About a week before the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident — strikingly similar to the incident portrayed in the new film, “The China Syndrome” — the following memo was issued by the Carolina Power and Light Company, in its newsletter “Info-Briefs.”
THE CHINA SYNDROME
The China Syndrome movie now playing at local theaters has been a hit at the box office so far. A $5 million promotional campaign has helped Columbia Pictures launch its most successful film opening on a non-holiday weekend.
Like all entertainments, it requires a suspension of disbelief by the audience in order to provide the thrills.
The dramatic underpinning of the film flows from the premise that a shift supervisor at an operating nuclear power plant is unable to get his superiors to acknowledge his concerns about a possible safety problem he asserts could result in a catastrophic accident. His superiors close their eyes to his warning because they think that following his advice would cost too much.
Aside from the common sense fact that no utility company could afford to risk a serious nuclear accident, the basic concept requires the audience to ignore the fact that all any employee at a nuclear power plant would need to do if he could not get his superiors to address a safety concern would be to call the nearest regional office of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He can even call collect. The NRC and its inspectors have the authority to order the immediate shutdown of any nuclear power plant if they find this advisable or necessary. A copy of the notice which is required by law to be posted in every nuclear power plant makes this procedure clear to employees.
The safety system which leads to the accident depicted in the film is described as being out of service, under repair. That unavailable system is the dramatic key to the scenario. In real life, the safety of the plant would not depend on any one system.
The movie begins with what is supposed to be a “near miss” potentially catastrophic accident, seen from the perspective of the control room of a nuclear power plant. The human operators are shown to be scurrying around, trying to figure out what’s going on and how to deal with it. As a matter of actual fact, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires that nuclear designers assume that the control room operators are incapacitated for the first ten minutes of an accident. For this reason, no operation action whatever would have been required during the accident sequence shown in the film. The reactor would have automatically depressurized and the low pressure water injection system would have automatically come on — with no need for the operators to agonize over whether to open the pressure relief valves. This, of course, would have made a dull movie.
The description of the “The China Syndrome” is quite wrong. If all attempts to cool the nuclear fuel were to fail, the fuel would indeed melt; however, this would not automatically result in the catastrophic death and destruction that the movie’s anti-nuclear physicist describes (a description based on the state of knowledge as it was more than 15 years ago).
How could the movie call the “China Syndrome” a catastrophe then? It does so by asserting that the melted fuel would cause steam explosions every time it came into contact with water. This could be true; however, nowhere in the film is it even mentioned that nuclear plants are designed with such a worst-case possibility in mind. The reactor containment building includes a variety of systems designed to condense any radioactive steam vapor from the fuel and reduce the pressure buildup inside the building. And the massive walls of the building are designed to withstand the worst conceivable steam explosions.
Based on today’s knowledge of the physics involved, even if the fuel could melt its way through the bottom of the reactor, then through the bottom of the massive concrete and steel-reinforced containment building, and through the plant’s foundation — it would then be about 50 feet underground. It might then travel ten or twenty feet further underground. By this time, so much time would have passed that the fuel, which would be cooling all the time, would finally solidify into a glassy, slag-like material and would stop moving — and would be completely contained underground. The net public safety outcome: zero deaths, zero injuries — and a costly cleanup job in the reactor.