The China Syndrome exploded at the box office 19 years ago, and a real-life atomic crisis followed

The China Syndrome

Since it wouldn’t exist for another decade, Springfield was still safe from Homer Simpson’s doughnut-fueled dalliances with nuclear disaster. But the threat of atomic meltdown proved to be a favorite subject of movie fans on March 20, 1979, when Variety reported that The China Syndrome, starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and Michael Douglas, had debuted as one of the country’s top-grossing films.

Clearly, the topical drama tapped public fears about atomic energy. It also struck a few nerves among the pronuclear fearless, including a Southern California Edison executive who claimed the movie had ”no scientific credibility and is in fact ridiculous.” But all debate was rendered moot when, 12 days after The China Syndrome‘s release, a reactor at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pa., came perilously close to a meltdown. The core had a partial leak, releasing radiation that penetrated steel-lined walls and was detected a mile away.

With the timing of a well-planned publicity stunt, the accident made the film seem eerily prescient. The headlines were so similar to the movie’s plot, says China Syndrome exec producer Bruce Gilbert, he thought ”someone had seen the picture and sabotaged the plant.” But the filmmakers took no satisfaction in being proved prophetic. ”Every goddamned thing we had in there came true,” Lemmon says. But ”we wanted to make sure that in no way would we use the accident to gain recognition for the film.”

Together, the film and the parallel crisis sparked a move to pull the plug on the nuclear-power industry. In the following months, several power plants were shut down as safety precautions, while plans to open others were scrapped.

Of course, this was neither the first nor the last time life imitated screen art. We can only hope Hollywood has run out of predictive steam for this year, since two of this summer’s big releases, Armageddon and Deep Impact, are about huge meteors on a catastrophic collision course with Earth. And according to the estimates of a report issued in the China Syndrome era, the odds of a large meteor smashing into a major city are about the same as the chance of a meltdown at a nuclear plant.

The China Syndrome
  • Movie