Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Nuclear Power Nightmares Real and Imagined: "The China Syndrome" (1979)

When this film came out in 1979, "The China Syndrome" caused some sensation.  Some of this was due to the fact that it was a well-crafted thriller that seemed to many viewers to create a plausible scenario for a nuclear "event" that could conceivably contaminate large stretches of the surrounding area of such a crippled plant. Such an "event" would force a complete evacuation of all residents and workers, with tremendous loss of life and long-term radiation effects in the atmosphere and ground water. It could render an area uninhabitable for decades. 

 The film was released shortly before the biggest nuclear accident in American history caused a partial evacuation around the Three Mile Island Plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.    

I remember seeing this movie in a crowded multi-plex theater one evening in Berkeley, California,   shortly after the Three Mile Island incident and the concerns that the power companies in question (General Public Utilities/Metropolitan Edison) were covering up the worst of what happened.   When one of the characters in the film, a nuclear physicist, is viewing some secreted footage of a power plant control center team trying to stop a nuclear core meltdown, his reply was something to the effect that this sort of accident "could have left an area the size of Pennsylvania uninhabitable."

Many in the audience--who had not heard the line reported in the media previously--gasped aloud. Suddenly a mainstream Hollywood movie was not just a work of suspense with a political bent; it was the stuff of prophecy!   Believers in a Divine Creator (of which I wasn't at the time)  might have forgiven for thinking that Someone-From-On-High was trying to tell us folks something. 

The film feature a powerful performance by Jack Lemmon as a plant supervisor who becomes a reluctant whistle-blower after realizing that a number of falsified documents have compromised the safety of the plant.   The problem is that the plant itself is a billion-dollar project and the company managers do not want to lose their jobs by shutting it down.  

This, along with the reluctance of a television station to release such gripping and unsettling news from a on-air "light  news" reporter and her free-lance cameraman (played by Jane Fonda and Micheal Douglas, respectively ) from the core of the story.       

  The film ignited an already simmering controversy in California (and the nation at large) about further support of nuclear power plants.  There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth on both sides of the issue that continues today.  It is clear though to this blogger that, in the wake of the accidents in Chernobyl in 1986 and the three nuclear reactors at the Fukichima  Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in northern Japan most recently, that this is a technology with little margin for error.    

A recent article in "Time" magazine lays out more of what we didn't know about the Three Mile Island Reactor accident and its damages and also what we still don't know about the ongoing Japanese disaster, a tsunami-triggered occurrence from three months back that is still ongoing.      

Eight months after the Three Mile Island accident, "an Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientist declared, 'Little, if any, fuel melting occurred, even though the reactor core was uncovered. The safety systems functioned reliably.' A few years later, robotic sorties into the area revealed that half the core -- not 'little, if any' -- had melted down."

Read more: http://ecocentric.blogs.time.com/2011/05/16/was-fukushima-a-china-syndrome/#ixzz1PxJuJbfY




  1. Unless we, that would be the profligate west, dramatically reduce our demand for power then I'm afraid the only realistic game in town is nuclear! All power generation methods have good and bad points and in the case of nuclear the bad points are well known but significantly overstated. What is less well known, to the public at large, is the damage caused to the environment by large scale burning of poor quality coal in power stations. That's not to belittle the damage also caused by the burning of oil and high quality coal of course.

    Sadly America and to a slightly lesser extent the UK have an insatiable demand for electricity and the solution will be extremely painful for everyone. The politician that introduces huge price increases to curb demand will no doubt pay for that at the next election. We all will have to pay substantially more, possibly by at least a factor of TEN for our energy in a relatively short period if there is to be any realistic chance of curbing demand. That of course will have a hugely damaging effect on world economies but what is the alternative?

    Sure, the ostrich brigade will assure us that a technological solution is just around the corner and we need not modify our habits! Then of course the prophesiers of doom would have us all return to a style of living last enjoyed in the dark ages to avoid the fate awaiting us all.

    Me? I suspect the truth lies pretty much equidistant between those two. We will have to pay more for electricity and also find innovative ways to conserve energy (or at least use a lot less of it). There will be innovative ideas come to market that will also help, but the message everyone needs to get hold of is that we can not continue to consume energy at the current rate, it is simply unsustainable.

  2. This looks like an interesting film , doug.

    I can't help thinking the Nuclear power issue is here to stay. It has hardly any carbon emissions and as we all know produces massive power. France gets close to 80% of its electricity, from 59 of its nuclear power stations. Just look how close they are to the UK, so even if we decided that kind of power wasn't safe, too bad, France will have cooked our goose, so to speak.

    Finland is about to compete its fifth power plant. The US has over a 104 plants, although none since 1996, as far as I know, but are seeking permission for two new plants in Texas. Let's face it, nuclear power is now irreversible because France and the USA have given India the technology to build six plants. Soooo some aspects of the film worry me. Oh gosh, we still have the unsolved problem of disposing of nuclear waste. Who shall we pass that onto? These kind of films have a way of ringing true. :-(

  3. I don't doubt that nuclear power will continue to be part of the plans for energy consumption for the future, Jim. My biggest concern--more acute now that we have seen the Fukichima disaster--is that it's such an "unforgiving technology" if something bad does go wrong. There is also the question of how well the industry is regulated. Seeing how the US regulatory agencies looked the other way before the Wall Street/Subprime Mortgage meltdown in 2008 (after years of warnings) I have a lack of faith that the nuclear power industry wouldn't cut corners for the sake of profit.

    It's also a very expensive technology. Two reactor plants in Ohio I'm aware of came in at several hundred times their initial cost. And this accident in Japan shows me that even high-tech nations can be struck by the sort of disasters that one would think less likely than in the Ukraine, where the very primative design of the nuclear plant was cited as the reason has been cited for the meltdown and ongoing disaster there (i.e., Fukichima was not supposed to happen.)

    The other important issue you raise is the demand side. I agree no viable political solution looks good there. And any consumption saved in the UK or USA will be offset by the rise in living standards in other parts of the world in the next decades, notably China and India.

    I do agree we have to attack the problem of energy use and costs on all fronts, demand side and supply. No technology can be left out of the equation but I see that nuclear is still to me the most dangerous, even though many will point out the dangers to health from "dirty" coal-fired plants and this "tar sands" technology that Big Oil is selling over here. Americans need to start living more like Europeans in my view (smaller appliances, smaller vehicles, improved public transport) but I don't know how or what it will all take to get there.

  4. One of the thing about "The China Syndrome" that holds up well today is the way the American television media so often prefers inane stories and personality-driven news (i.e., a pretty or handsome face with limited skill sets, like Jane Fonda's character in the film). This has not improved one iota since 1979.

    Without Public Broadcasting shows here, Cassandra, television news would be a wasteland. National Network news is somewhat better, but local commercial stations make their profits selling user-friendly stories.

    As to the nuclear issue, I agree this technology is, better or worse, here to stay. One only hopes public awareness of the Fukichima diaster will promote greater safety in the plants that are on-line now. If the French or the Finns are doing something right there , I hope the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission studies it thoroughly and brings all safety measures into action.

    Angela Merkel in Germany announced that country would build no more nuclear plants. That may or may not hold given her time in power and obviously Germany may have more resources in, say, coal, than other nations. But even if more nations did prohibit new plants, there is still the problem, as you say, of where to store the spent fuel rods of those up and running?

    What concerns me most here is the power energy lobbyists in Washington have over politicians and through advertising venues. That and the fact that it just takes one major nuclear accident to render much more long-term damage than anything comparable in scope to a petrol, coal or natural gas-based accident. One nuclear plant in California (Diablo Canyon, on the central coast) was built over not one but two active earthquake fault-lines, one not known about until the plant was nearly up and running!

    The power company is currently seeking licence renewal but it seems we have to take Pacific Gas and Electrics word, post-Fukichima, that all is safe in case of a major earthquake. I hope so.

    I think "China Syndrome" should be seen as relevant today in light of recent events in Japan and also in the politics behind the building of the plants. This has to be balanced of course with industrial safety records and the like. Energy production is a dilemma with no one solution, but the caution and oversight needed to deal with nuclear-based power sources can't be overstressed.

  5. For those interested, here's a bit more information on the Diablo Canyon safety records and overlooked fault lines.

    Despite the rather histrionic presentation by the MSNBC host, Rachel Maddow, the main facts presented here have been reported by other sources previously. The story of the two nuclear reactors at Diablo Canyon underscores the need for caution and serious oversight to this industry.

  6. I suppose the thing with nuclear power and plants is, we can't cover for natural disasters and now we have terrorism to take into account. If any radio active material got into the wrong hands many thousands of people could be killed.

    Counties such as Iceland have used hydroelectric power, but I believe in part also geothermal energy plants. Fortunately it's a wet climate and the production is low on carbon emissions, but even that power has opposition. I have heard of new ways of producing power and that is tidal and wave power.

    We have to learn lessons from Japan with Fukichima, Russia with Chernobyl, the latter which was rather an ancient power plant. The land for many miles around may never recover. We are a small country in the UK, so the siting of nuclear plants is difficult and unpopular.

    When anything happened in the past, there was always a cover up. Have we learned any lessons? Maybe we have to trust scientists and politicians far too much.

  7. I suppose any available technology is prone to some opposition. Recently, even wind power in the USA has had organized opposition, what with migratory birds running into the giant wind turbines on hillsides.

    I would take that over the potential for terrorism that nuclear power might offer as far as a 9/11 style attack. (But I'm not a migratory bird of course.)

    It always seems that the most "green" technologies are not the ones that don't produce enough power to replace carbon-based or high-tech fuel sources.

    Lessons don't seem to be learned---not well-enough, at least in the long-run. I'm afraid it is a case of trusting people who often have too much incentive to soothe us rather than tell the full truth. (Politicians especially, although some scientists have a capacity to be co-opted for the sake of self-interest.)

    Safe to say there are no easy answers until some technological leap--a harnessing of a self-replicating power source, for example---makes our traditional energy grid obsolete.

  8. I simply can't believe any scientist would encourage a nuclear plant to be build on a fault line or even near it. What are these people thinking about! We know our carbon footprint won't be improved without political imput and politicians all have a budget to keep to, so don't always choose what is best for the environment. Of course, every time I fill my car with fuel, I'm aware I can't shout too loudly, until I put the car in the garage and get out my bicycle. Grins sheepishly.

    Indeed, there is much opposition to wind farms here, unless it is in someone else's back yard. If they are placed too close to residential areas there is a droning noise, not too loud but continual.

    Many of us have homes that guzzle electricity, fridges, lights, computers. Ahem, at least I only have a tiny television screen, says she smugly, as though that is going to solve the UK carbon footprint problem. Many local authorities increased the volume of street lighting to help in the fight against crime. One only has to stand on high ground to see the drain on the National Grid.

    Nuclear power does give us the energy we want, but I worry about the waste. I simply can't see a way around that. Dumping it in someone elses back yard is no solution.

    Doug, I'm only too pleased I don't have to sort these things out, but I realise I can't just sit back and allow the decision makers free rein.

  9. Yes, I'm astounded about the earthquake fault-line issues in that case Cassandra. There was a major earthquake in the Diablo Canyon area in 1927 that was a 7.1 on the Reichter Scale, so this is not a minor faultline issue. I gather another faultline (!) was discovered in 2008 as well but I don't know the size of it.

    Nuclear fuel storage is a hot potato issue over here. Nobody really wants it, even in the Nevada desert areas, and it piles up around the plants in storage units. That reason alone is enough to defer
    making nuclear a bigger piece of the energy solution.

    Few people (certainly not me) can claim to have a small carbon footprint. I've seen home appliances and vehicles over here (refrigerators and the SUV's you might know as "Chelsea Tractors") only get bigger. It seems too many people want huge trucks ot drive about in--makes no sense to me unles you are in a removal or landscape business.

    Confession: The last time I went shopping for a vehicle I bought a small SUV as it was the best I could afford in terms of monthly payments balanced with the price of gas over here. *sheepish look*

    I'd love to be able to afford an electric car, but right now that industry is just coming still out of its long "boutique" phase (where all-electric or hybrid cars were expensive "status items. The Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt are coming on line in more areas.)

    Electric recharging stations for cars are few and far between but in recent times that seems to have improved (At least with government encouragement in "green" states like Oregon.)

    There seems to be encouraging signs coming out of the major high-tech centers in California like the Silicon Valley for improving long-mileage on single charges for electric-battery vehicles. But it will be along transition in the USA. Its more likely that the affordable cars we need will come from India or Europe.

    There is a