How Did Atom Lobby let ‘China Syndrome’ Slip by the Censors?

With its economic and technical base crumbling, the atomic power industry hardly needs another challenge in the burgeoning public controversy over the electric atom. This time the furrow on the brow of industry executives comes from a movie–“The China Syndrome,” produced by Columbia Pictures.

People viewing a preview of the story about a nuclear reactor accident in California and an attempted cover-up were left gasping. The picture cannot be dismissed as fictional propaganda. It is a thriller, to be sure, but its technical reality and balanced script are expected to set the citizenry thinking about the real thing.

The Atomic Industrial Forum (AIF), which has served as the industry’s coordinating censor in past attempts to silence the media, sent condemnatory letters to movie reviewers well before the official film release date of March 16 for 700 theaters around the country. This time, however, freedom won out.

Such was not the case in the past. Another proposed film, “The Prometheus Crisis,” was supposed to be produced by Paramount (subsidiary of Gulf and Western) in 1976. The authors of the original book, from which the film was to be drawn, were Thomas Scortia and Frank Robinson, the same writers who previously wrote the novel which became the box office success, “The Towering Inferno.” Sources close to their nuclear screenplay effort believe industry pressures discouraged any conversion into celluloid.

In the real media world, the nuclear power manufacturers and utilities have been much more overt. General Electric, builder of reactors of a sort, withdrew its sponsorship of a Barbara Walters Special, which featured an interview with Jane Fonda, who stars in “The China Syndrome.”

Withdrawal of advertising is one approach; heavy-handedness is another. Every time one of the networks presents a documentary on the atomic power or radiation brouhaha, the AIF and its corporate membership swings into action.

An NBC Special Report team was mercilessly harassed to the point where a veteran producer resigned. Other reporters, editors and writers could recount graphically the atomic power industry’s efforts first to stifle, then to intimidate behind the scenes, the showing of television material. Products of the British Broadcasting Corp., Time-Life Films, even CBS’s “Hawaii Five-O” and the ABC adventure series “Most Wanted” have felt the heat of the atom’s merchandisers.

One does not have to predict the chilling effect of such backstage power plays. Members of the media will assert they have felt it, and the recent paucity of electronic media attention to the nuclear power controversy reflects it. “Who needs the hassle?” was the way one television editor put it.

The most recent attempt to censor occurred prior to Feb. 25–the day the Public Broadcasting Service planned to air a documentary on the victims of low-level radiation and the federal government’s past suppression of vital data about health hazards. Some viewers saw the film titled “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang” but others in cities such as Chicago, St. Louis, Denver, Boston and San Diego did not. The AIF and nuclear utilities persuaded many PBS affiliates to shelve the moving, one-hour documentary.

AIF president Carl Walske protested the airing of the documentary in a Feb. 7 letter to PBS president Lawrence Grossman, calling it an “unbalanced chronicle of allegations and opinion about the alleged hazards of low-level radiation exposure.” Most film critics and knowledgeable observers of this health problem disagreed.

At the local level, the industry was not so restrained as the AIF letter to Grossman. Utilities, knowing how either vulnerable or receptive local PBS stations are to corporate money and preferences put the wood to the station managers. Some held high the First Amendment; others put it in the closet.

In at least two areas, AIF officials contacted affiliates directly about the “Paul Jacobs” film. Kerr-McGee Co, officials approached PBS stations in Oklahoma. In Chicago, the nuclear plant junkie, Commonwealth Edison, contacted the local PBS station and Westinghouse tried to keep residents of Pittsburgh from seeing the show. The latter effort was not successful.

The competing marketplace of ideas and assertions still is foreign to the authoritarian minds of the nuclear power network. Born in the folds of national security secrecy, the civilian nuclear power industry still is determined to shield the atom’s dangers from the sun’s rays. But in America, censorship has proven to be a losing battle for the forces of darkness which transgress the people’s right to know.

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