By: Rachel Hobbs, GMU Student Contributor
The China Syndrome is a 1979 Shakespearean-style tragedy written and directed by James Bridges that explores a deep suspicion of the systems designed to mitigate the risk of a nuclear reactor meltdown and ensure public safety. The film is about an accidental malfunction at the Ventana Nuclear Power Plant that is witnessed and filmed by a journalist, Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda), and her cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas). The plant’s shift supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) infers that there was a stuck valve that did not move to reflect the real water level. Insufficient levels of a coolant surrounding the core of the reactor may cause the core to overheat and melt through the surrounding reactor, all the way to the other side of the Earth to China, the phenomena for which the film gets its name. Godell, the hero, is too trusting of authoritative systems and people – a fatal flaw that leads to his untimely death. While managing the near-meltdown and emergency shutdown, he feels a vibration that none of the other plant managers notice. Although publicly projecting confidence in the safety of nuclear power, he inwardly wrestles with what may have caused it and eventually accepts the idea that the plant may not be safe. Godell takes the nuclear plant hostage to prevent it from being overused and is shot as the other plant managers attempt to get the plant back under control. Although the China Syndrome was successfully averted twice in the film, Godell’s death serves as a warning to the film’s audience to not be too trusting of the systems that purportedly keep people safe. Overall, The China Syndrome is a stunning thriller that gives more weight to the risks and failures than the benefits of systems at each the micro-, meso- and macro-levels.
Throughout the film, there are several failures at each macro (national), meso (nuclear plant), and micro (personal) levels that make the nuclear reactor less operationally safe and prevent vital knowledge from reaching the public. The primary failure within the micro level is captured by Godell’s fatal flaw and tragic ending. Godell is too trusting of the regulatory, engineering, and economic systems in place that maintain a safely operating nuclear plant. He insists to Wells that “the system works” because each component of a nuclear power plant is “checked and re-checked” and has “two backup systems” (Bridges, 1979, 48:45). He derives his trusting nature from his background as a long-time nuclear operator as one of the insiders of such a closely-knit system, such as when a plant worker refers to him as a “hotshot navy guy” with “credentials” (Bridges, 1979, 39:21). Despite evidence in hand, he perhaps naively confronts an independent contractor directly and alone about the contractor falsifying quality assurance checks. Godell’s status as an insider likely also plays a role in why his safety concerns are so easily dismissed by his co-workers, who believe he should be of the same mind as them.
This failure at the personal level is coupled with failures at the plant and national level. When Godell informs his supervisor that the independent contractor has not actually been taking X-rays of the wells, his supervisor agrees based on the evidence but is uninterested in getting up-to-date welding X-rays because it would cost “$15-20 million” (Bridges, 1979, 1:05:04). The plant operators elect to not step in to rectify a flaw in the risk management system in favor of profits over safety. Another decision taken separately at the news station once again fails to rectify this fatal chain of events, when the station manager refuses to let Wells do “hard news” and “some real reporting” (Bridges, 1979, 34:59). Instead, he insists that she do soft filler pieces such as “a tiger having a birthday party” (Bridges, 1979, 30:10). His refusal is laced with overtones of sexism, such as commenting “I like your hair like that” (Bridges, 1979, 35:29). Wells’ disempowerment in her workplace prevents her from being able to take the decision on what stories she shows and thus the relevant information from reaching the public.
Investigative journalism is imperative to democracy because it allows for transparency of the powers that be, balancing public, private, and governmental interests. The China Syndrome uses the motif of a camera as a witness to explore how and why such a system of transparency that is crucial to a well-functioning democracy might fail, putting public safety at risk of a nuclear reactor meltdown. The news station was unwilling to open themselves up to a lawsuit and release the footage because nuclear power plants are considered “security installations, and as such fall under the protection of Title XVIII of the United States criminal code” (Bridges, 1979, 27:10). It is illegal to film inside any nuclear reactor without authorization, so upon hearing that Richard Adams filmed the accident, the news station—for fear that they might be criminally prosecuted—puts the video footage in the vault until the NRC conducts its investigation. Had the penalty for unauthorized filming been less severe, the news station may have been willing to pay the cost of using the footage, potentially raising grassroots concerns and culminating in a more thorough investigation of the safety of the plant. The conflict between journalists, nuclear plant operators, and regulators is indicative of the democratic process and balance of powers that are codified within the First Amendment freedom of the press.
The public’s securitized relationship to nuclear power is especially heightened by the sense that nuclear is the domain of experts only. For example, Adams and Wells had to solicit advice from a nuclear engineer who reviewed the footage. Additionally, when Wells interviews a housewife at an anti-nuclear demonstration, the housewife seems uncomfortable with articulating exactly what it is that is problematic about nuclear power, iterating that she is “frightened” and not sure how operators can be “absolutely sure” that nothing bad will happen (Bridges, 1979, 57:50). The lack of technical expertise within the public domain aggravates the legal inabilities for journalists to properly share knowledge and represent the public interest.
The film punctuates the fear of the “China Syndrome” with a reminder that geographic proximity is a hugely determining factor in making it out of a nuclear meltdown or malfunction alive. Reflected in the title of the film, the idea that nuclear fallout could reach the other side of the world, associates a sense of fear with geographic and temporal proximity. For nuclear power, these are very well-defined, while not well defined for other issues facing public fears or misinformation such as climate change.
Insights and Recommendations
Changing public perceptions around nuclear energy broadly encompasses two categories of issues: Rebalancing the historical securitization of nuclear energy, and public education efforts to ease public discomfort and unfamiliarity with civilian nuclear power. First, The China Syndrome highlights that nuclear is the most heavily securitized energy source through its classification as a “security installation” (Bridges, 1979, 27:10). In nuclear energy, government interests are historically paramount, carrying more weight in this balance than either public or business interests. The decoupling of civilian nuclear power and nuclear catastrophe is more possible now than ever before due to a number of technological and policy innovations since The China Syndrome was released in 1979. Reactor designs that are “proliferation resistant” (Feiveson et al., 2014, pp. 88) employ techniques to increase the difficulty and length of time to transition to weapons development and to operate in a way that offers transparency for nonproliferation monitors. These advancements need to work in tandem alongside a properly functioning press to ensure an appropriate balance of governmental and public interests. While gatekeeping of new stories is no longer overtly driven by gender, gatekeeping nevertheless still occurs and profitability is the most significant way it takes place (Graber & Dunaway, 2018).
Second, while there is some research around what factors play a role in increasing public fears of nuclear, there is insufficient research around the impact of each factor (Graber & Dunaway, 2018). It is necessary to conduct more basic research into how nuclear messages and education shape politically relevant attitudes and behavioral changes. Furthermore, some evidence suggests that the most important factor is basic education and prior knowledge (Graber & Dunaway, 2018), including that public acceptance of nuclear power is strongly correlated with level of education attained (Levy & Santos, 2015). This could indicate that nuclear power education programs for middle and high school children, such as the American Nuclear Society’s Navigating Nuclear program (American Nuclear Society, 2022), may have the longest-lasting impact and be the most effective. An evaluation of a nuclear education program conducted in Brazil suggests that information about the benefits of nuclear across a variety of sectors overall encouraged public acceptance of nuclear (Levy & Santos, 2015). We recommend in particular expanding nuclear education programs for middle and high school children.
The China Syndrome is a suspenseful thriller that ultimately focuses more on the risks of nuclear power than the positives. However, nuclear can not only provide options for firm, dispatchable electricity such as through advanced small modular nuclear reactors, but it can also provide the high temperatures necessary for many industrial manufacturing processes and the clean energy generation necessary for green hydrogen (Cunliff, 2019). Increasing the accessibility of nuclear through public education and de-securitizing Americans’ relationship with nuclear power are therefore essential for a decarbonized future.
American Nuclear Society. (2022). Navigating Nuclear: Energizing Our World. https://www.ans.org/nuclear/navigatingnuclear/
Bridges, J. (1979). The China Syndrome [Thriller/Drama]. Columbia Pictures.
Cunliff, C. (2019). An Innovation Agenda for Hard-to-Decarbonize Energy Sectors. Issues in Science and Technology, 36(1), 74–79.
Feiveson, H. A., Glaser, A., Mian, Z., & Von Hippel, F. N. (2014). Unmaking the bomb: A fissile material approach to nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. MIT Press.
Graber, D. A., & Dunaway, J. (2018). Mass media and American politics (10th ed.). Sage Publications.
Levy, D. S., & Santos, I. P. dos. (2015). Education and communication to increase public understanding of nuclear technology peaceful uses. Brazilian Journal of Radiation Sciences, 3(1A). https://doi.org/10.15392/bjrs.v3i1A.85
 This paper is in response to an assignment in the course, Introduction to Energy Law, EVPP 505-202/POGO 750-021, taught by Professor Bubbosh.