About as counterintuitive as can be, William Tucker over at the New York Times' Freakonomics blog argues that The China Syndrome was a net positive for the nuclear industry.
Why? Because the movie accurately portrayed what could go wrong in a plant of that time and TMI, happening less than two weeks after the release of the film into theaters, acted as a real-life correlative:
At Three Mile Island things were much worse [than in the movie, where a stuck gauge causes all the problems]. Nothing on the control panel told the operators the level of cooling water in the reactor. Reading other gauges incorrectly, they mistakenly drained the core. The result was a partial meltdown.
One does wonder if the operators needed the "missing" gauge if they'd read the gauges they did have correctly, but Tucker is essentially correct. You can read a detailed explanation of the Three Mile Island accident here and here. (NEI and NRC - Wikipedia is kind of barren on it.)
After TMI, plants presumably got that gauge:
After Three Mile Island, the industry founded ... the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations — to upgrade operator training and pursue safety research. In the 1990’s a group of Navy veterans began asking why reactors couldn’t operate as efficiently as they do on submarines. After upgrading their operations, the utilities soon had their fleet of 104 reactors running at 90 percent of capacity — as opposed to the historical 60 percent.
Even when it's about our own industry, we tend to resist narratives that lead to an inevitable triumph - they are as contrived and false as the barely avoided apocalypse of The China Syndrome. Naturally, the events at TMI led to improvement - that would have happened with or without the movie. But what the movie did was yoke TMI to a very scary, and malicious, scenario. It created a terrifying image for the public that took years to return to reality.
So no, Jane Fonda didn't help the industry. Without The China Syndrome, TMI would have been a step along a path; with it, a Great Wall of China blocked the path, marked by media hysteria and fiction.
Interesting post, though. Be sure to read the whole thing and Tucker's other contributions to Freakonomics. You don't have to agree with any of it, though you might, and he has an interesting way around a subject.
And he does like nuclear - which gives him a big gold star from us - but let's allow The China Syndrome its proper place in the history of nuclear energy.
Jane Fonda - and is that Michael Douglas on her right? - in The China Syndrome. I don't remember Fonda's makeup being quite that heavy, but maybe it fit the TV reporter role.
People - including us - tend to point to Fonda in relation to this film because of her left-leaning politics. It makes things easy, too easy. In fact, The China Syndrome was Michael Douglas' first production after the Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. When his TV show ended, Douglas gradually abandoned acting to take up production - until Romancing the Stone in 1984 (also produced by him) vaulted him to star level. Douglas, not Fonda, plays the authors' mouthpiece in the China Syndrome. (If you want to see the trio of movies as an ouvre, you could conclude Douglas liked stories about authority brought low rather than promoting ideology.)