Remembering to Forget

It's air-conditioned.

Growing up,  no annual pilgrimage to my grandmother’s native Cape Fear was complete without a trip to the Brunswick Nuclear Power Plant‘s visitor center.  Nothing seemed strange about this habit at the time: they had educational and interactive exhibits, complete with a stationary bike you could ride to see how much human power it took to keep a light bulb illuminated.

Fun for all

The question of what to do with the spent fuel rods was cheerfully resolved in a few words: they’d either be put underwater, or buried underground for years until they presented no more problems.  Colorful diagrams showed glowing-red rods harmlessly cooling in tanks of water.  Just like that.  A stunning PR achievement, at least for a child, who would leave wondering why the whole world wasn’t more like Cape Fear.

Michael Madsen, a Danish filmmaker, provides a powerful explanation as to why in his remarkable film Into Eternity.

The Big Dig

Addressing an advanced civilization hundreds of thousands of years in the future is a popular heuristic tool, especially when writing about public policy.  Rarely is it applied in a sustained and literal way, but Madsen does just that for the entire hour-and-a-quarter running time of Into Eternity.

He provides an intimate look into the construction of Onkalo, an enormous facility four kilometers beneath the surface of Finland that will serve as final resting place for all of that country’s nuclear waste.  To insure responsible decontamination, it’s meant to last for 100,000 years.  To give some perspective into human civilization’s time on the planet, the Pyramids at Giza are generally thought to have been built starting in 3200 B.C.  Five millennia, versus 100.  If its successful, Onkalo might last longer than anything that humanity has yet constructed.

Mind-bending?  It’s supposed to be, and Madsen’s narrations, deadpanned as he strikes matches and lets them burn down, gives a sense of the fleeting nature of our time and energy that we expend so casually.

However, the main point of Into Eternity, by Madsen’s own admission, is not to make a polemic about clean energy or nuclear waste, but to evaluate the extreme long-term consequences of actions that we undertake today.   It’s a long view on mankind that is increasing rare in our world of 0.002 second searches, ever-faster processor speeds, live updating, tweetfeeds, and instantaneous newscycles.  Moreover, it’s a view that tries to make some sense of our epoch by saying what makes it different from other epochs.  From the above-linked interview, which is worth reading in full:

[C]athedrals and burial sites … have all been made in a religious context. But Onkalo is purely, sort of profane, there are no such concerns involved in the facility. And in that way, this is a pure expression, at least, of our time in the Western world. There is no religious understanding of reality any more, as I think has been significant in all previous epochs. I think that is significant about our time.

Pretty ambitious for a 75-minute film about a nuclear waste storage facility.  But it works.

Beyond that, the film has a plaintive and contemplative quality that matches the gravity inherent in the task of the scientists, policymakers and theologians who are puzzling out the problem of nuclear waste.  The photography is otherworldly; the soundtrack well-done (including tasteful use of Kraftwerk), and Madsen’s narration haunting.  If you can’t see it in its extremely limited two-week U.S. run, I strongly urge you to watch it by any other means.

I found A.O. Scott’s New York Times review to be sober and compelling, but Dennis Overbye’s writeup on that paper’s science blog is another matter.  Although broadly a decent piece, I take umbrage with his comment that “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.”

Of course it’s crazy, and perhaps criminal.  But the point that Overbye misses that Madsen and some of the Posiva scientists try to drive home is that it’s not a matter of dalliances like electric toothbrushes.  Our consumption of energy is literally in everything we touch, do or make.  Energy production and consumption informs and suffuses every part of our lives, and everyone shares some part in the responsibility for the disposal of its byproducts.

As Carl Reinhold Bråkenhielm, a theology professor who sits on the National Council for Nuclear Waste in Sweden (that fact alone is worth pondering – American religion seems to find more use in histrionic political debates; it’s hard to imagine a theology professor sitting on a national scientific council in the U.S.) has it,  “this is something which ought to be the responsibility of all citizens, irrespective of whether they like nuclear power or not.  Linking the issue of nuclear waste with nuclear power could easy divert attention from the material which we have and must somehow handle in a responsible way not to harm future generations.”

One thing I like about Houellebecq is his distaste for the near-religious proselytizing of environmentalists, but there is a difference between electric toothbrushes and providing drinking water and heat.  The rapid pace of development in India, China and Brazil highlights this even more.

As the stationary bicycle at the Brunswick plant shows, producing energy is hard.  This film highlights what is hardest of all about it.

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