The 1979 Three Mile Island Meltdown Made 'China Syndrome' Seem Prophetic

By | March 20, 2019

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L: A sign announces the closing of the observation center for the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, following an accident on March 28, 1979. R: Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda in 'The China Syndrome.' Credits: Owen Franken/Corbis via Getty; IMDB

There's one place-name that will always make Americans balk at the idea of "safe" nuclear power: Three Mile Island. The nuclear reactor complex in Pennsylvania was the site of a partial nuclear meltdown in 1979, and what's worse, the chain of events had a lot in common with The China Syndrome, a disaster movie in theaters at the time. It was a PR nightmare for the Three Mile Island facility -- and a PR bonanza for the film. For an American public that had been struggling with an energy and gas crisis, the Three Mile Island incident was more than a little disheartening.

In the decades following World War II, the public was told that the nuclear age promised more than just apocalyptic warfare -- atomic power was billed as clean, inexpensive energy. Eyes were opened in March of 1979 when the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania experienced a partial meltdown, leading to the biggest nuclear disaster in the history of the U.S. nuclear age. At the time, nearby residents of the nuclear power plant had no idea how close they came to being showered with potentially-lethal radioactive gases. Let’s look at an overview of the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster that almost melted a hole in the earth all the way to China. 

Three Mile Island And 'The China Syndrome'

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Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas starred in The China Syndrome, a disaster movie about a nuclear meltdown that was released less than two weeks before the disaster at Three Mile Island. Source: (

In early March 1979, the disaster movie, The China Syndrome, starring Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas, and Jane Fonda, was released. Following the trend of other disaster movies of the 1970s, The China Syndrome focused on a deadly meltdown at a nuclear power plant. The name of the movie was taken from a phrase stating that a nuclear meltdown could be so bad that it would melt a hole deep into the Earth all the way to China. When the movie was released, the United States's nuclear power industry panned it, claiming that the film was pure fiction and that it smeared the exemplary reputation of nuclear energy. Twelve days later, the Three Mile Island accident occurred. The China Syndrome helped fan public fears after the accident. But the accident also helped the movie sell more tickets.