Onkalo, long term planning

How would you like to be the Project Manager on a construction project that is due to run through 2100? That’s what they’re doing 300 kms Northwest of Helsinki at Onkalo, a long term storage facility for highly radioactive nuclear waste. It’s a timely topic of discussion. While the uncontrollable spewage from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico from BP punching holes in the earth in search of oil, the Finnish Nuclear authorities are working on a place to keep the spent fuel rods confined and out of way, a trash bin, once full, we hope to forget.

Graphics from Poisiva project brochure

The crypt, 500 meters down in the bedrock granite that makes up most of Finland, will be sealed up sometime after 2100 when it’s full to capacity. Because it’s radioactive waste and will stay dangerous and lethal for a very long time, the design spec requires the storage facility to remain closed and impervious to breach for 100,000 years.

One hundred thousand years. Think about that. Put that to scale. The pyramids were built 4,000 years ago. The first cave dwellers popped up around 30,000 years ago. As Michael Madsen, director of Into Eternity, a documentary film about the project put it, “The human species as we know it today is believed to have existed for approx. 100,000 years.”

Planning for this timeline brings with it all kinds of challenges:

Geological changes predict another ice age within that time so in order to maintain the integrity of the tunnels, they need to be designed to withstand the weight of the anticipated two mile thick ice sheet.

Tomb raiders from future generations also need to be taken into consideration. Refined plutonium is valuable and a core ingredient for nuclear weapons and a valuable target turning this tomb into a treasure. If you think what happened to the pyramids when gold was discovered there, keep future generations out will be a challenge indeed.

It’s an anthropological puzzle. How do you look ahead thousands of generations and figure out how to keep people away? Do you post “No Trespassing” signs everywhere? If so, in what language? Or, is it better to forget this place, leave it unmarked and forgotten? When you lock it up, what kind of locks do you build? Who keeps the key? May this creepy trailer to Madsen’s film will do the trick.

A review of Into Eternity by the New York Times leaves us with this thought:

As a species, we are good at forgetting. So maybe the best, ultimate, defense against people messing with Onkalo would be simply to forget that it is there. The best way to keep a secret is not to let on that there is a secret at all.

But what about the ethical duty to warn those future generations with some kind of marker that would survive the scouring of Finland by glaciers and evolution of language? If, in fact, the canisters are rediscovered a few hundred years or a few thousand years from now, we can imagine our descendants’ reaction at having been left such a nasty surprise.

Of course, we ourselves could be surprised, like the peasant who found Qin’s army. One joke that went around the Onkalo project for a while, according to Mr. Madsen’s film, could have come straight from a novel by Arthur C. Clarke. What if, the team thought, the first thing it found when it started digging were canisters left by somebody else?

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5 thoughts on “Onkalo, long term planning”

  1. So, what’s the problem?  Why worry about generations to come?  WE created the stuff, knowing that is was the deadliest material to ever exist, and that didn’t stop us.  WE built forty-thousand hydrogen bomb warheads, knowing that they could destroy all of mankind, and that didn’t stop us.  Montsano Corporation creates genetically modified organisms, knowing that one might mutate into something that could destroy us.  WE don’t care about our OWN generation, why this great concern about generations to follow.  If today’s astronomical cancer rate is a price we seem to think is worth paying for our modern life, then lets just dump this stuff at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and forget about it. Humanity already has a long history of suicidal behavior and there’s no reason to start being responsible now.  As the line from Blade Runner goes,”We’re stupid, and we’ll die”.

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