On January 19, 1979, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission stated it would no longer "regard as reliable" its own nuclear safety study — the Rassmussesn Report — which had assured citizens that the chance of a serious nuclear accident was about once in a million years. The NRC noted further that it now considered the bounds of error greater than the study had indicated.
Kimberly Wells is an attractive TV reporter who does soft news features on a California station. She and Richard Adams, her freelance cameraman, are doing a series on energy sources in Southern California. They visit a four-year-old nuclear power plant owned by California Gas and Electric. The company's PR man gives them a demonstration of a how a nuclear reactor creates energy.
Then, while they are observing the control room of the facility, they watch the technicians deal with what appears to be an accident. Adams secretly films the incident though a glass panel. He and Kimberly rush back to the station with their "scoop." However, they are both knocked for a loop when the station manager vetoes airing of the film on the grounds that they might get hit by a multimillion-dollar lawsuit. He finds a ruling that makes it a criminal offense to take unauthorized photographs in a security installation. Adams is convinced the authorities are engaged in a cover-up. He steals the film from the TV station vault. Kimberly, unwilling to jeopardize her job by going against her boss, gives in to the station's position.
On June 5, 1970, a sensor indicated that something was amiss within the second unit of the Commonwealth Edison Company's Dresden generating station at Morris, Illinois, some fifty miles southwest of Chicago. The sensor, which later proved to be faulty, issued a signal, which caused control room operators to manipulate valves. The emergency almost brought about a situation where the water was emptied from the tanks surrounding the reactor's core, thus causing a meltdown.
Jack Godell, the supervising engineer in the control room at the plant, along with engineer Ted Spindler, are called before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to answer questions about the incident. They explain the trouble was caused by a faulty valve in the generator circuit and a stuck indicator. After hearing the evidence, the board gives a clean bill of health and commends the personnel for their "swift containment of a potentially costly event."
Meanwhile, Adams has arranged to show his film to some anti-nuclear power protestors. Kimberly goes to find him and at a bar near the plant meets Godell. She asks him whether the public was in any danger as a result of the incident she saw at the power station. He responds, "We've got a quality control that can only be equaled by NASA." Yet the next day a worker at the plant discovers some radioactive leakage outside one of the pumps. Godell decides to double-check the radiographs on the welds on that equipment. He discovers that many X-rays are copies and, upon confronting the inspector for the job, learns that some welds were never checked. Godell tells the plant manager that they must shut down completely in order to take new radiographs and make sure the installation is safe. He is told that such a procedure is impossible. It is too costly and, besides, it would put in jeopardy the licensing of another nuclear plant nearby. Godell decides to take a stand.
In February of 1978, three engineers in General Electric's nuclear energy division in San Jose, California, resigned. They had worked in nuclear power plants throughout most of their professional careers. But they became convinced that the company was not sufficiently concerned about the nuclear safety problems. They cited a serious fire started when a workman used a candle to look for an air leak at a nuclear power plant at Brown's Ferry Alabama — a fire which almost led to a meltdown.
Greg Minor, one of the engineers who resigned, was in charge of control design for the systems at Brown's Ferry. He later testified: "Safety features are constantly being worked on, but the tremendous cost, schedule, and political pressures experienced [by the industry] make unbiased decisions, with true evaluations of the consequences, impossible to achieve. The primary focus…has been to 'prove' the plants are safe enough for continued operations — not to openly assess their true safety.
The China Syndrome is a gripping thriller that has — as we have shown above — a basis in real happenings. It is a piercing look at the dangers of nuclear energy and the unwillingness of corporate officials to put public safety above economic considerations. The screenplay by Mike Gray, T.S. Cook, and James Bridges explores the power plays inherent to both the nuclear industry and the hierarchy of TV news.
To bring such heavy thematic material to life on the screen requires a director with a good sense of cinematic pacing and a cast who can invest their characters with credible motivations. Director James Bridges (Paper Chase, September 30, 1995) keeps the tension high in this story despite the talky script. Jane Fonda's Kimberly Wells is a nuanced depiction of an intelligent woman who is struggling to be more than "talking furniture." Michael Douglas is convincing as an anti-establishment cameraman who acts impulsively on his beliefs. Jack Lemmon's delineation of Godell is a blazing study in conscience coming to life under stress. Like his role in Save the Tiger, this one packs a moral wallop rarely seen on film.
The China Syndrome is one of this year's most important movies. Although it offers a specific response to the question of nuclear energy, the screenplay also encourages viewers to explore their own opinions and react out of their own value system to the issues it raises.