Celluloid chain reactions: The China Syndrome and Three Mile Island

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In March 1979, Americans watched two nuclear incidents unfold. On television, news reporters covered a real-life partial meltdown at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. At the movie-theater, a fictional atomic plant in California nearly met disaster in The China Syndrome directed by James Bridges. This article explores how the nuclear industry, environmental protesters and the American public responded to the two dramas. It discusses the extent to which a Hollywood thriller provided a window on events at Three Mile Island. It highlights the role of fiction in common comprehensions of the nuclear age and in the formation of nationwide nuclear anxieties.

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