Newspaper: The Patriot
Date: March 29, 1979
Title: N-Plant Gone Haywire: Good Idea for Movie, But Real-Life Quandary
Author: Robert Gillette
At the end of “The China Syndrome”- a film not about China but about a defective nuclear power plant that threatens to melt in that general direction- the usual disclaimer rolls by on the screen declaring any similarities to real people and events to be “coincidental.”
Not true. And because it’s not true, “China Syndrome” has become embroiled in a nationwide controversy over the accuracy with which it portrays nuclear technology. The film and the controversy will no doubt find fertile ground in France, West Germany, and Sedan as well, where the nuclear debate is on high simmer. The only certain beneficiaries of this spreading dispute, however, are likely to be the stockholders of Columbia Pictures.
The film is a tale of suspense wrapped around a sophisticated pastiche of real mishaps and defects drawn from the operating history of U.S. nuclear power plants since 1970.
Contributing to the film were three apostate nuclear engineers who resigned from General Electric Co. in San Jose, Calif., under a flurry of publicity in 1976 to join the ranks of nuclear critics. Gregory C. Minor, Richard B. Hubbard, and Dale Bridenbaugh are identified in the screen credits only as MHB Technical Associates, a consulting firm that they’ve established in Palo Alto, Calif.
AS WITH ALL such docudramas, this one raises two questions: Where does the documentary end and the drama begin? And does it matter?
If verisimilitude were the only objective or if the story centered on a cracking dam or defective aircraft, the boundaries of fact might not matter. None, after all, is talking about banning dams or airplanes. But nuclear power is a case apart. And this film comes at an especially sensitive time. The U.S. nuclear industry is four years into an economic slump, its product remains an intensely emotional subject here and in Western Europe, and the industry is keenly aware from its own polls that a large body of America opinion- perhaps 40 percent of all adults- still hasn’t decided whether the benefits are worth the risks.
Under the circumstances then, the boundaries of fact and fiction would seem to matter here. In an effort to define them. The Los Angeles Times discussed the film with Minor and a variety of other nuclear critics and viewed it in the company of four nuclear advocates: a spokesman and an engineer with Southern California Edison, a professor of engineering at UCLA and an engineer from the Bechtel Power Corp., which builds nuclear plants.
THE PERSPECTIVES of pro and con are almost impossible to reconcile, for they bring very different value judgments to bear on issues of risk and benefit. It seems fair to say, however, that “China Syndrome” succeeds as a documentary with small deviations in portraying possibilities by drawing on real safety problems that have plagued the industry. But it fails to provide a sense of probability for accidents serious enough to jeopardize the public.
Thus the film raises the central issue of nuclear safety while doing nothing to clarify it.
Is the possibility of an extremely large accident made acceptable by an extremely low probability? And if so, what probability?
Accident probabilities can’t be defined with any precision. It is widely accepted, however, that the chance of any one reactor suffering a core melt-down and releasing harmful amounts or radiation (sufficient to cause several hundred latent cancer deaths) is about one in 60,000.
Probabilities decrease with the severity of potential accidents; the likelihood of the worst case accident, involving 1,000 or more immediate deaths, might be one in a million each year if 100 power reactors were operating.
IN A WAY, the film redeems its evasion of this issue by merely suggesting that the China Syndrome could happen, without actually depicting it. It is not giving away too much to reveal that the fictional “Ventana” nuclear power plant suffers damage but doesn’t melt down and destroy Los Angeles. This is not the nuclear version of “Towering Inferno.” In the end, the nuclear profession’s motto is vindicated- “Defense in depth: Back up systems to backup systems to backup systems.”
The plot turns on a near accident at “Ventana,” where a faulty relay starts a chain of events leading toward but stopping short of a meltdown. A TV crew on the scene to do a feature, films the incident surreptitiously, then pressures mount to suppress the film.
A control room supervisor, portrayed by Jack Lemmon, later probes the cause of a mysterious shudder that he felt during the episode, uncovers a dangerous structural weakness (defective welds in a pump support) that one of the utility’s contractors has covered up with fraudulent X-rays and documents.
Running scared, Lemmon seizes the control room and threatens to “flood the containment with radiation” unless he’s allowed to expose the flaws, but after an hour’s standoff the utility thwarts him by shutting down the reactor from outside.
COULD IT HAPPEN? Parts of it have happened at different times and places over the last decade. Combining disparate events, though, puts a different gloss on the significance of each.
Most of the near-accident in the movie is based on a June 5, 1970, episode at Commonwealth Edison’s Dresden II nuclear plant near Chicago. Here, a turbine trip caused the reactor to shut down, blowing large amounts of radioactive cooling water into a doughnut-shaped receptacle called a torus (designed for that purpose) around the reactor’s base.
Operators inadvertently overfilled the reactor with cooling water- the reverse of events in “China Syndrome” – in an effort to cool the still-hot core of uranium. At no time in the two-hour episode was there a danger of a melt-down or a release of harmful amounts of radioactivity into the environment.
In both the Dresden incident and the movie, the high pressure emergency cooling system is down for repairs and out of commission. And in both the real and fictional incidents, a stuck pen recorder misleads reactor operators seeking to keep the reactor core covered with water.
THE LOW-WATER problem in the fictional reactor is drawn from the Browns Ferry reactor fire in Alabama on March 22, 1975.
Here, a workman with a candle started an electrical fire that damaged 1,600 control cables (680 of them involving safety systems) for two operating reactors. More than eight hours were required to stabilize water supplies in one reactor; operators were forced to rely on backup pumps not intended for emergencies.
Whether the Browns Ferry reactor came close to melt-down or not depends on whom one asks. Nuclear critics consider it a close call. However, a special review group for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission concluded that while a melt-down was possible, and the availability of emergency systems would have been “comforting,” destruction of the reactor was “rather easily forestalled.”
The three engineers who viewed the film with a Times reporter said they found it moderately entertaining and a generally realistic, if eclectic, portrayal of terminology and technology. But at several points, they said, it veered from reality to sustain the storyline.
FOR INSTANCE, Eugene N. Cramer, of Southern California Edison, said that most, if not all, reactors operating today have redundant high-pressure emergency core cooling systems. If one were down for maintenance, as in the movie, others would have automatically discharged to keep the water level up, thereby undercutting the drama, Cramer said.
The engineers also took issue with the ease and speed seemingly implicit in the film with which a turbine shutdown could lead to a reactor melt-down: “A turbine trip is a once-a-year event in a power plant,” said William E. Kastenberg, a professor of engineering at UCLA, “there are many causes. It’s a normal event.”
Though he and others agreed that it’s possible for small mishaps to lead to large ones, they said the chain of events in between is long and improbable and requires a number of coincidental mechanical failures or operating errors. Cramer estimated that a large melt-down would take at least 60 hours to proceed, allowing time for evacuating areas around the reactor.
Even then, he said, it was likely that the massive concrete containment around the reactor- the last line of defense- would retain most or all of the radioactivity in the molten fuel.
CRAMER NOTED that over the years several partial reactor melt-downs have occurred (only one in a commercial plant) with no release of radiation harmful to the public. The most serious incident, in October 1966, melted four uranium fuel assemblies in Detroit Edison’s Enrico Fermi reactor, an early and unsuccessful breeder reactor. The reactor subsequently was repaired, operated again briefly, then mothballed.
Could one man take over a control room and cause a reactor accident? It hasn’t happened, and industry experts insist that a reactor could be shut down in much less than the hour consumed in the film.
Gregory Minor agreed: “In the film, that is stretched a bit for the story. I agree that in reality you could probably find something to trip it in a hurry.”
Could X-rays of a nuclear plant’s welds be falsified successfully? “We have had instances of falsification of records,” an NRC spokesman said. “In many cases, employees involved in the work, but not the documentation, have come to us with allegations. Most of the allegations have turned out to be false, but a few have not.”
IN AUGUST 1975, for instance, Boston Edison paid the NRC a $12,000 fine for allowing a contractor employee to falsify routine weld inspections in the utility’s Pilgrim 1 reactor. An investigation showed no weakness in the welds, however, “and hence there is no safety problem,” the NRC said at the time.
Whether safety succeeds in the nuclear industry depends, of course, as much on enforcement by the commission as on clever technology. Probably nothing illustrates the gulf between advocates and opponents of nuclear power as their perceptions of the film’s portrayal of the NRC: The industry engineers said the “China Syndrome” incorrectly depicted the NRC as a weak and superficial agency that licenses reactors like an automaton, whereas in reality the NRC sometimes shuts plants down precipitously.
Nuclear critics, on the other hand, think the film gives too much credit to the NRC for a determination to root out and solve safety problems.
“If the movie is misleading, the only respect is the impression that the NRC investigation is going to do some good,” says Robert Pollard, a former NRC engineer who is now a full-time critic of the industry and the agency.