On this day in history: the movie


China SyndromeToday was a pretty uneventful day for me. I ran a free promotion on Amazon, which did okay. I went to the pharmacy and picked up some generic pain relievers, went to the bank, came home, worked, saw a friend. Pretty typical. Not exactly the stuff of an action-adventure film. Or a romantic comedy. Or even an indie literary adaptation.

But I got to wondering what else had happened on March 28 in years gone by. I like history. So I looked it up.

As it happened, a lot has happened at the end of March. On March 28, 1979, the worst accident in the history of the U.S. nuclear power industry occurred. At the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, a pressure valve didn’t close, contaminated cooling water drained away, and the core overheated. Then human operators, misreading confusing and contradictory readings, shut off the emergency cooling pumps. Within four hours, the core had heated to more than 4,000 degrees, just 1,000 degrees shy of meltdown, which would have released radiation across the country. As it was, the plant itself was contaminated.

One hour short of total meltdown, operators got the emergency cooling pumps working and the core temperature dropped. However, an explosion of hydrogen gas resulted in a radiation leak, and the Pennsylvania governor recommended a limited five-mile evacuation. As a consequence, 100,000 people fled the area. President Jimmy Carter, a trained nuclear engineer, had helped dismantle a damaged Canadian nuclear reactor while serving in the U.S. Navy. His visit to the plant calmed fears.

The unharmed Unit-1 reactor at Three Mile Island, which was shut down during the crisis, did not resume operation until 1985. Cleanup continued on Unit-2 until 1990, but it was too damaged to be used again. In the time since the accident at Three Mile Island, not a single new nuclear power plant has been ordered in the United States, although four new reactors at existing nuclear power plants have been commissioned but not completed.

So that was a big day for everybody in the country, really. In a life-imitates-art moment, the film China Syndrome, a thriller about the cover-up of safety violations at a nuclear power plant, was released on March 16, 1979, just 12 days before the accident. In one scene, a character says that a nuclear meltdown would render “an area the size of Pennsylvania” permanently uninhabitable. Spooky.

Other big days in March? On March 29, 1973, the United States withdrew from Vietnam. And on March 30, 1981, John Hinckley, Jr. shot president Ronald Reagan. Of course there have been a million movies about the Vietnam War, but even Hinkley’s assassination attempt has a film tie-in—his defense claimed that Hinkley was obsessed with the film Taxi Driver and tried to re-enact portions of the movie in his own life. The film, starring Jodie Foster, has a scene with an attempted shooting of a senator.

But those are stories for another day.



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