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Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012

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Building for eternity: Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen casts light on the subterranean Onkalo disposal facility for radioactive waste now under construction with completion scheduled for the 22nd century.

WEEK 3

Danger! Nuclear waste! Keep out — forever!


Staff writer

The earliest known cave paintings date from about 30,000 years ago, and the earliest bone tools found so far predate those paintings by another 40,000 years. Go back 100,000 years, and Homo sapiens — us lot — are only just emerging, though the fossil record suggests our ancestors back then had larger molars and thicker and heavier bones than we do.

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Scenes from Madsen¥x81fs documentary, "Into Eternity"
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How else would they differ from us?

Given a time machine, could we go back and communicate with them? Across such a vast temporal divide, would we be able to convey anything to them at all?

And how about the future? What if we needed to leave a message for people 100,000 years from now? What if there was some terrible danger from which we wanted to protect people in the year 102,012? Could we do it?

These are questions that have been much mulled in recent decades in sectors of the nuclear power industry — an industry which, at its current level of development in the United States, Britain, France, Finland, Japan and elsewhere, produces waste that will remain dangerous for at least that long.

They are also questions that Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen believes should be considered by the public. To that end, in 2009 he made a documentary about an attempt in Finland to answer them — an attempt that involves the construction of a disposal facility intended to keep people millennia in the future safe from the radioactive waste we are producing today.

"The Onkalo facility in Finland is the first of its kind," 40-year-old Madsen told The Japan Times during a recent visit to Tokyo to promote the DVD release of his film, "Into Eternity."

"I wanted to think about what that place tells me about my own time," he said.

Located in Eurajoki on Finland's west coast, the Onkalo facility consists of a vast network of tunnels more than 400 meters below ground where that country's nuclear waste will be stored. Construction began in 2004 and will continue in stages until some time in the next century.

The aim is to bury within the facility's maze of tunnels all of Finland's existing 1,900 tons of high-level nuclear waste, which is currently stored in large water tanks, in addition to waste produced between now and then. All the waste will be encased in thick copper canisters before, ultimately, the tunnels are sealed with concrete and other materials — never to be opened again. Or so it is hoped.

Madsen explained that geological disposal, as this technique is known, is currently the only feasible long-term solution to the growing problem of what to do with the nuclear industry's radioactive waste.

In his film, he hammers home the seriousness of the issue by describing just how drastic other conceivable solutions would be.

As Peter Wikberg, the research director of Sweden's Nuclear Fuel and Waste Mangement Program, puts it in "Into Eternity," "Do you send it in a rocket out to the sun so it disappears and will never harm anyone?"

"How can we ensure that the rocket doesn't explode on the launchpad?" retorts Timo Aikas, executive vice-president of engineering at Onkalo.

Drop it into a deep trench in the ocean? "We would never be able to claim that we can safely put something into the bottom of the ocean because we still have the impression that the oceans are really the mother of all life," says Wikberg.

Ultimately, the film explains, subterranean bedrock is the most stable environment accessible to man. In 100,000 years' time, the surface of the Earth could be experiencing another ice age, but the rock 400 meters below the surface will likely be little affected.

Much of Madsen's quite studious film focuses on forcing various engineers who are building the Onkalo facility to answer questions — not about the technical aspects of their work, but about its human, cultural and philosophical consequences.

For instance, how can we know that humans in the future won't open the site? Can those humans be trusted to deal responsibly with something so dangerous?

"The Finnish scientists really wanted to talk about the reinforced concrete with titanium and the thickness of the copper canisters, because that is what they can talk about," Madsen said.

In contrast, his line of questioning reveals some fascinating dilemmas, such as whether any indication of the existence of the underground Onkalo facility should be left on the surface above it.

As it is, various pictogram-based signage systems, and environment-based ones, are being considered. These include skull-and-crossbones signs as well as ones that incorporate present-day radiation and emergency-exit symbols. There are also proposals to create a hostile landscape above the facility by sinking massive beams into the ground at weird angles to create a porcupine-like appearance that will wordlessly say "danger" and forever deter anyone from venturing there.

Some people, though, think it would be best to leave no markers at all — so that the site on the rugged coast of the Gulf of Bothnia will be forgotten, hopefully forever.

"There are two schools here," explained Juhani Vira, the senior vice president (research) at Onkalo. "There are those who think you have to leave markers on the ground, and those who think it would be better to walk away and forget about the site."

His own opinion? Asked by Madsen whether he thought leaving markers would create a higher risk of intrusion, Vira said that yes, that was his belief.

His opinion should be of particular interest to viewers in Japan because it turns out he has also been involved in deliberations concerning the construction of an Onkalo-like facility here.

Along with every other country that operates nuclear reactors, Japan is gradually accumulating a stockpile of radioactive waste. The "spent fuel rods" that were being stored in tanks of water beside reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant on March 11 were part of that stockpile.

News photo
Scenes from Madsen¥x81fs documentary, "Into Eternity"
News photo

Japan's long-term plan has always been to reprocess radioactive waste, extract plutonium from it and then feed that as fuel into more efficient "breeder" reactors whose waste has a far shorter half-life than that from other reactors currently in use. However, these breeder reactors are not yet commercially viable, and the Japanese government says they likely won't be until 2050.

Nonetheless, the Japanese government has already embarked on extracting plutonium from the country's nuclear power plants' waste — by sending a lot of it to Britain and France to facilities capable of carrying out the work (though Britain closed the reprocessing plant in Sellafied in 2011).

In addition, Japan is also trying to build its own extraction facility in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, where trial operations have just resumed after a three-year hiatus due to technical problems.

But as well as all that, Japan is also examining an Onkalo-like solution to be sited on its own territory — despite it being one of the most seismically active countries in the world.

In 2000, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry created the Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan (NUMO), which for the last decade has been conducting research and studies into a potential geological disposal site in Japan.

NUMO decided to seek expressions of interest from local governments willing to consider hosting the facility — and offered them up to ¥9 billion in research grants for feasibility studies.

"We're seeking partners for the geological disposal program," the website of NUMO says in Japanese, alongside a graphic featuring two figures holding hands. So far, though research has continued, no firm candidate sites have emerged.

Meanwhile, during his recent visit to Japan, Madsen was keen to convey information that engineers in Finland had told him. "I asked them if there was any country for whom geological disposal was not an option," he said. "They answered, yes, there is one: Japan. Because it is in an earthquake zone."

Others contest whether Japan's geology disqualifies it from having an Onkalo-like facility.

NUMO established what it called the International Technical Advisory Committee, inviting contributions to the debate from specialists in the field from around the world, including Onkalo's Vira, who appeared in Madsen's film.

In March 2009, members of that committee, along with other specialists, published a report titled "Development of Methodologies for the Identification of Volcanic and Tectonic Hazards to Potential High Level Waste Repository Sites in Japan."

Based on a case study conducted in the northern Tohoku region of Japan's main island of Honshu (where the Rokkasho facility is located), the 143-page report concluded with this paragraph: "Finally, and very significantly for NUMO and the national and international geosciences community that is tracking its work, we would note that, based on the Tohoku case study, it appears that a large number of potentially suitable sites could be found in similar, active tectonic environments in Japan."

Thus Madsen's film does not just provide a compelling account of Finland's attempt to deal with its own nuclear waste. It is also most probably a portent of what the future holds for Japan.



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