Here's a nightmare scenario that even films like The China Syndrome could never imagine: The East Coast of the United States is hit by a 5.9 richter earthquake. At least one nuclear power plant in Virginia is shut down by the shock. Nobody really knows whether or not the plant has released radioactive steam. The safety of the plant's structure will not be known for weeks. And if that wasn't enough, a potential category 4 hurricane is sweeping up the coast and may move inland towards the plant. Well, it's not fiction. No game planner has ever come up with this twofer.
Critics have warned about nuclear power plants being built on fault lines, near major cities, near coastal areas that could be hit by tusnami waves larger than anyone has ever predicted. Now, within one year, the Fukushima complex in Japan has been destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami wave, producing a new Chernobyl, a dead zone that may never be repaired. A major quake has struck the Eastern Seaboard, crippling the North Anna plant, which is now running on backup diesel generators. It appears that planners never anticipated an earthquake of this magnitude when the plant was designed and built. And noone ever imagined a crippled nuclear plant that was hit by a catastrophic hurricane after a major quake.
Films that speculate on the destruction of nuclear power plants cannot keep up with reality. It is the problem Philip Roth once commented on: how can you write fiction when reality outstrips anything anyone can imagine? The destruction of the Japanese complex was feared, but lax planning, lazy and incompetent management never dealt with the imagined future, one where 40 foot waves caused by an earthquake swept over walls that were built to resist waves of no more than 20 feet.
Films like Earthquake (1974), Dante's Peak (1997), Volcano (1997), The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and others have all had field days speculating on the disasters that could occur from apocalyptic natural disasters. But I have yet to see a film that has imagined the potential disaster that could easily occur in the next few days in Virginia or New York. What happens if another large quake hits at the same time as Hurricane Irene strikes New York City? And the Indian Point reactor, just miles north of the city has a catastrophic failure? People have been warning for decades about the dangers of a failure of this plant to the country's largest metropolitan area. Maybe this week's natural events will force people to rethink nuclear power again.
It is not unimaginable. Insurance companies know the score. From the start of building nuclear power plants in the United States in the late 50's and early 60's, insurance companies refused to write policies for such plants. All of the liability is handled by the federal government. The Price/Anderson bill produced that solution in 1959.
A nuclear power disaster is forever, an event that Hallmark really has no card to represent. And a film that created the scenario that may occur in the next few days would be seen as laughable and too fantastic even for the cheesiest disaster genre to produce. Give us a hurricane, like John Ford's The Hurricane (1937) or give us a nuclear power disaster flick like The China Syndrome, but don't ever try to combine the two. Let natural forces and nuclear power plants built on fault lines create a story like that, please.