of the literary as a “socially symbolic act” in The Political Unconscious (1981) where the conflicts and impasses of the present find expression through signs and symptoms that must be interpreted. Similarly, Yaeger posits, 

We might argue that the writer who treats fuel as a cultural code or reality effect makes a symbolic move, asserts his or her class position in a system of mythic abundance not available to the energy worker who lives in carnal exhaustion. But perhaps energy sources also enter texts as fields of force that have causalities outside (or in addition to) class conflicts and commodity wars. The touch-a-switch-and-it’s-light magic of electrical power, the anxiety engendered by atomic residue, the odor of coal pollution, the viscous animality of whale oil, the technology of chopping wood…(Yaeger 309-310)

Yaeger’s schema resonates with a scene that captures Sami Savonrinne, a blaster at Onkalo, in a long shot where he is two-thirds into the frame and two-thirds down it, flanked by a half-lit rock wall that runs out of the top of the shot. He says, 

This tunnel feels like a time capsule sometimes. When you arrive in the morning it may be sunny, almost like summer outside. When you come out at the end of the day, it may have snowed like hell. The weather will have completely changed and you think “how long do I actually spend in that tunnel?” And likewise: you go to work and it is dark, and when you come back up after work it is dark. And it feels like time has stopped. (Madsen 2010)

However, the worker and his “carnal exhaustion” appear as the sign of a deeper moment in the film, a moment closer to what I imagine Yaeger had in mind. Thus, I would suggest that nuclear waste acts as a glaring symptom of this energy unconscious and that Madsen’s film offers an occasion to plumb its depths. The discursive symptom, “the field of force that have causalities outside the text,” in Into Eternity is that no one can seem to imagine a sign or symbol that could last even a few hundred years, let alone 100, 000.
Into Eternity clarifies the idea of an energy unconscious, and outlines the problems associated with the study of energy in the humanities. As Madsen’s film confirms, the problem of narrative is indissociable from the discursive and political limits of the present. The film offers us a sense of the vast chambers lurking beneath surface, the catacombs entombing radioactive waste, that are at the same time a symptom of our comfortable energy reliance above the surface. The film investigates one solution for one country’s nuclear waste—to engineer and design the place where things might be laid to rest beneath the surface until their latent poisons dissipate. And yet, guided by some strikingly relevant science fictional writings, I would like to conclude by suggesting an image that completely opposes and arrests the visions of the future presented in Madsen’s film.
Into Eternity seems incapable of thinking the kind of future we get in Paolo Bacigalupi’s short story “The People of Sand and Slag” (2008) as anything but a nightmare image.  In a distant future Montana, three mutated, genetically engineered, and weeviltech implanted humans oversee a mining operation. They seem to be capable of eating the very refuse, tailings, mine dumps, and slimes spewed out by the machines tearing up the countryside, they can re-grow severed limbs, and they appear to heal from cuts near instantly. The plot revolves around the trio discovering a dog wandering out among the tailings—they are baffled by how this creature could survive. One of the three revealingly observes, “‘It’s as delicate as rock. You break it, and it never comes back together” (Bacigalupi 45). The three react to the dog, a survivor from a different time, the “dead end of an evolutionary chain,” (Bacigalupi 53) much in the same way that a reader might be estranged by the three demigod humans who eat sand and slag for dinner. They vacation in Hawaii; the narrator describes his partner’s grace as a swimmer: “She flashed through the ocean’s metallic sheen like an eel out of history and when she surfaced, her naked body glistened with hundreds of iridescent petroleum jewels” (Bacigalupi 52). The future, in “The People of Sand and Slag” presents the opposite solution to Onkalo’s containment: a kind of total immersion. This solution to the problems generated by our energy commitments remains unimaginable by Madsen’s experts. It inverts the idea of the Earth as containment and renders “delicate” the very deep stone that appears so solid and immutable in the walls of the opening shots of the film. Onkalo is not a solution to the problem of nuclear waste. It is merely a stop-gap solution, a massive sludge bucket of leaky refuse that we are not quite sure where to stash. The quiet elegance of the snow covered trees and imploring address—“this is not a place you should live in”—could both be lost on future humans, as they certainly would be on Bacigalupi’s people of sand and slag.


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