“Once upon a time, man learned to master fire. Something no other living creature had done before him. Man conquered the entire world. One day he found a new fire. A fire so powerful that it could never be extinguished. Man reveled in the thought that he now possessed the powers of the universe. Then in horror, he realized that his new fire could not only create but also destroy. Not only could it burn on land but inside all living creatures; inside his children, the animals, all crops. Man looked around for help, but found none. And so he built a burial chamber deep in the bowels of the earth, a hiding place for the fire to burn, into eternity.”
“Into Eternity is a documentary on the building of the world’s first permanent repository for nuclear waste in Finland. It shows not only the construction under way that will take 140 years but shows the people involved, the scientists, regulators and corporate executives who oversee this project. None of them will be alive when Onkalo, as the repository is called, will be finished in 2120; and they must expect this repository to remain intact and untouched by future humans for 100,000 years. Such is the danger and longevity of waste from nuclear power plants.
Madsen says that Onkalo may become the most important expression of what our civilization is about. He is intrigued by the fact that, as humans have mastered the power of the universe, their discovery has outstripped human ability to understand the consequences. Even though our use of nuclear power will affect life for at least 100,000 years we are not even capable of resolving the question of how to warn future generations of the danger of the material that we are leaving them. And is it not utter madness to believe that anything built by humans could ever last 100,000 years?”Maria Gilardin, TUC Radio, introducing the re-broadcast of Dr. Helen Caldicott’s 7/15/11 interview with Michael Madsen.
Helen Caldicott: I think the Americans choose a million years [for nuclear waste to be isolated from the environment] because when you think about it plutonium has a half-life of 24,400 years. Some people multiply that by 10 to get the total radiological life. But some multiply it by 20 which brings you up to half a million years. And then you see radioactive iodine-129 has a half-life of 17 million years. There are quite a few isotopes that have extremely long half-lives. So I suppose to encompass the whole gradient of radioactive elements, and as you said almost every element is made in a reactor, they would put the number at a million. But it would be interesting, wouldn’t it Michael, to research why the Americans have chosen a million years.
Michael Madsen: Yes, but when I asked the scientists in Finland I received two kinds of answers within the same company. The communication manager said, ‘Michael, you have to understand that high level nuclear waste becomes less and less toxic because of the half-life. So really Michael it’s all the time diminishing the problem, from day to day.’
Then the head expert of the long-term safety [group] said, ‘Michael, I do not agree with this way of talking about high level nuclear waste because essentially, when we are talking about these time spans, it is forever. In the human time scale it’s forever.’ . . . To talk about a hundred thousand years or a million years doesn’t really make sense. What we have to think about is that it is about a hundred thousand years [ago] that homo sapiens left Africa for the first time. That is what we’re talking about.—Helen Caldicott interviewing Michael Madsen, 15 July 2011