According to an expert interviewed in the mesmerizing conceptual documentary Into Eternity, the world currently has between 250,000 and 300,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste. The radiation from that waste is toxic to human beings, and it’s estimated that exposure to it will be a danger for at least 100,000 years. Currently, radioactive waste is being placed in interim storage like water baths, which act as a shield against their effects, but anything on the surface is vulnerable to all manner of human and environmental disasters. Since blasting the stuff into space isn’t an option—engineers in the film immediately rule out that possibility, because the launch could ignite the waste—another solution is to bury it far underground. To that end, the ambitious Onkalo nuclear-waste repository in Finland, a series of tunnels carved five kilometers deep into solid rock, seeks a more permanent home to hazardous waste. But is there such a thing as permanence?
Director Michael Madsen—no, not the actor—approaches the Onkalo problem with one part curiosity to two parts dubiousness, reflected in a hyper-aestheticized style that feels equally influenced by Errol Morris, Sigur Rós, and creepy science-fiction movies. Madsen’s technique can be distracting, like his habit of appearing onscreen himself, lit by a match’s flame. Or the elegant tracking shots that ultimately reveal nothing. But the overall impression is deeply unsettling and blessedly removed from the full-scale panic of Chicken Little documentaries about how food/water/oil/global warming/Ebola/“The Rapture” is going to kill us. Madsen casts doubt on the notion that this Pandora’s box will never be opened, either by some cataclysmic event, like another Ice Age, or drilling by future generations who may not be aware of Onkalo, or even able to decipher warnings of its contents. Something terrible seems likely to happen—just not today.