The "China Syndrome" documentary

There is a “documentary” playing (on AMC, I think) regarding the film “The China Syndrome” and how it has so powerfully affected our culture, to the point of stopping the construction of all nuclear power plants in the U.S.

Now, I can’t possibly disagree with the main point: there’s no denying the fact that American nuclear power plant construction has stopped, and that all 19 nuclear plants scheduled to be built prior to the film being shown were subsequenly cancelled. I also must say that I thought it was an extremely well-made movie and I enjoyed the film immensely. But I wouldn’t feel this way if it were not that some attempt at balance was injected into the film. The balancing point – and this is just as true of Three Mile Island – was when Jack Lemmon’s character exclaimed: “The system works!”

True, the extent of the accident at TMI – it was indeed a melt-down – turned out to have been much worse than was thought at the time. BUT, it ALSO turned out that the plant was much SAFER than even the engineers who designed it thought it was, even though it must be admitted that luck played a real role in the tremendously good outcome.

Here’s my bitch: I must object to the extreme bias and unfair editing of the thing. All of the neutral or pro-nuclear participants were muzzled since all balanced or pro-nuke statements were obviously edited out of the thing. How about a little balance, fuckheads? How about admitting that, sure, the culture and the nuclear power industry were drastically affected by the movie, but that’s primarily because the overwhelming majority of our fellow Americans are complete and total idiots when it comes to rational scientific judgements!

And just to help promote our idiocy in this regard, it repeatedly showed a mushroom cloud going off at some nuclear plant!
To the producers and editors of that pseudo-documentary, I say: FUCK YOU!

I agree. And the point of “The China Syndrome”, as I recall it, wasn’t that nuclear plants are bad, it’s that Corporations Are Evil. Which was a very common theme in movies made in that era.

There is no way to convince some people that nuclear power will ever be safe, any more than it is possible to convince some people that Elvis really is dead or that humans really did land on the Moon. Those people will grasp at incidents that didn’t turn into disasters and use them as ‘proof’ that the system is irredeemably unsafe and should never be implemented ever again.

It would be equally stupid if people used the recent JetBlue forced landing to ‘prove’ that airplanes are inherently unsafe and that we should ban all air travel in this country.

Nuclear power, for various reasons, is a boogey man that few people understand so it’s easy for people to get away with that kind of stuff. I predict that nuclear power is going to be a hot issue in the near future due the oil situation.

My Dad was at TMI*. His view of the whole thing, IIRC, is that it was a minor problem that escalated because a) the design of the safety equipment wasn’t clear and b) the operators were under trained. Basically if the operators had done the correct thing at the correct time TMI wouldn’t have been a big deal.

BTW, I am curious as what you are referring to when you say “-- turned out to have been much worse than was thought at the time.”

Anyway, nuclear power scares a whole lot of people because they have no idea how safe it is. They don’t understand how it works and get all their information from Godzilla movies. For example, at one point my Dads division dumped some ‘radioactive’ water*** into the sewer system. There was a huge outcry in the editorial pages of the local paper, people going off about how the government was poisoning the envrionment, people were gonna die and that no one cared about the children. It was a mess. It was also pretty damned funny because the ‘radioactive’ water they dumped into the sewer was a little more radioactive than BEER. You could drink the stuff and it would never hurt you. Heck, I stuck my arm in the pool, it only got dangerous if you neared the radiation source at the bottom of the 30 or 50 foot pool.

When the media shows anything related to nuclear power it is almost always a horror story. At the same time they rarely show an oil refinery blowing up killing alot of people or the people who got lung cancer/asthma/whatever and died due to smog from car exhaust back when the air over L.A. was really bad. So people get a skewed view of nuclear power and the people who dislike nuclear power, some of whom are in the movie buisness, use the publics ignorance to push an anti-nuke agenda. And it works.


  • My Dad was at TMI the day after the accident. My Dad told me a couple years ago that he asked to take the job of heading up the clean up of TMI**. He turned it down because he preferred doing research and the clean up was “Easy work. Highly complex but easy”. In other words, you had to be careful and make sure you did everything correctly but it would not require a whole lot of hard thinking. He preferred hard thinking.

**The VP, Walter Mondale, called my house about the clean up. I was 9 at the time and answered the phone and apparently spoke to his secretary. I don’t remember it.

*** The pool was used to test radation hardened components. They would take the component, stick it on a pole and lower it to the radation source at the bottom of the pool for a while and bring it up, plug it in and see if it worked. And no, the component didn’t become radioactive because the source was a beta radiation source, not gamma.

**** My Dad ran this test. He bought the plane, had the wall built and ran the plane into it then showed me the picures a couple days later. This has nothing to do with the OP, I just like watching it. Oh, and ignore the coments on the website. The wall wasn’t built to withstand a nuclear blast. It is part of the containment dome.

That is so COOL!

The problem is that most people doing documentaries aren’t going to do the research to find out what the real risks and concerns are. And, especially post-Chernobyl, since there have been reactor accidents they don’t recognize the difference between what happened there, and what happened at TMI. And without the basic understanding, even an intelligent person may find it easy to come to the conclusion that things aren’t really as safe as all us nuclear power fans say it is.

Of course this is also the public that gets its history from movies like JFK, or Pearl Harbor. So, it’s not like I find this surprising. Disappointing, but not surprising.

I’m not attacking you, but this reminds me: Another thing that gets me about those crappy documentaries and, indeed, media in general is that the coverage reduces everything to two sides: You’re either pro or con, with or against, yea or nea, red or blue, and black or white. There is no place for someone who, like me, doesn’t care that deeply about nuclear power per se but is deeply troubled by science and criticism being perverted or forgotten in the service of a cause.

(I seem to have a talent for not fitting into either of any two categories.)

That is true. Making the issue black or white, when in reality it’s not, really plays into the anti-nuclear sides hands. For example, I’ve seen a reporter* ask a nuclear saftey person if “Nuclear power is perfectly safe”. The pro-nuke guy said “No, but nothing is perfectly safe. Nuclear power is safer than (insert ilst of mundane things like driving down the street)”. The reporter then concluded the segment by saying that an expert said nuclear power isn’t safe. I don’t know if the reporter did this out of ignorance, an agenda or to achive higher ratings. Whatever the reason, to someone watching who didn’t know much about nuclear power the conclusion was clear, nuclear power is dangerous.

Sadly, the some of the people in the media does this with a lot of issues.


*I think the show was ‘60 Minutes’. I was about 15 when it aired and just remember being blown away that the reporter came to a conclusion that none of the experts supported in any way.

This is what I remember about the TMI incident and The China Syndrome.

The China Syndrome was released and, of course, the folks in the media began asking “Could it happen for real?”

In response, the spokespeople for the nuclear power industry said, “Absolutely not.” They then would list reasons, cite relative risk, etc. etc.

THEN TMI happened.

The conclusion the general public made was: The people who ran nuclear power plants at best had no idea what they were talking about and at least knew that nuclear power was incredibly dangerous and chose to whitewash and lie to the public so that they could reap the profits.
The sequence of events shot the credibility of the entire industry.

Derleth, no problem.

I’m not unaware of the costs involved with nuclear power, and have no complaint with people who have rational reasons for disliking it. I may disagree with them, or you, but that doesn’t mean that I think that all the criticisms of nuclear power are without merit.

And, Long Time First Time, not arguing with your recital of the facts or the results, just want to emphasize that the accident at TMI was very different from the scenario being talked about with respect to the movie.

I got that from an extremely fair and unbiased book published just last year about TMI by a former NRC engineer/historian who is still clearly in favor of safe nuclear power. The title is Three Mile Island: a nuclear crisis in historical perspective, by J. Samuel Walker. It was published by the University of California Press. It is his opinion in this regard that I am repeating, because he convinced me. Unfortunately, I can’t recall the details. The main point he makes, I believe, is that it turned out that there was indeed a meltdown, even though that was not commonly believed by the NRC and other competent nuclear experts at the time.

It still didn’t matter, of course. The outcome was quite good, and in our present perspective, it was great that the governor did not order a significant evacuation, with all the injury and probably death that would have involved.

Thanks for the example. It’s the same story with the ridiculously trumped-up horror at the use of depleted uranium in military ordinance. What these people never want to admit is (1): it’s depleted, for Bob’s sake!, and (2): that you are exposed to more ionizing radiation from working in your home garden than you could ever reasonably be exposed to DU, even in the long term.

Sorry, friend, but I don’t think your recollection is accurate. The documentary I’m complaining about showed Michael Douglas, the producer of The China Syndrome, clearly emphasizing that TMI happened before the release of the film. Therefore, your scenario cannot be true.

China Syndrome American release, according to 16 March, 1979
Three-Mile Island incident, according to PBS: 28 March, 1979

It’s a pretty freaky coincidence, and the movie and the incident reinforced each other. Had only one occurred, it’d now likely be largely forgotten. If Douglas or anyone else in the documentary is claiming the incident happened before the release, they’re wrong. And even if the incident had preceded the film’s release by 13 days, the movie had been in production for months prior, and would definitely not have been made and released based on TMI, like some schlocky rushed-to-screen ripped-from-the-headlines made-for-TV movie.

It’s far more likely that the release would have been held up by producers not wanting to look “insensitive,” if the movie had not been released yet when TMI occurred.

That might be true if someone had been killed at or around TMI, but as far as I know, no-one was. Since the incident was scary, newsworthy but not blood-drenched, I rather doubt “sensitivity” would be a factor in planning its release.

Wow, I saw this documentary, and it goes to great pains–mentioning repeatedly!–that the events of TCS preceded the events at TMI by a matter of days. With viewing comprehension so low, it’s no wonder that you manage to misrepresent the documentary’s purpose in the first place. The point of the film was not whether nuclear power was safe or not. The point was that the sequence of events itemized by Long Time First Time happened in such a way to completely destroy the credibility of the industry and its PR machine.

The best part was how they did a split-screen of the news conference in the film and the real TMI news conference, and the “spin” was almost identical. Whether nuclear power deserved its fate is immaterial to the doc; the point is that China was eerily prescient about some of the dangers–dangers the industry was adamant in denying upon the film’s release, pre-TMI. Who could blame the American public for not believing the industry when they were caught in major CYA mode?

That’s exactly what happened, according to Michael Douglas, who produced the film. He explicitly stated he had the film pulled and stopped it’s showing in theaters lest he and his colleagues appear to be profitting from the disaster.

Fuck you, too. And speaking of poor viewing comprehension, why didn’t you comprehend that Douglas clearly stated that he pulled the film and stopped its showing immediately upon learing of TMI?

Your comprehension for reading is quite low, too! I made it abundantly clear in my OP that the purpose of the documentary was to illustrate the extreme cultural impact of the film. I said it quite clearly, and even made it abundantly clear that I agreed with that assessment. Sheesh!

But the point of my OP was that they deliberately excised any statements to the effect that the primary reason that the film was so culturally powerful is that people are ignorant. Furthermore, they repeatedly showed special effects that undeniably showed a nuclear power blant blowing up like an H-bomb. And yet you dare to claim that making nuclear power appear unsafe was not part of the documentary’s agenda? Ha!

You were so obviously conned. You only thought the true, real-life statements were “spin” because the documentary told you they were. In reality, they were not. The integrity of the plant, and thus the safety of the area residents, was sound. Thus, the statements you mindlessly parrot as “spin” were actually truthful statements of fact.

Your only source for that is the documentary, which played extremely loose with the facts. In reality, all these dangers were known and acknowledged, but were justifiably and scientifically determined to be of sufficiently small risk that there was no justification for the panicy bullshit from the anti-nukers.

Interesting. I’d not known that.

I didn’t know it, either, until I watched the documentary I’m scolding.