Thursday, April 2, 2015

Movie Watch: The China Syndrome (1979)

Back around 1997-2002, I worked in an upstart multimedia production group within the UT College of Engineering, comprised of me and a bunch of pals, some of whom I still pal around with to this very day (what's up, JuanD!).

Anyway, as part of this extremely lucrative career (ha!), one day I found myself standing on a narrow bridge over the top of a big, metal tub of water.  I was, basically, atop a nuclear reactor - one that most people in Austin don't know is there - snapping pics like Peter Parker.

The engineers turned the reactor on and off for the pics, and I got really neat images of the thing glowing what I remember to be a shade of blue, but it's been a while.  Mostly I remember one Prof telling me "yeah, it's cool.  You could swim in the first ten feet of water or so."
"And at the bottom?"
"Uh... don't swim at the bottom.  You'd cook like bacon."

Walking out, they checked this little, plastic radiation detection badge you wear, and everyone was fine.  Except me.

You'll know when Pennsylvania gets a radioactive hole in it

"Is it bad?"
The two students checking us out kind of looked at each other.
"So... what do I do?"
They looked back at each other.
"I'm cool with a hose down or whatever.  It's not like I want to be radioactive."
Blank stares.
"Has this ever happened before?"
"We don't think so."
There was a buzz of activity as the students summoned someone older and wiser, as well as the faculty member and they sort of kibbitzed for a while.
"So," one of them said, "You can go."
"Yeah, I was about to do that anyway.  It's not like I was going to live here from now on and you're not police."
"Tell us if anything happens."
"When I turn into The Hulk, you guys will be the first to know."
No one laughed.
Tragically for me, for you and for science, I never did Hulk out, and as near as I can tell, if you ignore the fact I can now move objects with my mind, not much has happened since.  But let's just say the whole experience made me feel that, while nuclear engineers know how to nuclear engineer like crazy, some of them may not handle it super well when things get outside of the punchlist, and they might be the one standing between you and a decontamination hose.

It's a madhouse!  A madhouse!

So, that's more or less the perspective I came to the 1979 movie, The China Syndrome, a movie about nuclear reactors and the men who love them.

Edit:  Juan actually has video of the reactor pulsing!  As a bonus -

Prior to the movie, Robert Osborne of TCM pointed out that the movie opened just prior to the actual 3 Mile Island incident, which I did not know.  But that certainly drove up the box office for a movie doing ok-but-not-great prior.*

The movie blends two elements from the time: (a) the workings of the press in a changing landscape under constant pressure from both the demands of broadcast times and the bottom line, and (b) the anti-nuke movement caused by anxiety over what it meant to have nuclear reactors near population centers and concern over atomic waste.  Also impacted by the bottom line.

Let's get this out of the way:  Like a lot of you, I'm a pretty big fan of the movie Anchorman, and as the movie takes place in the late 1970's and follows a young Jane Fonda trying to crack the gender barrier in the newsroom, it's hard not to see a whole lot of Ron Burgundy going on in the movie.   Even Fonda's pals and supporters treat her condescendingly, and there's literally a non-football-ish ass slap at one point.  But, you know, Anchorman comes from a place, as does strict enforcement of HR rules.

Oh, and let's also define "The China Syndrome".  Apparently, that's when things go south and the nuclear reactor heats up and starts heading in to the Earth, straight toward China.  I'm as surprised as you are to learn it wasn't something kind of racist.

The movie's tremendous cast features the aforementioned Jane Fonda as the eager TV news reporter stuck doing Tiger Birthday Parties and whatnot, Michael Douglas as her left-leaning, post-hippie journeyman camera operator (and ass slapper), Jack Lemmon (I know!) as the chief operator of the control room at the reactor, Wilford Brimley as Wilford Brimley and a TON of "that guy" actors like Peter Donat and James Karen.

In truth, the movie plays out as the sort of anti-nuke cautionary-tale, Oscar-bait you kind of suspect it would, with nefarious corporate guys from the media keeping the lid on a nuclear reactor incident lest they be sued by the corporate guys from the energy company.  All of which would feel melodramatic and iffy it weren't more or less how these things do play out in the media and at the corporate level when there is a disaster (see: the BP incident in the Gulf of Mexico).  Safety precautions are ignore or shortcuts are made, reports are ignored, whistleblowers are threatened, stuff explodes and then it's a whole lot of disaster recovery and lawsuit-flinging.

And this one would probably have felt a little far-fetched were it not for that whole 3 Mile Island issue.

All in all, it's an interesting slice from history that even folks my age only sort of remember, and a pretty standard Hollywood spin on pretty standard corporate half-assery that tends to sicken, injure and kill a whole lot of people put on a scale that we've seen in places like Chernobyl (hey, man, I never said the Commies weren't cutting corners, either) and Japan (or our more profit-minded friends).

Melodramatic as the movie may tilt, it's got enough going for it - not the least of which is Fonda not phoning it in - and I dug it.  But, truthfully, I'd watch Jack Lemmon polishing shoes for two hours.

*btw - I watched this doc maybe 15 years ago on 3 Mile Island.  Recommended.

1 comment:

RHPT said...

1) There's a nuclear reactor in Austin?

2) That antecdote explains a few things about you.