Revisiting “The China Syndrome”

Revisiting “The China Syndrome”

In the book Normal Accidents, sociologist Charles Perrow argued that in complex systems requiring the close and continued coordination of numerous fallible humans, failure was so inevitable that it should be considered normal — in the sense that getting a flat tire is normal. You can and should try to avoid it, but eventually, for some reason or another, it’s almost certainly going to happen. That’s why cars roll off the line with spare tires in their trunks.

In a nuclear disaster, though, there’s no such thing as a spare tire. That was the most terrifying message of Perrow’s book, published in 1984. Two years later, Chernobyl exploded.

Our justifiably worry-ridden age has made this the summer of Chernobyl, with HBO’s riveting miniseries and two new books bringing English-speaking audiences to their most acute awareness of nuclear hazards in, possibly, three decades. Not that it should have taken that long: just seven years ago, flooding at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant led to a triple meltdown and forced the evacuation of 171,000 people.

This year is also the 40th anniversary of a movie known to, and discussed by, Chernobyl’s desperate engineers: The China Syndrome, the definitive cinematic document of the No Nukes era. On streaming services, it’s represented with poster art that makes it look like Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda, and a highly hirsute Michael Douglas joined the Fast and the Furious franchise.

In fact, it’s a tense thriller about a nuclear plant poised on the precipice of disaster, its heroic journalists more reminiscent of All the President’s Men. (That said, there is a Jack Lemmon car chase.) It’s well-worth watching after you finish Chernobyl, a vivid document of just how worried the world was about the risks of such an event.

The movie’s title describes a then-hypothetical situation in which a nuclear reactor core, burning out of control after an accident, becomes so hot that it burns through the pad on which it rests — all the way through the Earth, to China.

In fact, as a character in the movie notes, what would happen would be that the core would hit the groundwater table, contaminating a vast supply of water and potentially causing a thermal explosion that would spew the reactor’s contents into the air.

That’s the scenario the naked miners are trying to avert in Chernobyl, digging a cavity beneath the reactor to install a cooling system to halt the downward progress of the burning core. As worrisome as the fictional reactor (played by various actual California power facilities) in The China Syndrome was, the risks at the quadruple-reactor Chernobyl facility were far worse.

As Adam Higginbotham explains in his book Midnight in Chernobyl, a China Syndrome at Chernobyl would have amounted to “a gargantuan dirty bomb formed of more than five thousand tonnes of intensely radioactive graphite and five hundred tonnes of nuclear fuel.” That kind of explosion could “hurl enough fallout into the atmosphere to render a large swath of Europe uninhabitable for a hundred years.”

While The China Syndrome takes a Hollywood turn in its final act, a riveting early scene plays like a Chernobyl prequel, as a faulty gauge leads to actions that create a dangerous surge. Disaster is averted, but reporter Fonda and cameraman Douglas (a heroic character played, not coincidentally, by the film’s producer) are haunted by illicit footage of the incident. Studying the look on Lemmon’s face, they realize just how serious the situation was.

Economically directed by James Bridges (Urban Cowboy), The China Syndrome still works as a solid thriller. Its critique of sexism in TV journalism (Fonda’s boss tries to consign her to offbeat stories about singing telegrams and fish veterinarians) is somewhat undercut by the way Fonda gets pulled along by Douglas’s insightful maverick, but it nicely captures the anxiety of its era.

In one scene, power-company tycoons look on churlishly from the back of a room while protesters gag themselves to dramatize their inability to stop a local authority from granting permission for the construction of a new nuclear plant. The fictional protesters and their real-life counterparts had ample reason for concern: less than two weeks after the film’s release, Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island plant experienced a partial meltdown.

While the studio pulled the movie from some theaters to avoid the appearance of capitalizing on the real-life disaster, it was nonetheless evidence that the film had been all too prescient. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power wasn’t thrilled about it, but Douglas told the New York Times an Oregon plant had been “amazingly cooperative” in allowing its control room to be photographed in research for the film set.

“We never lied,” said Douglas. “We said we were making a movie called The China Syndrome.” Maybe, like the Lemmon character who would sweat it out in the mock control room, the Oregon engineers thought the public had a right to know.

Jay Gabler