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While visiting the (fictional) Ventana nuclear power plant outside Los Angeles, television news reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda), her cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) and their soundman Hector Salas witness the plant going through an emergency shutdown (SCRAM). Shift Supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) notices an unusual vibration while grabbing his cup of coffee which he had set down. He then finds that a gauge is misreading and that the coolant is dangerously low (he thought it was overflowing). The crew manages to bring the reactor under control and can be seen celebrating and expressing relief.
Richard surreptitiously films the incident, despite being requested to not film the control room for security purposes. Kimberly’s superior at work (Donat) refuses to permit her to report what happened or show the film, disgusting Richard, who steals the footage. He shows it to experts, who conclude that the plant came perilously close to the China Syndrome in which the core would have melted down into the earth, hitting groundwater and contaminating the surrounding area with radioactive steam.
During an inspection of the plant before it’s brought back online, Godell discovers a puddle of radioactive water that has apparently leaked from a pump. Godell pushes to delay restarting the plant, but the plant superintendent denies his request and appears willing to let nothing stand in the way of the scheduled restart of the plant.
Godell investigates further and finds that a series of radiographs supposedly taken to verify the integrity of welds on the leaking pump are identical – the contractor simply kept submitting the same picture. He believes that the plant is unsafe and could be severely damaged if another full-power SCRAM occurs. He tries to bring the evidence to plant manager Herman DeYoung (Brady), who brushes off Godell as paranoid and states that new radiographs would cost at least $20 million. Godell confronts D.B. Royce, an employee of Foster-Sullivan, the construction company who built the plant, as it was Royce who signed off on the welding radiographs. Godell threatens to go to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but Royce threatens him; and later a pair of goons from Foster-Sullivan parks outside his house.
Kimberly also defies her bosses, determined to pursue the truth. She and Richard confront Godell at his home with what they know, and he voices his concern about the vibration he felt during the SCRAM and his anger about the false radiographs. Kimberly and Richard ask if he’ll testify at the NRC hearings, being held at Point Conception, where Foster-Sullivan is looking to build another nuclear plant. Godell agrees to obtain for them, through Hector, a set of the false radiographs to take to the hearings.
The China Syndrome is a 1979 American thriller film that tells the story of a television reporter and her cameraman who discover safety coverups at a nuclear power plant. It stars Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and Michael Douglas, with Douglas also serving as the film’s producer.
The cast features Scott Brady, James Hampton, Peter Donat, Richard Herd and Wilford Brimley. The film was directed by James Bridges and written by Bridges, Mike Gray and T. S. Cook.
It was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Lemmon), Best Actress in a Leading Role (Fonda), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (George Jenkins, Arthur Jeph Parker) and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. It was also nominated for the Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, and Lemmon won Best Actor for his performance. The film’s script won the 1980 Writers Guild of America award.
The film was released on March 16, 1979, 12 days before the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, which gave the film’s subject matter an unexpected prescience. Coincidentally, in one scene, physicist Dr. Elliott Lowell (Donald Hotton) says that the China Syndrome would render “an area the size of Pennsylvania” permanently uninhabitable.
“China syndrome” is a fanciful term—not intended to be taken literally—that describes a fictional result of a nuclear meltdown, where reactor components melt through their containment structures and into the underlying earth, “all the way to China.”
The China Syndrome (1979)
Directed by: James Bridges
Starring: Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas, Scott Brady, James Hampton, Wilford Brimley, Richard Herd, Michael Alaimo
Screenplay by: Mike Gray
Production Design by: George Jenkins
Cinematography by: James Crabe
Film Editing by: David Rawlins
Costume Design by: Donfeld
Set Decoration by: Arthur Jeph Parker
Distributed by: Columbia Pictures
Release Date: March 16, 1979