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Three Mile Island accident was eerily foreshadowed by a Hollywood blockbuster days before

  • Ron Southwick/PennLive
Actress Jane Fonda is shown during the filming of her movie

Actress Jane Fonda is shown during the filming of her movie "The China Syndrome" in which she plays the part of a television reporter in 1979.

This March marks the 40th anniversary of the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. PA Post is collaborating with WITF and PennLive on a multimedia, monthlong look at the accident, its impact and the future of TMI and the nuclear industry. That includes new documentary television and radio programs, long-form audio stories, photos, and digital videos. The work will include the voices of people affected as well as community events to engage with listeners, readers and viewers.


The timing couldn’t have been more chilling.

Less than two weeks before the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, a Hollywood thriller depicting the frightening scenario of a disaster at a nuclear plant started playing in theaters nationwide.

“The China Syndrome,” starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas, debuted in theaters on March 16, 1979. The movie portrayed the fictional drama of a California plant getting perilously close to a meltdown.

On March 28, 1979, the nation’s worst commercial nuclear accident occurred at Three Mile Island. The partial meltdown at the plant made worldwide headlines and led to the evacuation of more than 140,000 people in central Pennsylvania.

The film featured one memorable line that struck a chord in the Keystone State.

In the movie, an energy official tells Fonda’s character, a television reporter, that an explosion at the plant “could render an area the size of the state of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable.”

Columbia Pictures, the studio that released the movie, actually pulled the film from some theaters to deter criticism of capitalizing on the accident at TMI.

Even so, the movie became a box office sensation, earning more than $51 million at the box office in the U.S., according to Box Office Mojo, an impressive figure for 1979.

In addition to making big bucks, the film garnered praise from critics. “The China Syndrome” was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Lemmon and Best Actress for Fonda (alas, the film didn’t win any Oscars). Lemmon took the prize for Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival.

The film also helped cement the emergence of Michael Douglas, son of Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas, as a genuine movie star in his own right. An April 1979 “People” cover story proclaimed after “The China Syndrome,” Douglas “isn’t just Kirk’s son anymore.”

In that issue of People, Douglas, then 34, recalled a conversation he had with screenwriter Mike Gray.

“He told me it would be a race between getting the movie made and a major disaster,” Douglas said in the People interview. “The Three Mile Island situation really brings the point home. It’s an eerie feeling.”

The movie is available on Amazon Prime, iTunes and other outlets online.

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