NYT: “The biggest global-warming villain of the past 30 years”
If you were asked to name the biggest global-warming villains of the past 30 years, here’s one name that probably wouldn’t spring to mind: Jane Fonda. But should it?
In the movie “The China Syndrome,” Fonda played a California TV reporter filming an upbeat series about the state’s energy future. While visiting a nuclear power plant, she sees the engineers suddenly panic over what is later called a “swift containment of a potentially costly event.” When the plant’s corporate owner tries to cover up the accident, Fonda’s character persuades one engineer to blow the whistle on the possibility of a meltdown that could “render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable.”
“The China Syndrome” opened on March 16, 1979. With the no-nukes protest movement in full swing, the movie was attacked by the nuclear industry as an irresponsible act of leftist fear-mongering. Twelve days later, an accident occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in south-central Pennsylvania.
Michael Douglas, a producer and co-star of the film — he played Fonda’s cameraman — watched the T.M.I. accident play out on the real TV news, which interspersed live shots from Pennsylvania with eerily similar scenes from “The China Syndrome.” While Fonda was firmly anti-nuke before making the film, Douglas wasn’t so dogmatic. Now he was converted on the spot. “It was a religious awakening,” he recalled in a recent phone interview. “I felt it was God’s hand.”
Fonda, meanwhile, became a full-fledged crusader. In a retrospective interview on the DVD edition of “The China Syndrome,” she notes with satisfaction that the film helped persuade at least two other men — the father of her then-husband, Tom Hayden, and her future husband, Ted Turner — to turn anti-nuke. “I was ecstatic that it was extremely commercially successful,” she said. “You know the expression ‘We had legs’? We became a caterpillar after Three Mile Island.”
The T.M.I. accident was, according to a 1979 President’s Commission report, “initiated by mechanical malfunctions in the plant and made much worse by a combination of human errors.” Although some radiation was released, there was no meltdown through to the other side of the Earth — no “China syndrome” — nor, in fact, did the T.M.I. accident produce any deaths, injuries or significant damage except to the plant itself.
What it did produce, stoked by “The China Syndrome,” was a widespread panic. The nuclear industry, already foundering as a result of economic, regulatory and public pressures, halted plans for further expansion. And so, instead of becoming a nation with clean and cheap nuclear energy, as once seemed inevitable, the United States kept building power plants that burned coal and other fossil fuels. Today such plants account for 40 percent of the country’s energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions. Anyone hunting for a global-warming villain can’t help blaming those power plants — and can’t help wondering too about the unintended consequences of Jane Fonda.
But the big news is that nuclear power may be making a comeback in the United States. There are plans for more than two dozen new reactors on the drawing board and billions of dollars in potential federal loan guarantees. Has fear of a meltdown subsided, or has it merely been replaced by the fear of global warming?