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In many ways, it’s the dramatic and emotional climax of the film, yet it occurs near the beginning, with Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas portraying a local news crew visiting the new “Ventana” nuclear plant, intending to produce a sort of puff piece on modern energy generation. They’re toured around the facility by one of the plant managers, and wind up watching from an observation gallery as routine operations in the control room are overseen by Jack Godell, formerly a nuclear sub commander, played by the great Jack Lemmon. It’s all very uneventful, the scene below calm and quiet. Then something goes wrong.

The China Syndrome debuted in 1979 amid much controversy, with voices on the right, backed by industry, decrying what they criticized as a naive and inaccurate attack upon the nuclear power industry, touted at the time in some quarters as the best hope to solve what was then referred to as the “Energy Crisis”, a matter of obsessive concern in a nation still reeling from the 1973 oil embargo. The technology is safe and incredibly powerful, they insisted, echoing sentiments expressed in the movie by Lemmon’s character, actually, but the critics were missing the point, and the much more nuanced argument that the movie was making. The film makers mostly agreed with the critics, and with Jack Godell, on one point, even though the harrowing depiction of the close call in the control room highlights the risks inherent in operating such complex and potentially lethal systems: yes, the technology could be made safe, and the system can work, as indeed it does, ultimately, when Jack and his team, despite everything, avert disaster. Decades of reactor operations on board the ships and submarines of the U.S. Navy had amply demonstrated as much. The thing is, though, that a technology like nuclear power is safest when it isn’t operated by capitalists motivated to make profits. Running a reactor to make scads of money creates all sorts of perverse incentives to cut corners on the extremely rigorous, costly, and time-consuming procedures, like the repeated x-raying of vital welds, that must be performed to keep the complex and dangerous machinery within safe operating parameters. Jack Godell, a veteran of the nuclear navy, assumes that private concerns will approach nuclear energy with the same rigour and safety-consciousness drummed into him by Admiral Rickover and his hand-picked protégés. Instead, he discovers that the company operating Ventana has been skipping the many required checks and faking its maintenance records, creating a terrible hazard, and in the end his attempts to expose this cost him his life.

He first twigs to the problem in the attached scene, when he looks down at the coffee oscillating in his cup, and realizes that something deep within the plant is putting out the sort of vibrations that can only occur when something critical – and just about everything in a nuclear reactor is critical – is malfunctioning. All the routine reports indicate everything is fine. Yet that can’t be right. It just can’t be. After that, it’s not about the technology, not really. It’s about corruption, and corporate greed.

Mind you, the point that even the most exquisitely sophisticated systems will toss out failures, a sobering, frightening thought in this context, is also well made, and was certainly well taken by a 21-year-old Graeme, biting his lip and holding his breath as the control room scene unfolded. I was on the edge of my frigging seat, just about ready to piss my pants, when I first viewed it (on a VHS tape, if memory serves). The tension as the technicians work their way through the “routine turbine trip” ratchets up to an exquisite, almost unbearable level, as Godell and his underlings grow increasingly desperate to dump cooling water from what their gauges indicate is a dangerously over-pressurized system surrounding the nuclear core. It’s an incredible moment of horrified epiphany when Lemmon and Wilford Brimley lock eyes, and we see the thought occurring to them simultaneously; Lemmon steps over to the water level indicator, gives it a little tap, and oh, shit. The gentle tapping un-sticks the needle, and the gauge plummets. By furiously dumping water to relieve the falsely indicated pressure, they’ve almost exposed the reactor core. Once you’ve seen it, you can never forget those terrible, indelible moments of waiting; Lemmon leaning on a console, terrified, praying silently, with nothing now left to be done, nothing except wait, and listen for the various system annunciators to declare whether the incident is over, or, just as likely, that a melt-down is now underway, and a huge swath of California is about to become a mass graveyard, rendered uninhabitable for the next few thousand years.

Life is funny, isn’t it? Sometimes it really does imitate art, as it did back in 1979, just 12 days after the film’s release. Even as various pro-nuclear pundits were insisting that nothing like the events depicted on screen were even remotely possible, there was a very real near nuclear catastrophe at the Three Mile Island facility in Pennsylvania, a partial melt-down and subsequent venting of radioactive gasses outside of containment that was much worse, actually, than the film’s fictional incident. The accident arose from circumstances eerily similar to those depicted in the movie, involving both ambiguous readouts and some bad human-machine interface issues. This is from Wikipedia, based on an official post-mortem on the real world event:

The accident began with failures in the non-nuclear secondary system, followed by a stuck-open pilot-operated relief valve in the primary system, which allowed large amounts of nuclear reactor coolant to escape. The mechanical failures were compounded by the initial failure of plant operators to recognize the situation as a loss-of-coolant accident due to inadequate training and human factors, such as human-computer interaction design oversights relating to ambiguous control room indicators in the power plant’s user interface. In particular, a hidden indicator light led to an operator manually overriding the automatic emergency cooling system of the reactor because the operator mistakenly believed that there was too much coolant water present in the reactor and causing the steam pressure release.

Spooky.

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