Several interesting facts surrounding The China Syndrome are worth bringing out at the beginning of this paper. First, Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda, and Michael Douglas, the principal actors in the film, were all actively anti-nuclear at one time during the 1970s and 1980s in California and Oregon. Fonda in fact flew from Los Angeles to Eugene Oregon in 1976 to appear as a celebrity on behalf of the proponents of Measure B, a ballot proposition (which failed) that would have restricted the further development of nuclear plants in Oregon pending the establishment of a safe repository for the highly radioactive "nuclear waste."
The same kind of ballot measure that was voted on in California in 1976, and was defeated because of massive advertising by the utilities, which used scare-tactic TV commercials showing a family eating dinner by candlelight (the direct implication was that the lights would go out unless nuclear power plants could go online). Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, build in San Luis Obispo County during the 1970s, was delayed for several years after an earthquake fault was discovered 2 miles offshore by geologists from the U.S. Geological Survey and Shell Oil, according to an anti-nuclear group in San Luis Obispo, California, the Mothers for Peace (www.mothersforpeace.org).
In the movie, suddenly, when a noticeable shaking event takes place in the containment building -- where the TV station staffers are gathered, part of a PR tour conducted to help the station do an in-depth series on energy in Southern California -- indeed, some serious scurrying takes place on the floor of the control room. What if a nuclear power plant got out of control? The viewer has a close-up look at what might take place during such an event. It might even be more frenzied than it was shown to be.
When a visiting journalist feels the shaking, and then hears, over the loudspeaker: "All personnel proceed directly to safety areas, this is not a drill"; that is enough to scare any reporter who is on site to produce television journalism about nuclear power, and Michael Douglas does a believable, excellent job in his role as cameraman, when he hears that warning in the film. He is told not to roll tape of the control room, but when the loudspeaker announces that personnel are to report to "safety areas," he covertly begins taping the scene.
'Routine, huh?" Douglas whispers, cryptically, while Fonda, who is playing the role of a talking head -- something of an airhead "fluff reporter," says little, but just stands wide-eyed and looking puzzled.
Given the paranoia by stations over running a story that might embarrass a public utility, another very potentially realistic sequence takes place back at the TV station, when Fonda and Douglas explain what they've got to the news director. He immediately senses a scoop, but when the station manager comes into the editing room and sees the footage, he shuts the story down, for lack of backup. Basically, that is a good strategy, but when Fonda and Douglas see the PR guy for the Ventana nuclear plant up in the room with the station manager, they know they've been censored.
The fact that the news media just happened to be on hand to witness one of the potentially hottest stories in Southern California news history was stretching credulity a bit, but Hollywood can get away with that.
"My God we're losing it," Lemmon, the man in charge of the plant's controls, barks, trying to re-establish control over the reactor following an earthquake. "Please God ...." Lemmon pleads, looking up and closing his eyes. This is a very human and realistic set of emotions shown by Lemmon; the anguish on his face tells a story that a scriptwriter's best dialogue could not match.
A bit later, in the executive suite owned by the power company the news is not so much directed on the accident that nearly resulted in a meltdown, but on the economic picture. Losing money is key to utility executives, as least in this picture, if not in the real world as well. A second nuclear plant is soon to go online at "Pt. Conception" (which in reality is a fictionalization of the Diablo Canyon plant which at the time the movie was made was still not fully licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission).
"If the license of the Pt. Conception plant is delayed even slightly, our cash flow dries up," the chief operation officer of the utility is told, by an underling who is trying to put the best face on a dangerous situation. And as to getting the nuclear plant at Ventana back online ....We've got heavy debts on the power grid to every other utility west of the Rockies."
'I figure we'll be losing $492,000 a day," says an executive to the head of the utility.
The CEO pours himself a drink and one each for the two men in his suite. He asks that the investigation be "thorough," but "let's not waste any unnecessary time," he adds. "Let's get it over with." "Yes sir."
Back in the TV station's staff meeting, Michael Douglas is emphatic, loud, and very upset at management for capitulating to the wishes of the power company. He believes it was a serious accident, and insists that the station tell the truth. Richard (Douglas) calls the station manager a "chicken-shit asshole ... " which could get him fired, but he is so distraught that he doesn't seem to care." Douglas' character steals the film (there was no "video tape then") and shows it to nuclear experts, in order to find out for himself what really happened during that "event."
The station manager later in a cocktail party atmosphere answers Fonda's question ("what are you going to do with the film") with a condescending, "not to worry your pretty head about it ... " Fonda's character wants very badly to be given serious TV assignments, but the manager wants her to continue the "fluff"; as a sidebar story to the nuclear safety story, she winds up getting the nuclear assignments because she simply goes to where the action is, and the station is, in the end, glad for the scoops she is providing.
Cover-up: Lemmon, the control room manager, says in the bar, to Fonda, in a realistic depiction of what someone in his position would likely do: most reporters "mostly deal with, 'the only good news is bad news' ... " and that is why he doesn't like reporters. He covers up the accident at the plant, saying it was just a "faulty relay in the generator circuit," Lemmon said. "There was no accident." "And a stuck valve." Did the safety hearing on Pt. Conception have anything to do with the hurried nature of the investigation?
As to Barry Commoner's book, Poverty of Power, he does point out -- and has been saying this for many years -- that "decentralized energy," such as is provided by solar power, is a threat to the giant utilities, because those energy companies want to continue to be able to produce electricity through nuclear and fossil fuel plants, and sell that energy to consumers. They don't like the idea of millions of consumers having technology on rooftops (whether it be just solar hot water, or photovoltaic hardware which take the sun's energy and convert it to direct electrical current), and not needing to buy electricity from the big companies.
Enron, a company that has made a lot of news lately, all of it negative, made money, multi-millions of dollars, by buying and selling access to power grids, and they, too, relied on big centralized power plants to supply the juice to be moved on grids and bought and sold.