Classic Revisited: The China Syndrome

Still of Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda in The China Syndrome

The China Syndrome
Directed by James Bridges
1979, IPC Films, 122 minutes

March 11, 1979: The “fallout from ‘[The] China Syndrome’ has already begun,” declared the New York Times.

The phrase “China syndrome” wasn’t yet part of the national vocabulary; the Times article had to explain that the phrase had “nothing to do with China.” The article was referring, not to the potentially deadly result of the exposure of a nuclear power plant’s core, but to a soon-to-be-released film carrying that title.

The China Syndrome, the movie—due to open five days later—was a thriller about a near-accident at a nuclear power plant starring prominent Hollywood lefties Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas, and Jack Lemmon, a known opponent of nuclear power. Fonda had been dubbed “Hanoi Jane” by conservatives during the Vietnam War. Douglas, who also co-produced the movie, was the son of 1950s star Kirk Douglas, one of Hollywood’s staunch liberals during the troubled blacklist years. Lemmon had become an antinuclear spokesperson after starring in a documentary critique of nuclear plants.

The movie’s subject matter, said the Times, was “as explosive as the metaphor of its title”; the article went on to explain that the film was already sparking controversy around the safety—or the danger(s)—of nuclear power. At the beginning of March, General Electric, the country’s biggest producer of power equipment, had “withdrawn its sponsorship of a Barbara Walters special because Jane Fonda talked about the film on it.” And a nuclear industry trade association, the Atomic Industrial Forum, had bombarded film critics with pro-nuclear press kits.

Douglas and Fonda had declared that the film was simply a thriller, not an attack on nuclear power, but clearly, the industry didn’t see it that way. It characterized The China Syndrome as a piece of propaganda that could potentially slow progress toward a glorious future of clean nuclear energy, accusations that didn’t abate after the premiere. Indeed, they have continued well into this century.

It’s true that, not long after the release of the film, the development of nuclear power as an energy source slowed to a standstill, at least in the United States; no new nuclear power facility has been built here since. But did The China Syndrome do it? Does any single Hollywood production really have that much influence?

A Thriller with Issues

It’s an exciting movie. But watching it again, 30-plus years later, I was struck by how little of the excitement is actually generated by the nuclear issue. Like most thrillers, The China Syndrome builds its suspense around the fate of its characters, not around abstract issues. Nuclear power is merely the setting in which they make their life-or-death decisions.

The plot is relatively simple: After witnessing a near-accident at a nuclear power plant during what was meant to be a routine visit, a TV reporter (Fonda) and her camera operator (Douglas) attempt to bring the story to the public, only to discover that the power company will go to any lengths to stop them. But the incident has shaken a senior engineer (Lemmon) at the plant, who, after undertaking his own investigation, discovers safety flaws in the plant’s construction and risks his career—and, ultimately, his life—to force the company to acknowledge the dangers.

Lemmon’s performance, one of the strongest of his career, provides most of the movie’s tension, as the engineer changes in the course of the film from a complacent company man to an impassioned crusader. When the movie comes to its ambiguous but anti-corporate conclusion, today’s viewer has to ask, could this movie really have changed history? Is it that powerful a piece of anti-nuclear propaganda, or just another conspiracy-theory story that happens to revolve around nuclear power?

Not the Movie’s Movement

Long before The China Syndrome, people questioned the safety of nuclear power. As early as 1964, protests had killed plans for what would have been the country’s first nuclear power plant, in Bodega Bay, Calif. By 1977, more than 1,400 people had been arrested for occupying the site of the Seabrook plant in New Hampshire.

It’s true the anti-nuclear power movement did grow explosively in 1979. That May, 65,000 people rallied against nuclear power in Washington, D.C.; in June, 15,000 protested at the proposed Shoreham plant on Long Island; and in September, thousands attended a series of concerts organized by a coalition of folk rock stars called Musicians United for Safe Energy.

But The China Syndrome was hardly the main inspiration for all that activity. Less than two weeks after the movie’s March 16 premiere, there was a much more vivid warning about nuclear safety: the real-life nuclear accident at the Three Mile Island plant in central Pennsylvania. The rapidly growing antinuclear movement continued to protest proposed new plants—1,900 were arrested at California’s Diablo Canyon in 1981—until 1986, when the far deadlier accident in Chernobyl, in the Ukraine, depleted whatever wind was left in the sails of U.S. nuclear development.

Yet if the growth of nuclear power was curtailed, it had already made itself a significant part of the U.S. power constellation. Today, nuclear plants supply a fifth of the nation’s electricity—and new development is poised for a comeback, with the Obama administration’s $54 billion commitment to nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Along with the nuclear renaissance, the assertion has resurfaced that The China Syndrome destroyed nuclear power the first time around. In September, 2007, in an article called “The Fonda Effect,” Freakonomics authors Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt made that very claim—again, in the pages of the New York Times. Rather than “becoming a nation with clean and cheap nuclear energy,” they wrote, “the United States kept building power plants that burned … fossil fuels. Today such plants account for 40 percent of the country’s energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions. Anyone hunting for a global-warming villain can’t help … wondering … about the unintended consequences of Jane Fonda.”

Just as in 1979, nuclear power advocates still hope to draw attention away from the very real dangers involved in the manipulation of atomic energy, including the potentially devastating consequence of accidents and the still-unsolved question of the disposal of deadly nuclear waste. Earlier this year, also in the Times, a forum of scientists, environmentalists, and economists debated the nuclear resurgence. Ellen Vancko, of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in Washington, D.C., put forward the opposing view, citing a UCS study that found that “it would be more cost-effective to meet a stringent emissions cap with a mix of energy efficiency; wind, solar and other renewable resources; and combined-heat-and-power plants fueled by natural gas.” Or, as WRL’s own Frida Berrigan put it on April 16 in the Huffington Post, “[N]o nukes means no nuclear power. … [N]uclear power is not clean, green, or cheap.”

So it wasn’t The China Syndrome that doomed the development of nuclear power, which fell from the weight of its own weaknesses—weaknesses that still exist and that should probably doom it again. But The China Syndrome remains an exciting movie to watch, and one that sits on the right side of the issue. And Jack Lemmon’s performance is a gem.

Judith Mahoney Pasternak

Judith Mahoney Pasternak, Paris-based activist-writer, is a veteran journalist in the alternative media, author of several books on travel and popular culture, and the former editor of WRL’s The Nonviolent Activist, the earlier incarnation of WIN. Her activist training was in the Second Wave of the feminist movement; since then, she has worked for peace, for social and economic justice, and for justice and self-determination for Palestine.