A year ago, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt wrote a New York Times Magazine column entitled “The Jane Fonda Effect,” in which they argued that Fonda’s efforts in the movie The China Syndrome could be held accountable for our failure to switch from coal to nuclear power, thereby exacerbating global warming.
As a supporter of the nuclear revival, I certainly regret the Three Mile Island accident and the way it ended nuclear construction in this country. Yet I would also argue that, as a work of art, The China Syndrome was eerily prescient in anticipating the events at T.M.I. and played a positive role in making nuclear power a safer technology.
In the movie, a key moment occurs when the control room supervisor (Jack Lemmon) realizes a spring gauge is stuck, indicating the cooling water is too high when it is actually too low. The operators are trying to drain the coolant when the reactor is actually overheating. Only Lemmon’s alertness lets them avoid disaster.
At Three Mile Island things were much worse. Nothing on the control panel told the operators the level of cooling water in the reactor. Reading other gauges incorrectly, they mistakenly drained the core. The result was a partial meltdown.
What went wrong? As the Kemeny Commission later discovered, engineers had designed the reactors to be “idiot-proof.” Their assumption was that redundancy could be so complete that it wouldn’t matter whether or not anyone really understood the way the reactors functioned. Early operators were only high school graduates.
At the same time, the Atomic Energy Commission had become so isolated from American industry that it missed a whole generation of industrial psychology. After World War II, safety engineers began concentrating on “human-machine interactions,” making buttons and levers understandable to the people operating them.
In nuclear reactors, however, the control panel looked like something out of Buck Rogers. Hundreds of identical lights and switches gave no indication of their function or importance. In one famous instance, operators stuck two different brands of beer cans on a pair of identical levers in order to remember which moved the crucial control rods up or down.
After Three Mile Island, the industry founded I.N.P.O. — the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations — to upgrade operator training and pursue safety research. In the 1990’s a group of Navy veterans began asking why reactors couldn’t operate as efficiently on land as they do on submarines. After upgrading their operations, the utilities soon had their fleet of 104 reactors running at 90 percent of capacity — as opposed to the historical 60 percent.
Natural gas now constitutes 39 percent of our electrical capacity but delivers only 19 percent of our electricity because it’s so expensive. Meanwhile, nuclear — with 11 percent of capacity — generates 20 percent of our electricity because reactors are running so smoothly. Reactors generally close down only once every 18 months for refueling.
No, The China Syndrome didn’t kill nuclear power. Instead, it set off a series of innovations that have transformed the industry. As a result, nuclear power is ready today to shoulder a much larger portion of our electrical burden.