The China Syndrome (1979)

Last modified: November 8, 2018

The China Syndrome is a 1979 American thriller film that tells the story of the television reporter Kimberly Welsh (Jane Fonda) and her cameraman Richard (Michael Douglas) who discover a safety cover-up at a nuclear power plant. While doing a human-interest story at the Ventana power plant, they witness what they believe to be a near nuclear disaster. Weeks later, however, a regulatory commission reports that the plant faced no major issues during the incident and that it can be set back online. Kimberly and Richard decide to investigate the incident themselves, on which they receive unexpected help from a Ventana supervisor dr. Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon).

Relevance

This film was meant to raise awareness of the dangers of nuclear plants and the fear of insufficient control and regulation. The scenario is dramatized and it does not match with everyday scientific practice, but it does give an insight in the possible conflicts of interest that scientists can encounter when they work for a commercial company. The dilemma rises when a company’s policy of fraud threatens the integrity of the scientist.

This movie is included in the Fiction movies for RCR education.

Key words: Ethics (Medical)
Medium: YouTube (Link was last checked on: 10-06-2016)
Fragments: 1

Internet Movie Database (IMDb) about this movie: IMDb
Drama, Thriller/ Playing time: 122 min.

Content and context

The China syndrome is a 1979 American thriller film that tells the story of the television reporter Kimberly Welsh (Jane Fonda) and her cameraman Richard (Michael Douglas) who discover a safety cover-up at a nuclear power plant. While covering a human-interest story at the Ventana power plant, they witness what they believe to be a near nuclear disaster. Weeks later, however, a regulatory commission reports that the plant faced no major issues during the incident and that it can be set back online. Kimberly and Richard decide to investigate the incident themselves, during which they receive unexpected help from a Ventana supervisor dr. Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon).

Fragment [49:31 – 51:42]

Leading up to this fragment, dr. Jack Godell has found evidence that some of the documents that are meant to guarantee the nuclear pumps safety have been falsified. He is worried that the incident was caused by serious problems with the design of the plant and that it should not be reactivated before further investigation. But when he informs his superior he’s ordered to drop the issue because further delay would cost the company millions of dollars. In this fragment dr. Godell, who is the supervisor of the plant, is ironically given the task what he has warned against: to reactivate the plant and continue work.

Ethics

Doctor Godell has to make a choice between his job -which he loves- and his safety concerns. If he decides to ignore his supervisor on the day the plant is set back online, it is clear that he will lose his job. He also knows that, although he is very much against reactivating the plant, he is the best man in the field to guide this risky procedure. But do these arguments outweigh the potential nuclear risk for society that is inherent to this procedure?

If something goes wrong with the plant due to a lack of safety procedures the impact will be devastating. It might reach the point of the China Syndrome, a nuclear meltdown scenario so named for the fanciful idea that there would be nothing to stop the meltdown tunnelling its way to the other side of the world (“China”).

Realism

This film was meant to raise awareness of the dangers of nuclear plants and the fear of insufficient control and regulation. The scenario is dramatized and it doesn’t match with everyday scientific practice, but it does give an insight in the possible conflict of interests that scientists can encounter when they work for a commercial company. The dilemma rises when a company’s policy involves safety risks and threatens the integrity of the scientist.

Suggested use for education

This fragment can be used for a group discussion about the individual responsibility of a scientist. Even though dr. Godell does wrong by reactivating a dangerous nuclear plant, he feels powerless to refuse his superiors’ orders because it would get him fired. The question students can reflect upon is: (1) Can you sympathize with dr. Godell or do you believe that scientists are always obliged to go public on safety issues (even if it involves a personal or professional risk.

Ending

In the last seconds of this fragment, we see dr. Godell walking out with a bag in which the falsified documents are hidden. He has decided to hand them secretly to the press so people will know about Ventana while maintaining his job. It shows that the dilemma for dr. Godell is one between doing the right thing as a scientist and trying to minimize the personal risk that it involves. In the end this turns out to be impossible because his employer discovers what dr. Godell’s is up to.

Tags

NRIN devotes a great deal of attention to the website’s content and would greatly appreciate your suggestions of documents or links you believe to belong on this website.

This selection is an incomplete convenience sample, and does not reflect NRIN’s vision or opinion. Including an item does not necessarily mean that we agree with the authors nor does it imply we think unmentioned items are of poorer quality.

Please report any suggestions, inaccuracies or nonfunctioning hyperlinks etc. that you discover. Thanks in advance!

Contact
Icon