In the movie “The China Syndrome,” Fonda played a California TV reporter filming an upbeat series about the state’s energy future. While visiting a nuclear power plant, she sees the engineers suddenly panic over what is later called a “swift containment of a potentially costly event.” When the plant’s corporate owner tries to cover up the accident, Fonda’s character persuades one engineer to blow the whistle on the possibility of a meltdown that could “render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable.”
“The China Syndrome” opened on March 16, 1979. With the no-nukes protest movement in full swing, the movie was attacked by the nuclear industry as an irresponsible act of leftist fear-mongering. Twelve days later, an accident occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in south-central Pennsylvania.
Michael Douglas, a producer and co-star of the film — he played Fonda’s cameraman — watched the T.M.I. accident play out on the real TV news, which interspersed live shots from Pennsylvania with eerily similar scenes from “The China Syndrome.” While Fonda was firmly anti-nuke before making the film, Douglas wasn’t so dogmatic. Now he was converted on the spot. “It was a religious awakening,” he recalled in a recent phone interview. “I felt it was God’s hand.”