The Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred a bare two weeks after The China Syndrome opened at first-run theaters—as always, life imitating bad art. Since the dramatic center of the movie was the possibility of a meltdown, it was taken as a prescient warning of the dangers of nuclear energy and, as such, an influence on public opinion. For example, an engineer, defending the nuclear power industry on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, wrote that the public was misled about the significance of Three Mile Island by “the rage of ideologically antinuclear groups, by conservative forces opposed to change, and the coincidental release of the film ‘The China
Syndrome.” Yet, there is nothing in the film that justifies assigning it so potent a role; it neither questions nuclear power systems nor the industry that runs them. Indeed, it is doubtful that the movie is about nuclear energy at all except in the sense that the traditional cowboy movie was about cattle raising. Just what is the movie about?
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