Into Eternity: A Film for the Future

Onkalo Spent Nuclear Fuel Depository


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



5 August


Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, 1963

On this day in 1963, the “treaty banning nuclear weapon tests in the atmosphere, outer space and under water” was signed by the governments of the USSR, the United Kingdom and the USA in Moscow. Though there was general unease about the increase in radiation on planet Earth, the ban had been proposed first by the USSR in the early 1950s, though in its version of the treaty, no rigorous procedures would have been included to verify whether signatories were keeping their end of the bargain. The USSR finally yielded to the US and UK’s positions and full discussions were opened in 1963. After the initial signing, the treaty was thrown open to all countries to sign. To date only three countries – China, North Korea and France – have not signed.




Into Eternity (2010, dir: Michael Madsen)

Can you responsibly create something incredibly toxic and then ask not just your children but generations stretching 100,000 years into the future to look after it? There isn’t a civilisation on Earth that has lasted even a tenth of that time, not even the Chinese, and yet that’s exactly what we’re doing with our nuclear waste, between 200 to 300,000 tonnes of which will be hanging around, needing somewhere safe to sit out eternity.

This brilliantly researched, urgent film tells the story of the best solution humanity has come up with so far: bury the stuff deep underground in a place called Onkalo in Finland, where the bedrock is supposedly stable enough to withstand anything that people or nature can throw at it. Excavation began in 2004 and the project goes live, if that’s the word for deadly nuclear waste, in 2020. One scientist goes on record to state that it’s his “personal belief that no human intrusion will happen at any time scale, ever.” Fair enough. A belief. In a world where no belief system is older than the low thousands of years.

In among the awesome images of this vast “underground city”, as one worker there describes it, being excavated deep in the earth’s bowels, writer/director Michael Madsen (no, not that one) gives ample space for the scientists involved in the project to explain themselves. And to give them credit they have really thought about how to prevent the radiation to escape from its boron steel canister (wrapped in copper surrounded by bentonite clay and then encased in a rocky tomb). One of their disaster scenarios imagines nuclear bombs, another a world where all human civilisation has been blown away by another ice age.

And the more they talk, the more conclusively these brilliant minds put the noose around their necks. In effect we’re all relying on the imagination of a bunch of fallible scientists. This is most starkly brought home as we eavesdrop on a meeting to discuss “markers”, the signs left around the area to warn the people of maybe 80,000 years hence (point of reference: Neanderthals flourished only 35,000 years ago), that they’re approaching something dangerous. One of the boffins suggests a picture of Edvard Munch’s Scream, reasoning that the image is so potent it must be “universal”. Fair enough, but if that’s the case, why didn’t some primitive Munch paint something like Scream 10,000 years ago?

As with the best documentaries, Madsen asks very simple questions and gets right to the heart of the matter. The Onkalo Spent Nuclear Fuel Repository is an ambitious and in many ways an elegant and brilliant project. But has anyone really thought through all the ramifications? Could anyone? Most tellingly, at key points where Madsen interrogates the bosses of the project about one failsafe system or another, we also get to see the look on an assistant’s face as his/her boss gives a big, bland reassurance that everything has been thought of and it’s all going to be ok, trust me. The look is saying something far less confident.

For sure, Into Eternity is making a political point. But even if you don’t agree with its approach, you still have to answer its questions. They’re good questions. And even if they weren’t, the images Madsen has collected of this vast civil engineering project will blow you away. If you’ll pardon the expression.



Why Watch?


  • The remarkable access
  • Madsen does not blind us with science; he is highly informative
  • Answers, such as they are, from the people who know
  • The remarkable underground footage


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Into Eternity – Watch it/buy it now at Amazon





4 thoughts on “Into Eternity: A Film for the Future”

  1. Director and presenter Michael Madsden (not the same person as the actor of that name) has made a documentary film which may well be unique. Everyone should see it, because it concerns the future of our species and our planet, and it is not a superficial film by any means. He has adopted a moody Alain Resnais-style approach to the subject of the storage of nuclear waste for a necessary 100,000 years. This is not a propaganda film against nuclear energy at all. No comment is made for or against nuclear energy. I cannot understand the bizarre, I might almost say mad, review by a Latvian who claimed that this film was hilarious. Normally I would never criticize a review by another person, but this is such an extreme instance that comment really is required. This film is so far from being hilarious that how anyone could think so is inconceivable to me, and I am forced to doubt the person's sanity. Perhaps the Latvian reviewer is one of those people who would laugh hysterically upon witnessing the end of the world. Madsden evokes a powerful atmosphere in this film, showing haunting shots of the underground Onkalo ('Hidden Place') site in Finland where nuclear waste will be stored. The most effective parts of the film however are the amazing interviews with the Finnish and Swedish scientists and technologists (all in English). They are most impressive and deeply thoughtful people. The things revealed in this film about this important subject are truly mind-boggling. The film has an elegiac feel about it, as if it were a message to some future species about who and what the extinct humans once were. The Finns should leave a copy of the film in their underground caverns, in case they are ever entered tens of thousands of years from now. We should also put DVDs of this film into satellites which we send into deep space, as a kind of sad testament to a failed species, in the hope that some other species might find them one day and figure out how to view them, and learn the pathetic lessons of our inability to think sufficiently deeply, which is the fatal flaw of our human kind. Meanwhile, this film should be shown in all schools all over the world with the utmost urgency, and screened on all serious television channels in every country. But of course none of this will happen. I write as someone who has tried so far unsuccessfully to introduce crucial new technology into the storage of nuclear waste. The monstrous complacency and stupidity which I have encountered forces me to face the possibility that our species may become extinct within 100 years. I say this with sad resignation.

  2. If you look only at the subject matter which is building a long 3 mile tunnels down 500 meters into bed rock it sounds more like a theme that you would see on a television series like mega structures filled with high-tech, how did they do it kind of thing. Here, however, the technology to do this project is hardly mentioned as digging deep holes in the ground such are used in mining has gone on a very long time. Here instead we see more of a scene about timelessness and about the unknown. Of course we have a pretty remarkable project being constructed and then filled over a 100 year period named Onkalo. As no one will be involved in both the start and the completion of the project when finished, the plan is to abandon the structure and hope that no one will attempt to enter for at least 100,000 years. The deep moodiness of the film with its haunting music and barren forest scenes with gray landscape tries to force you into a mood of the vastness of time. To put this into perspective, the pyramids were built about 4000 years ago, though we think cave dwellers lived 30,000 years ago and maybe humans have actually been around for 100,000 years. But will they even exist as long as this storage facility is supposed to? No one knows. When it is sealed in 2120 do we just forget about it or do you warn people about it? Will warning people make them want to explore? Will there still be humans like we are, or will they be much different as we are to Neanderthal man. These are some of the things discussed in the film. It is short, only one hour and 15 min. The director likes long sweeping zooming in traveling shots. This work definitely gives you a feeling that you don't get from many films, but one not easy to describe. Near the end of the film as two workers are just walking into one section of the tunnel it in itself is totally non-remarkable and could be shot in any mine or cave in the world but the mood of the scene and the music behind is effective and you get some feeling that it is actually quite difficult to create something you hope will last 100,000 years. A unique film and the mood it imparts makes it worth more than one viewing.

  3. One of the better films screening at this years Tribeca film festival is a meditation on what we should do with the nuclear waste that's left behind. More specifically it's what Finland is doing with their nuclear waste. What the country is doing is digging a miles deep tomb in which they hope to bury all of their waste so that it will hopefully remain undisturbed for the 100 or more thousand years it will need to decay and become safe.

    The film, which is more an essay in the form of a letter to future generations, is a trippy affair with some of the most haunting marriages of image and music you are likely to find. The film masterfully ponders what are our options for waste such as this and how do we protect our children's children's children from its dangers. I love how filmmaker Michael Madsen draws you in as if it's a fairy tale and forces you to think. He also scores many pints for presenting the people who are responsible for the project as human beings who are far from certain, but trying the best they can. Its nice to see a bunch of experts with the willies scared out of them.

    If there is any flaw in the film its perhaps that its 75 minute running time is a couple minutes too long. But that is a quibble. This is a film that should be seen, preferably on a big screen in the dark where the imagery will work its way into your brain.

    Okay- how good is the film? Out of the 11 films I saw at Tribeca so far this was the first and only film where no one moved when the end credits rolled. Everyone just sat there staring at the screen. Everyone seemed to want to stay to talk to the filmmaker at the Q&A. (except for the few of us who peeled ourselves out of our chairs to make trains or other screenings)

  4. Looking sometimes more like Ridly Scotts Allan than an environmental film this gentle documentary about the vast takes you through a sometimes surreal vogue of discovery. What to do with a substance so toxic it must be hidden for 100,000 years, it must survive war and ice age. Written as a video letter to future generations the direction, conceptual artist and filmmaker Michael Madsen, takes you through a visually stunning and thought provoking journey. This may seem like a dry subject but his understated and sometimes playful approach to the subject draws you in keeping you engaged thought.

    The film includes interviews with nuclear scientists and government representatives which take you into the strange world of thinking further into the future than we have ever dared to venture before. There is a candid honesty here that may alter your perception about our responsibilities.

    This haunting film may well become a testimony to our inability to see the real cost of nuclear power yet it remains totally non judgemental thought.

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