Another guest post from environmental activist and producer Harold Linde on the history of environmental film.
"China Syndrome” is a metaphor for what happens when a nuclear reactor melts down. The intensely radioactive molten core begins to dissolve through whatever lies below it including reactor floors, thereby releasing deadly gasses and particulate matter into the environment.
And though the atomic fondue-like mess would stop long before it got close to China (estimates put the distance closer to 10 meters), the cloud of radioactive fallout released as a result would be most inconvenient for any animal species living within a hundred mile radius.
Strangely enough that is exactly what occurred at Three Mile Island just a few days after the release of the film China Syndrome -- a deadly one-two punch from which the U.S. nuclear energy industry never recovered.
China Syndrome was a fictional narrative film about a pair of television journalists (played by Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas) who accidentally witness the beginnings of a meltdown at an American nuclear reactor. With the clandestine help of a reactor manager (portrayed by Jack Lemmon) they leak the story to the public despite serious attempts by the authorities to cover the affair up.
Although the three lead actors (each possessing two Academy Awards apiece) gave riveting performances in the film, it was the timing of the film's release that made it such a powerful voice in the nuclear debate.
The film premiered in theaters on March 16, 1979. Twelve days later, on March 28 the Three Mile Island Nuclear Reactor went critical and suffered a partial core meltdown. Government and industry authorities went to great lengths to downplay the severity of the incident—originally labeling it a "minor malfunction."
Soon, though, the governor had advised "pregnant women and pre-school age children within a five-mile radius of the Three Mile Island” to leave. Eventually, 140,000 people evacuated the area.
In the film, one scientist states that a “China Syndrome” would permanently devastate "an area the size of Pennsylvania." A coincidence? Three Mile Island was located in Pennsylvania, just south of Harrisburg.
With the film anti-nuclear activists gained a powerful tool for organizing the general public. Chine Syndrome articulated in easy-to-understand terms the dangers of nuclear power at the hands of neglectful energy profiteers. And Jane Fonda even used it on a countrywide tour to campaign against nuclear energy.
Since 1979, 51 nuclear reactors in the U.S. have been decommissioned, and no new nuclear power plants have been constructed.
Harold Linde has worked with environmental groups such as Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, Forest Ethics, PETA, and the Ruckus Society before turning his hand to producing environmental film and television projects such as "11th Hour", "Big Ideas for a Small Planet", "30 Days", and "Edens: Lost and Found". Michelle Rodriquez plays him in the opening of "Battle in Seattle" — a feature film that dramatizes a group of radical environmental activists fighting against the WTO.
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