The question of how to properly dispose of nuclear waste has plagued scientists since the initial development of the technology. Spent fuel rods are radioactive and highly toxic to their surroundings if not managed properly. However, the real issue with nuclear waste is the scale of time that one must consider when planning for its disposal. Nuclear waste will remain harmful to organic life for at least 100,000 years, a timeframe which human beings, let alone society, has no comprehension of. At a site located three hundred kilometres northwest of Helsinki, the Finnish are constructing something that they hope to be the answer to this disposal question.
The project is named Onkalo and is officially classified as a deep geological repository which will essentially act as a long term storage facility for radioactive nuclear waste. The project began construction in 2004 and is expected to be completely filled with nuclear waste by the year 2100. When finished, Onkalo will be a sprawling network of tunnels and caverns deep within the bedrock. The designers believe that placing the waste at this depth, surrounded by a coffin of granite, is the only viable solution for dealing with such hazardous material. The construction of such a project sheds significant light on the fact that for the first time in its history, the human race is dealing with materials and processes that will affect the planet even 100,000 years after we have all died.
One hundred thousand years is a staggering timeframe and has required the designers to take into consideration a wide variety of design elements that normal construction of a similar product would not even fathom. The tunnels in the rock are being surveyed and dug in places where it is believed the rock will be relatively untouched by glaciers when the next ice age occurs. Should the facility be identified in some manner? If so, in what language do they print the signs? Or should the entire facility be forgotten once its final concrete and steel barrier has been erected at the entrance? There is now way to tell whether our cultural legacy will survive the next 100,000 years, but the waste that we have created through our energy addiction definitely will. The Onkalo project ultimately presents a new definition of sustainability, in that we will have to design measures that will have to last long enough to protect future generations our harmful by-products.