Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Jane Fonda was correct

Today, only a handful of people know what it means ... Soon you will know.
Last week Althouse linked to this NYT commentary blaming Jane Fonda and her The China Syndrome film for global warming. Never mind that, it gave me an opportunity after 25 years working in the nuclear industry to rethink the film and how close it comes to reality.

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.

[ ... ]

The TMI accident was, according to a 1979 President’s Commission report, “initiated by mechanical malfunctions in the plant and made much worse by a combination of human errors.” Although some radiation was released, there was no meltdown through to the other side of the Earth — no “China syndrome” — nor, in fact, did the TMI accident produce any deaths, injuries or significant damage except to the plant itself.
It has been a very long time since watched the film, but I recall one of the themes of the movie was the Jack Lemmon character being pressured by his evil management to overlook a plant defect in the interest of budget and schedule. Silly kid, back in 1979 I thought that was fiction.

Technically the movie was immediately discredited. But imagine my protests back then if the movie was about a hole growing in the reactor vessel head to the size of a football as utility management and plant personnel rationalized the symptoms. That story would have been way too far-fetched for anyone to buy.

Given this chance to revisit the film from my current perspective, I see that it tells a realistic story of the difficulty of maintaining a safety conscious work environment. The Lemmon character demonstrates the courage needed to stand-up to management in circumstances where doing the right thing is not in-line with corporate objectives.

The normalization of deviance is as much a danger now as it was then and is something to be guarded against in the face of budget and schedule pressure. It is reported that the Davis-Besse culture was so focused on production, that the gaping wound in the reactor vessel went unreported and unresolved for years. Headless Blogger has heard reports that sister plants run by this same nuclear operator were chastised before the hole was discovered for not matching Davis-Besse's record for continuous operation. Employees at these other plants were more cautious in their treatment of suspected safety defects.

I cannot blame Jane Fonda for the industry's earlier demise, it was self inflicted. The China Syndrome may have been flawed technically, but it portrayed the human element with some accuracy. Things are better in the business today, but it is foolish to think we are perfect. We should embrace the human performance lessons of The China Syndrome as we go forward with this new generation of nuclear power plants.

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