How Fear Took Over the American Suburbs

By Sarah Holder | January 14, 2021 |

Something goes terribly wrong at a nuclear power plant. The response is muddled by corporate greed, and the public is threatened by (but ultimately spared from)massive environmental catastrophe.

That’s the basic plot of The China Syndrome, a movie starring Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon released on March 16, 1979. It also happens to have strong parallels to the real-life accident at Three Mile Island, a nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that partially melted down only 12 days after the film was released. The fake nuclear disaster plot primed the public to be fearful of — and outraged by — the real thing. Not only did these coincidentally timed events trigger a backlash to the nuclear industry, they helped create an atmosphere of suburban anxiety that continues to have political consequences today.

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