Meltdown: Three Mile Island: Chilling Netflix doco reminds us when life imitated the movies

REVIEW: It was a jaw-dropping and quite incredible case of life imitating art.

Forget The Simpsons and their myriad predictions, one star-studded 1979 Hollywood disaster movie managed to eerily presage events that would take place while it was still in cinemas.

Starring Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas and Jack Lemmon, The China Syndrome detailed a corporate cover-up around a nuclear power plant accident – one that, as one character says, “could render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable”.

Atomic energy had been seen as the answer to the growing crisis around the country’s reliance on foreign oil. But despite the industry’s dismissal of “Jane Fonda’s meltdown” as “disconnected from reality” and creating unnecessary fear-mongering, nuclear physicist Michio Kaku says the film “brought into the vernacular the concept of core meltdown (called The China Syndrome in the movie because it could theoretically go through the planet “all the way to China”, when in truth it would result in blast clouds of radioactivity). “There was a loud cry from the nuclear industry that this was something that could never happen, but, within 12 days, people found out it could.”

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Kaku is one of an impressive ensemble of interviewees gathered together for the four-part Netflix docuseries Meltdown: Three Mile Island (which debuts on the global streaming service tonight, Wednesday, May 4).

Told Man on Wire-style, chronologically via a mix of extensive, often unnerving and disturbing archival footage and reconstructions narrated by voice-overs by those who were there, director Kief Davidson’s (A Lego Brickumentary, The Most Dangerous Animal of All) accident- To-fallout-and-legacy examination of the events at a nuclear facility in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania is arguably both a true-crime documentary and essential viewing for those captivated by 2019’s watercooler drama of the year Chernobyl.

The China Syndrome arrived in US cinemas 12 days before the incident at Three Mile Island.

As with that seminal series, this is filled with colorful characters, both potentially heroic and villainous.

Radiation protection supervisor Dick Dubiel talks us through those early hours of March 28, when a problem was spotted and potential mistakes were made with Three Mile Island’s only recently operational Unit 2, Pennsylvania government press secretary Paul Critchlow details the horror at discovering that their public assurances of’ safety were based on false information from the plant’s operator Metropolitan Edison (Met-Ed) and former Three Mile Island chemistry supervisor Ed Houser tearfully recounts volunteering to check the concentration levels of boron, a day after the initial incident, something vital to assessing whether it was viable to safely shut everything down.

“It was like the rapture had taken place,” he says of the eerie sight of a now contaminated room featuring sandwiches with bites taken out of them and half-drunk coffee. When he re-emerged, he discovered he had been exposed to 100x allowable radiation limit, the agreed “spending hours in the shower” to try and decontaminate. “It didn’t work very well,” he laments, revealing that he wouldn’t touch his kids for some time afterwards because of the risk he thought he posed to them.

Three Mile Island's nuclear power plant was the site of an accident on March 28, 1979, described by some as America's Chernobyl.


Three Mile Island’s nuclear power plant was the site of an accident on March 28, 1979, described by some as America’s Chernobyl.

What quickly emerges, particularly from the news footage of the time, was the disparate dual narratives. There was the official line, from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Met-Ed’s bosses, that there was no need for an evacuation, and increasing concern from public health officials and locals that not all the scientific data was being shared with them.

As Ira Rosen, who covered the story for Rolling Stone magazine, recalls, “everyone became an investigative journalist” because they simply couldn’t – and wouldn’t – believe what they were being told at press conferences. Even the mayor of nearby town Middleton, Robert Reid, is captured on camera at the time saying, “I think we’ll get better answers”, once official began asking more than just Met-Ed officials for the situational updates.

Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda and Daniel Valdez starred in 1979's The China Syndrome, which eerily mirrored the events that took place at Three Mile Island.


Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda and Daniel Valdez starred in 1979’s The China Syndrome, which eerily mirrored the events that took place at Three Mile Island.

Contrast that with Met-Ed’s defiant President Walter Creitz, who told one evening news crew to look at the nuclear industry’s track record. “There have been 72 nuclear reactors built since 1974 – and we still haven’t injured a single member of the public. No industry since men started making fire can claim a record like that.” Can you almost smell the uranium on his breath, one wonders?

Davidson’s sobering, slick and sure-footed series also features contributions from residents, a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a worker at a similar operation to Three Mile Island, while also including some of those terrific animations that America used extensively to explain nuclear power to the public. It all adds up to compelling, sometimes chilling viewing.

Meltdown: Three Mile Island will debut on Netflix on the evening of May 4.

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