A local TV newswoman, Kimberly Wells (Fonda), is frustrated that her station (KXLA) won't let her cover serious news (she's stuck with light-hearted non-events). Sent on a tour of a nearby nuclear power plant to promote the positives of nuclear energy, she and her cameraman Richard Adams (Douglas) witness the reactor room just as something goes wrong. Supervisor Jack Godell (Lemmon) finds out the core's close to meltdown and works with his friend Ted (Wilford Brimley) and his team to fix the problem (during which Jack feels an unusual tremor that unsettles him for the entire movie). While Jack's team saves the plant, Richard had quietly filmed it all with his camera...
Thinking they've got a big story to report, Kim and Richard are instead told by their network bosses to keep quiet and have the film placed in storage while their lawyers figure out their liability. Meanwhile, Jack tries to warn his bosses that there's something fishy with the plant, only to have them insist there's nothing wrong. An investigation into the incident gets rubber-stamped. Meanwhile, the company responsible for the construction of that plant is busy trying to get another one built in a hurry...
At every turn separately and then as a team, Jack, Kim and Richard try to find out what happened and try to warn others that something's wrong. Eventually Jack realizes that the tremor was caused by faulty welding on the main pump, which will cause the pump to fail if it is pushed to full capacity; This faulty welding was never discovered because, rather than test every single weld like they were supposed to do, the company decided to save money by testing one weld and submitting its test results for every other weld. If this were brought to light, it would force the immediate shutdown of the plant and, most likely, legal charges for its builders and owners.
By the time Richard's friend is hurt trying to sneak proof of the lack of testing to a regulatory committee, Jack's paranoid and frustrated enough to seize a security guard's gun and take control of the reactor. Kim tries to interview Jack live on television (breaking into KXLA's regularly-scheduled programming of The Magnificent Marble Machine; no, seriously) to help him report what went wrong, but the power company SCRAM the reactor in order to take control away from Jack - during a SCRAM it runs fully automatic for a short time. The power company kills the TV signal and sends in a SWAT team to shoot Jack. While he lies dying, the faulty main coolant pump goes to maximum power ... during which the reactor goes through a terrifying few minutes of OMG it's gonna blow! The pump is finally shut down just as it completely breaks free of its moorings. At the end with the power company trying to paint Jack as a madman, Kim approaches Jack's friend Ted and gets him to say that Jack was sane and that there needs to be a full investigation.
The China Syndrome came out during the post-Watergate era, at a time when the public was in a paranoid mood about the people — politicians, the corporations, the media — who seemed to be in charge of things. What made this movie stand out was that on March 28, 1979 (two weeks after Syndrome was released) the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster took place, making what was a standard thriller into a prescient piece of film-making.
Note that nothing actually happens in or to China; the title comes from a joke that if a nuclear reactor did have a meltdown it would burn all the way through to China on the other side of the Earth. Actually, a meltdown's extreme heat would get absorbed by the surrounding earth, and would get as far as the underground water supply where it would make things a hundred times worse. Also, if it did burn through the Earth to the other side, it'd end up in the Indian Ocean.
This film provides examples of:
- Artistic License – Nuclear Physics: Averted in the depiction of how a nuclear core meltdown might occur, which is fairly realistic. Played straight in the described possible effects of said meltdown, which are ridiculously over-blown and inaccurate, exposing the film's infamous anti-nuclear message disguised as supposed realism.
- When the Turbine trips they take the plant "off the grid". You never take a nuclear reactor off the grid, because in the event of an emergency you'll need power from the network to deal with it, true, you have diesel back-up generators on stand-by, but those can fail (as did happen with Fukushima) and when they do, you are screwed.
- Be Careful What You Wish For: When Kimberly wanted to cover a major story, she got more emotionally involved than she bargained for.
- Bittersweet Ending: Jack dies, and the company tries to pin the blame on Jack by calling him insane. Kim finds Jack's friend Ted and forces him on live television to admit Jack "was the sanest man I know", and that there ought to be an investigation into the disaster. Unless it's an Inferred Holocaust instead.
- Bland-Name Product: The owner of the plant is California Gas and Electric, presumably a stand in for the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. However, when the movie was made, only two nuclear plants were in California, San Onofre, near San Diego, owned by Southern California Edison, and Diablo Canyon, which is owned by PG&E, only that plant is near Santa Barbara, and unlikely to be covered by a Los Angeles station as a plant in that area is a lot further from Los Angeles than San Onofre was. (San Onofre has since been decomissioned and is being disassembled.)
- Book Ends: The film opens and closes on a shot of a TV monitor showing bars and tone.
- Conspiracy Thriller: Of the corporate kind.
- Cool Pet: Kim has a pet tortoise.
- Every Car Is a Pinto: Averted; when the car following Hector runs him off the road, the car doesn't explode at all, but has normal damage.
- Foreshadowing: The second tremor that Jack felt during the accident. It haunts Jack until the end, when it's revealed to be the main coolant pump cavitating as it goes to maximum power during a SCRAM, which stresses its sub-standard welds.
- Going Critical: What Jack is terrified is going to happen when the company plans on charging the reactor to full power.
- Heroic B.S.O.D.: Jack just happens to have the rotten luck of breaking down from the paranoia and terror just as he's trying to warn everybody there is something dangerously wrong with the reactor.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Jack Godell fights the power and loses badly... but he manages to unequivocally demonstrate a flaw on the nuclear reactor that the corporation just cannot leave alone (although they will definitely fix it quietly).
- Incompetence, Inc.: Jack becomes increasingly disillusioned with how the Ventana nuclear power plant is run by its greedy "safety-second" owners. He has a hard time understanding why the construction company who build it are threatening him, and the contractors who kept submitting the same radiograph to cover-up the failing integrity of welds on the faulty pump.
- Kick the Dog: Richard leaves a message on Kimberley's answer machine just to call her an asshole.
- The Kindnapper: Jack is shunned by his colleagues who believe him to be over-tired and over-worked. When they try to restart the reactor, it forces the supervisor to hijack the plant, to prevent a meltdown.
- Married to the Job: Jack loves the Ventana nuclear power plant which distresses him why others would want to ruin everything in the name of profit.
- Oh, Crap!: Pretty much everyone's expression when they realize that the water level indicator they've been using through the incident has been stuck on "high", giving very false indications. Jack Godell taps the glass and the needle drops down to a level only a few inches above the reactor core falling dry.
- A second Oh Crap moment occurs when Jack realizes that the X-ray pictures of the pump welds were falsified during construction.
- And everyone gets that expression during the ending as the reactor's main coolant pump starts tearing itself apart. With each support strut that falls, it gets closer to simply breaking loose and coming to pieces. Then the TV feed from the pump is cut...
- Only Sane Employee: Much to Jack's dismay, as no one else is prepared to verify if the plant is safe or not. His suspicions are confirmed when the contractors try to kill him.
- Properly Paranoid: Think the corporation you work for doesn't like how you're digging into how the nuclear plant was built and how the quarterly safety checks were forged? Wondering about that car behind you on the highway carrying guys who could take on the Steelers' defensive front? Terrified that your own co-workers - and even your best friend Wilford Brimley! - are talking about bringing the reactor back online at full power? Welcome to Jack's world!
- Rule of Pool: In a deleted scene, Kim is at a party and one of the guests is harassing her. They are all standing around a pool. Guess what happens to the guy.
- The '70s
- Shout-Out: Fonda wanted red hair as a shout out to one of her childhood heroes, comics character Brenda Starr. This caused some problems for James Crabe, the film's cinematographer, because red was a tricky color to work with at the time, and he had to deal with not only filming red hair, but also filming television broadcasts with red hair.
- Silent Credits: Although see What Could Have Been.
- Take That!: The guys in the plant point out that all the anti-nuke activists likely have a lot of electrical appliances in their homes. More specifically Jack makes a very impassioned speech about the reason the core did not melt down was because the very meticulous safety systems and all the redundancies worked to a T.
- Think of the Children!: The anti-nukes, during the safety hearing for the power plant, hold up pictures of their children and read out their names.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Hector's accident is very reminiscent of the death of activist Karen Silkwood.
- Yiddish as a Second Language: Kimberly, trying to find Richard, asks Hector, who not only claims he doesn't know where Richard went, but also tells Kimberly to send him back when she finds him; Kimberly sarcastically calls Hector "a real mensch."
- You Have to Believe Me: How Jack sounds during his interview with Kimberly at the end, ranting about how the reactor shouldn't be turned back on. He's trying to warn people, but he comes across as crazy.
- You Keep Using That Word: Nucular. Mike, you're a great actor and we're sure you put your heart and soul into the project but for the word is nuclear. Well, however, the President of the United States at the time, Jimmy Carter, was a trained Nuclear Engineer and pronounces the word that way too.