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The Favor Jane Fonda Did Nuclear Energy

chinasyndrome 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.)

Comments said…
I always wonder about the characterization that TMI was a "partial meltdown." If the fuel melt at TMI was partial -- all of the fuel was severely damaged -- what is a full meltdown?
I covered TMI for Energy Daily in the 1980s, and, for many months the nuclear industry even eschewed the notion of any kind of "meltdown."
The industry's penchant for euphemism does not serve it well. TMI was a meltdown. There was no "China syndrome," which is good. Nobody was physically harmed. But the fuel load melted and destroyed the unit. It was not "partial." Get used to it.
Kennedy Maize
Luke said…
To respond to the last commenter, I'm not sure if all the fuel melted at TMI - but certainly, the reactor was totally written off.

I agree that what happened at TMI-2 was a "meltdown" - the melting or damage of the majority of the fuel in the core. for comparison, what happened at Chernobyl was not a meltdown as it is so often erroneously referred to.

That was undoubtedly a meltdown, at Three Mile Island - and this meltdown, which completely wrecked the reactor, never hurt any person.
Anonymous said…
A quick response on the question of "partial meltdown." A large fraction of the fuel in the TMI core did not melt, and remained intact. This was due to the details of the accident sequence, and the fact that water remained in the bottom of the reactor vessel and cooled the bottom of the core.

We need to remember that at the time of the TMI accident, the average capacity factor of U.S. nuclear plants was in the range of 60%. The industry was busy blaming its regulatory agency, rather than focusing on fixing the real problems it had with plant operations.

This is old history, because the industry has transformed itself and today the average US capacity factor is above 90%, with less than a 2% forced outage rate. What we need to think about is the path forward from here, in a world where carbon emissions pose very real risks and challenges.
D. Kosloff said…
A "meltdown" means that all of the fuel melts and onced it is moltin, it flows down to the bottome of the reactor vessel. But that is just the beginning of the "meltdown" because the fuel, in theory, could then continue to melt down by heating the bottom of the reactor vessel until it begins to melt. But that would still not be a complete "meltdown". The fuel would then have to melt through the reactor vessel until there would be "core on the floor". But that is still not the "China Syndrome". At TMI, the unit was not destroyed and even the vessel remained intact and was not completely wrecked. Even the core internals were not completely wrecked.
Joffan said…
China Syndrome was not important in the history of nuclear power. At worst it was a small negative factor by giving opponents a conveniently dramatic phrase to use; but basically it was irrelevant.

To check this for yourselves, imagine how things would have been different at the time of the TMI incident and the ensuing investigations, had there been no movie.

Still thinking? Can you see the difference?

No, neither can I. It was irrelevant. Entertaining, dramatic and slightly irritating if you know anything about how nuclear power stations work, but in the end without major implications for energy policy. The incident at TMI worked in the usual way that problems do, in the progressive improvement of engineering; but ascribing any of that progress to the movie is a mistake.

The only positive I see is in the debates around the web today - anyone citing the China syndrome as a real danger at nuclear plants is immediately identifiable as completely ignorant.
Brian Mays said…
Well, considering how many new nuclear plants are planned to be built in California (zero) and how many are planned to be built in China in the near future (a lot), perhaps we need to update our terminology.

The "California Syndrome" anyone? What do you think?

Actually, the "California Syndrome" would be better used to describe a situation where an economy is highly dependent on electricity imports and is strongly affected by volatile fluctuations in the price of a commodity such as natural gas, with no plans to upgrade its infrastructure to better accommodate this commodity. This new term is particularly accurate when such an economy, because of poor planning, is prone to being defrauded for billions by unscrupulous corporate executives.

The former name for this situation is the "Ostrich Syndrome."
Robert Synnott said…
It hardly had a huge impact; it's not as if it was the first work of fiction about nuclear disaster, and some of the others were MUCH more grim. Robert Heinlein, in particular, was rather terrifying on the subject.

TMI itself no doubt had a huge impact, and of course nuclear power in the US just wasn't economical at the time. Chernobyl was presumably the last straw.

Interesting, though, TMI (or China Syndrome) _didn't_ kill nuclear development in other countries; it took Chernobyl to do that.

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