Horror Film About Nuclear Waste

Into Eternity

Directed by Michael Madsen (2010)

Film Review

Into Eternity is an eerie account of Onkalo, the world’s first permanent nuclear waste repository. So-called “spent” fuel rods from nuclear energy plants remain radioactive for 100,000 years. Most of the radiation that has contaminated northern Japan post-Fukushima is from spent fuel rods being temporarily stored in water pools on the roof of one of the reactors. Becoming exposed following the earthquake and tsunami, the fuel rods caught fire, releasing massive amounts of radiation.

There are an estimated 250,000 – 300,000 tons of nuclear waste lying around in cooling pools in countries that rely on nuclear energy to produce electricity. The scope of the problem is mind boggling. 250,000 tons of highly radioactive material capable of wiping out all living things and contaminating adjacent agricultural lands and future crops for 100,000 years. The amount of waste increases daily, as the US and other countries merrily churn out spent fuel rods from existing – and new – nuclear reactors.

A Security Nightmare

As Fukushima and Into Eternity make clear, these temporary cooling pools are extremely vulnerable to natural and man-made disasters (e.g. earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, wars, civil unrest). In a world on the brink of economic Armageddon, they are a security nightmare, owing to the extensive maintenance and surveillance they require. At present permanent underground storage is the only possible solution. The film briefly discusses reprocessing and transmutation as unfeasible. Both reduce, without eliminating, the quantity of permanent radioactive waste. Reprocessing reduces the total quantity of nuclear waste by transforming it into plutonium. The latter takes one million years to degrade.

The History and Future of Onkalo

The Finnish and Swedish governments are collaborating to dispose of their own nuclear waste (6,000 tons) in a huge system of underground tunnels blasted out of solid bedrock in Olkiluoto Finland. Work on the facility commenced in the 1990s. Once the spent fuel rods have been deposited, Onkalo will be cemented over, backfilled and decommissioned more than a century from now. No person working on the facility today will live to see it completed.

After outlining the immense danger posed by 250,000 – 300,000 tons of nuclear waste that will remain radioactive for 100,000 years, the film centers mainly around the debate over marking Onkalo to prevent future generations from inadvertently drilling into it. This is essential, as a new Ice Age is anticipated in 60,000 years, which will likely obliterate all Finnish cities for 10,000 years or so. Most ancient language are forgotten in a matter of centuries. Beowulf and other literature written 1,000 year ago in Old English is virtually unreadable today.

It’s mind boggling for human beings to conceptualize time spans beyond a few generations. The human species has changed drastically since it originated in Africa 100,000 years ago. If humans survive another 100,000 years, they will likely be as different from us as we are from our hairy ancestors.

More Sad than Scary

My personal reaction to this film was immense sadness, rather than horror. I cried through much of it. It forced me to confront that our planet’s 250,000 tons of nuclear waste – not catastrophic climate change or water or energy scarcity – is the single biggest factor threatening human survival and civilization. Unless some solution can be found before the global economic system implodes, our children and grandchildren will be left with a planet in which wide swathes of territory are left totally uninhabitable.

Even more horrifying than the film, is that it has received almost no mention in the US media.  I guess the corporate media prefers Obama’s solution to the nuclear waste problem: denial. Obama has recently authorized billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies to build new nuclear reactors.

I wonder what his children and grandchildren will say?


End Taxpayer Subsidies for Nuclear Power


Sign the Public Citizen petition!

One week we learn the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant has contaminated the entire North Pacific with via the daily discharge of  300 tons of radioactive water into the ocean. The following week we learn that Britain has approved the first new, “totally safe” nuclear power plant in 35 years, at Hinkley Point in Somerset. The snow job being perpetrated on the British and American public is that nuclear energy creates electricity without emitting carbon dioxide and that it’s cheaper than renewable energy. Neither is true.

A Little Problem of Nuclear Waste

Nuclear energy only looks cheap and carbon neutral if you take plant construction and nuclear waste disposal out of the equation. The US, British, French, Chinese and other governments driving the current nuclear renaissance don’t want you to think about nuclear waste disposal. This is because the technology required to safely neutralize and store spent plutonium that remains radioactive for 10,000 years has yet to be invented. Finland has come the closest, with the launch of a $3 billion excavation of an underground depository at Onkalo. Since the US site at Yucca Mountain was defunded in 2010, most countries have been leaving their spent fuel rods lying around in containment pools. At Fukushima, the spent rods were on the roof of the stricken reactors – before they melted down and spewed immeasurable amounts of radiation into the air and groundwater. In Britain, most nuclear “decommissioning” happens at a former nuclear weapons site called Sellafield. Despite a government allocation of more than ₤67 billion to the facility, the spent rods are still lying around in open pools. No one can figure out what to do with them.

Nuclear Affordability Depends on Massive Subsidies

Aside from the unsolvable nuclear waste dilemma, nuclear power plants are also incredibly expensive to build, owing to extensive  safety/containment requirements. None have been built anywhere without major government subsidies. Prime Minister David Cameron boasts that Hinkley Point will be the very first to be constructed without government support. Instead of committing taxpayer funds to its construction, Cameron is guaranteeing that British consumers will pay a price for Hinkley Point power that is double what they currently pay.

At present the British public pay an average of ₤0.05 (7 ½ US cents) per kilowatt hour (kwh) for electricity produced by existing coal and gas powered plants. In sealing the deal with the French-Chinese consortium building Hinkley Point, Cameron has locked British consumers into paying twice that – ₤0.092 or 14 cents per kwh – when Hinkley Point comes on line in 2023.

Deceptive Claims About Renewable Energy

Cameron’s claims that the above price will be competitive with renewable energy are also extremely deceptive. Fossil-fuel based electricity continuously increases in price over time. This is due to growing oil and gas scarcity and the prohibitive cost of clean coal technology. In contrast, renewable energy costs keep coming down, as cheaper technologies come to market and increased volume slashes per-unit production costs.

Already the price the British government (and the BBC) cites for solar energy is out of date. They incorrectly list the current cost of British-produced solar electricity at ₤0.125 (19 cents) per kwh. However, thanks to the recent availability of cheap Chinese photovoltaic cells (PVCs), a British solar unit installed in 2013 produces electricity for 11 cents per kwh. This rate is expected to drop as low as 3 cents per kwh in coming years – and even lower as cheaper alternatives to silicon come on board. In Seattle, the cost of solar-based electricity is already down to 7 cents per kwh.

Ignoring the Cheapest Renewable Sources

For some reason, nuclear proponents always fail to mention the two cheapest forms of renewable energy: mini-hydrogeneration* and geothermal. As with the production of solar energy, there are minimal operational costs with either one. The per unit price of power production is almost entirely based on upfront construction and installation costs. With mini-hydrogeneration, the average per unit price tends to be half that of wind energy, which in Britain is ₤0.10 (7 ½ cents) per kwh

The cost of geothermal energy depends on the type of plant and where it’s located. There are two main forms of geothermal energy. The first is the surface geothermal energy captured in volcanic regions, where boiling water bubbles to the surface owing to cracks between the earth’s tectonic plates. The second is deep geothermal in non-volcanic areas, where deep bore holes are drilled into subterranean hot water reservoirs. Owing to the expense of drilling, deep geothermal technology is more suitable for providing direct heat rather than conversion to electricity.

At present the US is the world’s largest surface geothermal electricity producer at an average cost of 5 cents per kwh. In Iceland the average cost is 4.3 cents per kwh and in NZ 7-9 cents per kwh.

In non-volcanic areas of Europe, it’s more practicable to use deep geothermal technology to provide heat for homes than to produce electricity. The average cost of geothermal heat across most of Europe is 8 cents per kwh.

Five days after Cameron made his announcement about Hinkley Point, the city of Manchester announced the approval of a geothermal project by the Irish Company GT energy to deliver affordable, renewable heat to local homes and businesses.

Obama’s Nuclear Obsession

Obama, of course, is even more pro-nuclear than his British counterpart. According to Zero Hedge, his 2013 energy policy includes $14-16 billion dollars in loan guarantees for 8,400 Megawatts of new nuclear power. In other words, six or seven new nuclear plants. This is despite warnings by Congressional Budget office of a 50 percent risk contractors will default on their loans. According to the CBO:

 “The key factor accounting for the risk is that we expect that the plant would be uneconomic to operate because of its high construction costs, relative to other electricity generation sources.”

As usual, Obama is less concerned about taxpayers than his friends in the nuclear industry who helped finance his political career.

*Unlike dam-based hydropower, mini-hydrogenerators are designed to operate in streams with a steep downhill gradient.

photo credit: Abode of Chaos via photopin cc

Originally published in Dissident Voice