The term “China Syndrome” became an indelible part of our vocabulary as the effects of such a nuclear disaster became a reality during the 1970s and 1980’s with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
In theory, when the core of a nuclear reactor overheats, the energy and heat generated would start melting the Earth’s surface.
The core would then start sinking into the Earth and drill its way all the way to the other side of the world – hence the reference to China.
In this 1978 movie, Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) is a news anchor for a local TV station, slowly working her way up through the ranks defined by company politics.
One day while covering a nuclear power plant as part of a series of informative news stories, an accident happens and not knowing what is going on, her cameraman, Richard (Michael Douglas) starts filming the ensuing events without permission.
Once they leave the building they try to use the material for exclusive coverage of the event but the station declines, in fear of a lawsuit.
Aggravated, Richard steals the film and shows it to experts who are able to identify the accident and classify it with comments, such as “we are all very lucky we are still alive!”.
During their visit, a control meter in the plant’s control room indicated that water level in the plant’s core was too high and to release the pressure Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) gives orders to open valves to release the water. When the desired effect is not kicking in, he decides to open more valves, trying to drain more water.
Once again, without effect it seems, but then a look at another meter indicates that the water level has become dangerously low. To their horror, it turns out that the needle of the analogue meter was stuck and that in fact, they had drained nearly all the water from the plant’s nuclear core.
Immediately the men in the control room try frantically to refill the containment only seconds before they physically lay bare the core.
After seconds of desperate measures, they manage to slowly refill the water and contain the danger, but they all know that they almost caused a China Syndrome because of the stuck needle on the gauge.
Officially “nothing happened” and the press releases cover up most of the events, despite the fact that Richard is still in possession of the film footage.
Kimberly and Richard try to make the footage available to the public to show the threat of these nuclear power plants but when they talk to Godell about the events, it turns out that there is a bigger threat. One that is still acute and can cost millions of lives.
Originally released during a period when the fear of nuclear energy was at the front of everyone’s minds, The China Syndrome touched on a very hot topic. As Michael Douglas explained at the time, “There was a lot of opposition from the nuclear energy industry to our making the movie. They are a powerful group with billions of dollars at stake, and they didn’t want us showing it could be unsafe.”
Ironically, only 12 days after the theatrical release of the film an accident as described in the film happened at Three Mile Island power plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Herman De Young