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The China Syndrome: Blockbuster Movie Becomes Eerie Prophecy

Updated on September 28, 2018
DS Dollman profile image

Darla Sue Dollman, B.A., M.F.A., has 38 years experience as a journalist and editor. She also studied film, acting, and theater.

Anti-Nuke Rally at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Anti-nuke rally in Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) at the Capitol.
Anti-nuke rally in Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) at the Capitol. | Source

Classic Whistle-Blower Suspense

Few films have influenced the American public's perception of the Atomic Age like the 1979 thriller The China Syndrome.

According to the documentary Movies That Shook the World, the timing of the film's release by Columbia Pictures - March 16, 1979, twelve days before the partial core nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island.

The coincidence impacted the film's viewing audience so severely that Columbia Pictures decided to remove the film from some markets to avoid the appearance that they were profiting from the fear and suffering of residents of Pennsylvania.

The China Syndrome is a classic whistle blower combined with superior acting. Jane Fonda stars as California television news reporter Kimberly Wells. Michael Douglas is her photographer, Richard Adams, and Jack Lemmon stars as Jack Goddell, shift supervisor at a fictitious nuclear power plant in Ventana, California.

Wells and Adams are researching a feature story at the nuclear power plant. The tour guide stops at the control room to explain the monitoring process. Wells and Adams soon realize they are witnessing a nuclear accident in progress. Adams was told to turn off his camera, but secretly films the incident. Wells and Adams return to the news studio and tell their story, but the story is killed by producers. Adams, however, still has the film, and Wells has the instinct to pursue the story, as well as track down Goddell, the plant supervisor whose panicked expression can be seen on the footage taken at the plant..

The idea for The China Syndrome, according to Movies That Shook the World, came from writer Mike Gray when he learned that accidents in nuclear reactors could cause meltdowns, releasing massive amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. Gray also discovered that the nuclear industry failed to inform the public of this possibility in the 1950s when they first sold the American public on nuclear energy. The China Syndrome, the title of the film, is a slang term for a nuclear meltdown when reactor components fail to operate and melt containment structures, burning straight down through the earth's core and all the way to China.

Jack Lemmon

Jack Lemmon. Photo by Alan Light.
Jack Lemmon. Photo by Alan Light. | Source

Jack Lemmon's Academy Award-Nominated Performance

Fonda and Douglas give their usual outstanding acting performances in this film, but it is Jack Lemmon's performance that creates intense feelings of anxiety in film-goers with his classic, tension-filled, rapid-paced delivery of lines. The film also has no theme music to distract viewers and the only music comes from outside sources, such as car radios, thus placing all responsibility for the continuous rise in tension on the characters and plot.

The China Syndrome eventually grossed over fifty-one million dollars. It was nominated for four Academy Awards and Jack Lemmon was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role, one of eight well-earned Oscar nominations he received during his fifty-one years in Hollywood. Fonda was nominated for Best Actress. In fact, the list of awards and nominations connected with The China Syndrome seems endless, but it was the success of the film combined with numerous social factors that ultimately determined the long-term affects of The China Syndrome on American society.

America was still reeling from twenty years in Vietnam and the Cold War, and there was a nationwide movement to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. This movement, and the fear it spread regarding the dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons plants served to highlight the environmental issues related to nuclear power plants. America was primed for a movie like The China Syndrome, but it was not prepared for what came twelve days later.

Schematic of Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station

Simple Schematic of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station Unit 2 Nuclear Power Plant.
Simple Schematic of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station Unit 2 Nuclear Power Plant. | Source

A Collision Course with Reality

On March 28, 1979, around 4 a.m., the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station near Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, experienced a partial core meltdown in Unit 2, releasing up to 13 million curies of radioactive gas and 20 curies of Iodine-131 into the atmosphere.

According to "Crisis at Three Mile Island," a Washington Post report, residents of Harrisburg were first alerted to the dangers at the Three Mile Island facility in the early morning hours by a "loud roar" that rattled the windows and walls of nearby homes. The source of the sound was a powerful rush of steam. A pump sending hot water to the steam generator in Unit 2 had failed.

A second pump, that was fed water from the first pump, and fed cooling water to the reactor, also shut down. An emergency sensor recognized the lack of water and shut down Unit 2's giant turbine. Again, automatically "sensing" that the turbine did not want steam, the steam was released, shooting up from Unit 2's turbine with 1000 pounds of pressure per square inch.

According to Movies That Shook the World, by 6 a.m., Three Mile Island was half an hour away from reaching the China Syndrome.

It would be five harrowing days before residents would learn the exact details of the accident. It is unlikely that representatives from General Public Utilities and Metropolitan Edison, owners and operators of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station, deliberately avoided contact with the public. They simply had no answers, but more importantly, they had failed to devise an emergency plan and also had no recommendations for the safety of local residents.

Meanwhile, reporters from around the country descended upon the city and residents, searching desperately for tidbits of information and personal interviews. Rolling Stone magazine sent the best reporter they could find - Mike Gray, the man who wrote the script for The China Syndrome. In 1982, Mike Gray and Ira Rosen, producer of CBS's 60 Minutes, wrote a book titled The Warning: Accident at Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Omen for the Age of Terror. In Movies That Shook the World, when asked how he felt about the fact that his screenplay mirrored actual events, Gray replied, "I'm not surprised."

According to Movies That Shook the World, the events at Three Mile Island were an immediate - though temporary - box office poison for The China Syndrome and Columbia Pictures removed the film from some markets because the situation depicted in the plot was too realistic, too terrifying. At one point in the film, a scientist informs the reporter, Wells, that a meltdown at a nuclear power plant could destroy an area roughly "the size of Pennsylvania." Pennsylvania residents were stunned and terrified by the coincidence. The thriller/suspense film had somehow crept into the horror category in a matter of hours and thousands of residents fled Pennsylvania, fearing for their lives.

President Carter Visits Three Mile Island

President Jimmy Carter touring the TMI-2 control room with (l to r) Harold Denton, Governor Dick Thornburgh, and James Floyd, supervisor of TMI-2 operations, on April 1.
President Jimmy Carter touring the TMI-2 control room with (l to r) Harold Denton, Governor Dick Thornburgh, and James Floyd, supervisor of TMI-2 operations, on April 1. | Source

President Carter, Commissions and Reports

Two weeks later, on Saturday, March 31, President Jimmy Carter and his wife visited Harrisburg and Three Mile Island. According to American Experience, "Meltdown at Three Mile Island," Carter, a trained nuclear engineer, studied nuclear physics at Union College and helped dismantle the nuclear reactor at Chalk River in Ontario, Canada.

Carter had a clear understanding of the meaning of the China Syndrome. He also sensed that a panic situation might follow the events at Three Mile Island if the public did not receive some sort of reassurance from the government. He personally inspected the plant, including Unit 2. He then created a special commission to investigate the incident. The commission's final report placed full responsibility for the Three Mile Island incident on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

According to an August, 2009 report by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the incident at Three Mile Island is considered the most serious accident in nuclear power plant history, primarily because it increased the American public's fear and distrust of nuclear power. According to Movies That Changed the World, before Three Mile Island, America was 60/40 in favor of nuclear power. After Three Mile island, the country was 60/40 against.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's report also points out that the events at Three Mile Island forced "sweeping changes" on the industry with required emergency response training, radiation protection, and other safety precautions. The report fails to mention that the release of The China Syndrome combined with the Three Mile Island incident and world-wide anti-nuclear movements created a public relations disaster of epic proportions for the nuclear industry.

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A Terrified Public Reacts

According to Movies That Shook the World, the timing of the release of The China Syndrome impacted many areas of American society, including Wall Street, where "stock in Columbia Pictures rose as quickly as stock in the company that built the Three Mile Island facility dropped." At the time of the incident, seventy nuclear power plants were scheduled for construction. All orders were canceled. Clearly, Americans were connecting the film with the incident at Three Mile Island.

In the months following the incident at Three Mile Island, numerous anti-nuclear protests were held in the United States and around the world. According to Steven Zunes' Nonviolent Social Movements, On April 28, 1979, approximately 15,000 protesters descended on the Rocky Flats United States Nuclear Weapons Plant near Denver, Colorado. The following day, 286 protesters were arrested for civil disobedience.

In September of 1979, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and numerous other notable musicians belonging to MUSE, or Musicians United for Safe Energy, performed at the No Nukes Concert at Madison Square Garden in New York.

"We Survived Three Mile Island"

"We Survived TMI" sign in Middletown, Pennsylvania.
"We Survived TMI" sign in Middletown, Pennsylvania. | Source

Three Mile Island Today

According to Chris Peterson's Washington Post article "A Decade Later: TMI's Legacy is Mistrust," opponents lost a battle before the Supreme Court to completely shut down the Three Mile Island nuclear power facility and within ten years of the accident, Unit 2 was a tourist attraction. All radioactive water was decontaminated and evaporated and radioactive waste, reactor fuel, and core debris was shipped off-site. FirstEnergy purchased Unit 2 from General Public Utilities and it is monitored by Exelon, the company that owns and operates Unit 1.

The August 2009 report by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission states that when the operating license expires for Unit 1, both plants will be decommissioned, which should have been in 2014.

A Reuters news update reported two months later, in October of 2009, that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission renewed the operating license for Three Mile Island's Unit 1 until 2034.

Three Mile Island Cooling Towers

The unit 2 of Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station closed since the accident in 1979. The cooling towers on the left. The spent fuel pool and containment building of the reactor on the right.
The unit 2 of Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station closed since the accident in 1979. The cooling towers on the left. The spent fuel pool and containment building of the reactor on the right. | Source



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    • DS Dollman profile imageAUTHOR

      Darla Sue Dollman 

      20 months ago from Greeley, Colorado

      Actually, when the companies first approached residents with proposals for nuclear facilities the focus was on the future--providing efficient energy at less cost. Nuclear science isn't something most people study, so they trusted the information they were given at the time. Most people do trust science, until that science becomes deadly. It was also a different time. If they proposed the same facilities today I think there would be more protests because our knowledge of the dangers outweighs the benefits.

    • Athlyn Green profile image

      Athlyn Green 

      20 months ago from West Kootenays

      It has really been a no-brainer: go nuclear and imperil earth's inhabitants. Each reactor has been an accident waiting for a happening and we are seeing the results. And let's not forget Fukushima and those reactors built over a seismic zone.

    • DS Dollman profile imageAUTHOR

      Darla Sue Dollman 

      2 years ago from Greeley, Colorado

      Natalie, I'm among those who protested building the facilities in the first place. The people in these communities were outright lied to when they were told there were no safety issues. But, some people believe there are no safety issues and there will always be employees willing to go back to work. In Japan, the situation was different. The employees who returned were trying to shut the plants down to prevent the pollution of the oceans and save the people after an earthquake, but this facility should have been closed and cleaned up. Then again, is there such a thing as a complete, safe, "clean up"?

    • Natalie Frank profile image

      Natalie Frank 

      2 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Great article Darla! I never could figure out how they let people continue to work there. It just seems that no matter how comprehensive the cleanup it would be i.possible to make it 100% safe. I guess they now be closing it in 2019.

    • DS Dollman profile imageAUTHOR

      Darla Sue Dollman 

      2 years ago from Greeley, Colorado

      According to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, after the Three Mile Island incident, " the TMI-2 reactor is permanently shut down and all its fuel had been removed. The reactor coolant system is fully drained and the radioactive water decontaminated and evaporated. The accident's radioactive waste was shipped off-site to an appropriate disposal area, and the reactor fuel and core debris was shipped to the Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory. "

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      2 years ago from USA

      This was an excellent film review and recap of news events during the same era. I was a youngster at the time and remember some of these events. I also recall a nearby nuclear facility under construction that was never completed because of community objections after the TMI disaster. I do wonder where the contaminated material from TMI was shipped off to. It's poisoning somewhere on earth.


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