Sending a warning 100,000 years into the future

Radiation danger sign

What would this mean to future generations?

The accident at Fukushima in Japan has made the problems of nuclear power seem much more immediate. But in reality the main issues are very very VERY longterm. Thousands of years longterm. The real question isn’t whether we should forget nuclear energy (not really an option), but what to do with nuclear waste.

Nuclear power is generally very safe, but as Jim Al-Khalili said on Horizon recently, ‘what’s so special about nuclear power is our dread of radiation’. We’re horrified by the idea of an invisible, harmful force that we can’t control. And this was exactly what fascinated me about a documentary I saw recently – Into Eternity.

If you’re wondering what the world is doing about all that nuclear waste, then this film is really worth a look. It focuses on the world’s first permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel – a deep vault cut out of solid rock. It’s called Onkalo.

This is an amazingly beautiful documentary – not a word I expected to use about a film whose main subject is an underground bunker. But the concept of creating a structure that will outlast any other man-made object that’s ever existed is pretty awe-inspiring. As the director, Michael Madsen (not Mr Blonde from Reservoir Dogs), puts it, ‘the Onkalo project of creating the worlds first final nuclear waste facility capable of lasting at least 100 000 years, transgresses both in construction and on a philosophical level all previous human endeavours.’

Onkalo is in Finland, and the film gives an impression of a group of scientists and engineers just getting on with something that the rest of the world is still getting around to discussing. They’ve decided what to do with their nuclear waste, and they’re building the bunker to end all bunkers. There’s a great video on the construction company’s website showing how it’s being excavated.

Onkalo means ‘cave’, and this cave will gradually be filled with copper canisters containing spent nuclear fuel. The canisters are left in holes drilled in the solid granite bedrock, sealed with clay, 420m below the ground. The repository is designed to be used for about 100 years, and then it will be completely sealed.

So far, so interesting – it’s an amazing project. But what happens after the bunker is sealed, in the 22nd century? (wow!) The fuel will remain dangerous for tens of thousands of years – but we have no way of knowing what the world will look like this far into the future. Warning the possible inhabitants of this future Earth is one hell of a science communications challenge.

It’s this mind-blowing problem that has fascinated the director of Into Eternity. How can you send a message 100,000 years into the future and be sure that it will be understood? We don’t know that our knowledge of radiation will survive that long, so we can’t rely on scientific understanding to get this vital information across.

The film looks at different ways the site could be protected from curious humans (or perhaps even other creatures). One option is some sort of hieroglyphics, or pictographs. But how can you draw radiation? Would future generations think they had ‘found the pyramids of our time, mystical burial grounds, hidden treasures’, as the film-makers ask?

Another idea that caught my imagination was some sort of structure to keep people away – one possibility mentioned in the film is tall metal spikes all over the surrounding landscape. Would this be sinister enough to frighten future generations off, or so intriguing that it would draw them in?

I was fascinated by this problem – it brought home to me again just how hard it is for our minds to grasp the concept of huge stretches of time. But what a goal to be aiming for – designing and building something that will last longer than any human creation ever has. If that’s not inspiring I don’t know what is.

To some this huge project might seem to embody everything that’s wrong with nuclear power. How dare we create a health hazard that will last so far beyond our own lifespans? But this isn’t the message of the film. What I took away was a sense of wonder, that scientists and engineers are bold enough to search for ways to solve a problem like this, even when it presents almost incredible challenges.

I’m hoping More4 will repeat this film so I can watch it again – it was a brilliant portrait of the bravery of scientists and their ability to hope, plan and work to create a better future. But it also made me feel very small – it seems almost ridiculous to hope that anything we make could still exist and serve its purpose in 100,000 years.

Still, why think small when you can think big? Working for years to create an incredible piece of engineering that is designed to be taken for granted – just like all good scientific achievements that revolutionise the world – seems like a very fitting way for scientists to spend their time.

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