The China Syndrome (1979) Poster

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  • While doing a routine news feature at the Ventana nuclear power plant, KXLA reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) and her photographer Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) witness what appears to be a serious 'accident' taking place. When they attempt to publicize the incident, however, they find themselves entangled in a massive coverup. With the aid of Ventana control room supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon), who also believes that the plant is unsafe, they work to make this information public ...if they live long enough.

  • The China Syndrome is based on a screenplay by director James Bridges and American screenwriters Mike Gray, and T.S. Cook.

  • The "China Syndrome" refers to the result of an American nuclear plant meltdown in which molten reactor core products can supposedly melt through the crust of the Earth until they reach China. It is explained in the movie, however, that this is unlikely to happen because the superheated core products would come in contact with ground water and turn it into steam. The steam would then create an explosion that would release the radiation into the air. In other words, the core products could never make it all the way through the earth to China.

  • China Syndrome was released on March 16, 1979. Twelve days later the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, suffered a partial meltdown. No one was hurt, but the Three Mile Island incident helped propel The China Syndrome into a blockbuster.

  • The security protocol of most nuclear plants is very tight. The owners of the plant, in conjunction with the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission), wouldn't want any film or photos of the control to be leaked so that governments and organizations that are unfriendly to the United States could possibly duplicate the control room or find weaknesses in it's operation or security. Remember that this film was made during the Cold War when relations between the Western Bloc and Soviet Union were very unfriendly and tense. Nuclear power was a leading factor in the continuation of the Cold War itself: both sides were in a race to see who could do more to harness the destructive and energy-producing capabilities of nuclear material. Spies on both sides would conduct their secretive activities in both countries to obtain any classified information they could. While Richard isn't a spy, plant security wouldn't want any footage to leave the plant and fall into the wrong hands.

  • The feed water pump was off balance and was causing what is called a reactor "scram" in which the reactors undergo an emergency shutdown followed by a restart. For example, the reactors go from running at 75% to stopping cold and then restarting. The shock of the sudden stops and starts triggered the tremors. The scram problem was further complicated by a stuck pressurizer gauge that was reading a full cooling system when it was actually near empty. Godell felt a second vibration, after the scram, which he couldn't explain. After investigating he found a problem with one of the pumps which caused it to vibrate. Looking for the cause, he discovered that, instead of x-raying all of the welds, the contractor had used the same x-ray and just changed the reference numbers. This meant that there were welds that had never been properly checked during construction. He suspected there was a problem with one of the welds on the pump that caused the second vibration and that if the weld failed it could lead to a disaster. When they cause the scram to distract Godell, the pump does break loose and fail, just as he had predicted. Operators were able to successfully shut the plant down, even with the damaged pump, but there were likely millions of dollars in damages.

  • Troubleshooting the problem would require that the plant be shut down for several months at tremendous cost. On top of that, they were within days of seeking approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to build a second plant. To close down the plant and admit to a scram problem would risk delaying or even losing approval for the second plant. The plant operators hoped to get the reactors back online at full power and pass off the incident as a routine occurrence that actually demonstrated the "fail safeness" (or safety) of the system, thereby assuring NRC approval for their second plant. Jack's discovery of the scram, the feed water pump problems, and the falsified inspection x-rays would have led to a monetary disaster for the plant. Their solution, at first, was to ignore Jack's warnings. When that didn't work, stronger measures had to be taken.

  • Godell went to the plant because to get onto the plant grounds you have to pass through several security checks, beginning with the gate that Godell drives through. After that, he'd probably have to pass through several other security checkpoints—even though he's quite obviously well-known to the security personnel, protocol would dictate that all employees follow the same procedure every time they report for work. The men in the car knew they couldn't even get past the guards at the gate so they gave up the chase. When Godell enters the highway, right behind the fire truck, he thinks he's lost the men in the blue car. However, they caught up with him a few miles down the road (there's no way to tell how much time passed between when Godell got on the highway and when they caught up with him, probably just a matter of minutes.). It's likely that Godell's pursuers knew an alternate route onto the highway and were able to find him. Godell would have found it much harder to lose them at that poin, so he went to what he felt would be the most secure place he could find under the circumstances.

  • He didn't want to lose his job or his good standing in his career field. If he'd come forward directly and talked about the plant's conditions, he'd have likely been vindictively fired from his job and been branded a "whistleblower" for the rest of his life. Ventana's owners likely would have also tried to ruin his reputation so he couldn't find work anywhere else. It was also already dangerous enough for Godell to pass the falsified x-rays to anyone who didn't work for the plant, like he did with Hector. Unfortunately, Hector becomes an innocent victim of the lengthsto which the security officials will go in order to keep the information secret.

  • A nuclear power plant is a very intricate operation. There are hundreds of systems and components that have to be synchronized so it runs both efficiently and safely. Because it's so complex, there isn't simply a switch that anyone can throw to start it up like a car engine. Even a champion car racer will not simply stomp on the gas. They start out fast but bring their engine up to its full potential gradually. The systems in the plant have to be triggered and constantly checked to make sure they are operating properly and safely, which is why the control room itself has about a dozen people running it. Those workers are watching gauges and readouts making sure that all the systems are functioning properly. When Jack arrives after the chase, he finds out that Ted Spindler and the control room staff have brought the plant up to 75% of its full operating capacity, something that Jack had earlier protested. Jack intervenes and brings it back down to about 50% which is a safe level, considering the dangerous conditions he'd uncovered.

  • Jack takes over the control room with a pistol he takes from the security guard and threatens to flood the containment with radiation unless he is allowed to make a public statement. Kimberly and Jack prepare for broadcast while awaiting the arrival of a photography team. Meanwhile, the plant officials have brought in a SWAT team to break into the control room, and other loyal employees are preparing to trip the generator and turbine, thereby forcing the reactors to do a total plant scram in order to prevent Jack from flooding the containment. Jack's assistant, Ted Spindler (Wilford Brimley), warns them that a scram is just what Jack is afraid of, but they don't listen to Spindler either.

    Everything comes together when the photography team arrives and Kimberly goes on the air. She introduces Jack Godell, who begins to tell the story of what happened during the last "event" and how close the plant came to a disaster. As Jack tries to explain the very complicated workings of the nuclear reactor, Spindler (under orders) cuts the wires that trip the generator. An alarm starts to sound, alerting Jack that the reactors are about to scram. He starts screaming "No! No!" and attempts to rectify the trip. Suddenly, the SWAT team breaks through the door and shoots Jack multiple times in the back. Before he dies, he manages only to whisper into Kimberly's ear, "I feel it", referring to the shaking and shuddering that indicates a scram had begun. On the control screens, everyone watches helplessly as the feed water pump breaks free. Minutes pass as the event plays itself out. When Spindler checks the computer feed, he finds that the event is over and the reactor is stable. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief.

    Outside of the plant, multiple TV crews have arrived and KXLA has managed to set up another Cam. Bill Gibson (James Hampton), PR man for the power plant, is conducting interviews that depict Jack as a drunk and a nutcase, assuring the public that they were never in any danger. Angered by their slander against Jack, Kimberly goes back on the air and, although she is finding it hard to maintain composure, she manages to interview Spindler, who finally admits that Jack was not crazy (or drunk as Gibson tries to pass off) and upholds Jack's warning that the plant should be shut down and inspected. In the final scenes, Kimberly's broadcast ends and KXLA goes to a commercial for microwave ovens. Test bars cover the TV screen, the screen goes dark, and credits roll.


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