Ultimate Responsibilty, or Ultimate Profits? Netflix’s Meltdown: Three Mile Island

by Bryan & Heather

After being blown away by the HBO miniseries Chernobyl a few years ago, we’ve had a slightly-more-than-casual interest in other such nuclear historical material. When Heather’s sister alerted us to a Netflix documentary on the other great near-disaster of the Cold War, then, we tuned right in to what would be a fascinating exploration into the eerily-similar capitalist version of when ultimate power fails to receive ultimate respect.

As a documentary that covers (relatively) recent events that took place in the United States, Meltdown: Three Mile Island holds a number of historical advantages over Chernobyl. The ability to interview key figures involved in the national drama that unfolded in the spring of 1979 (seven years before the Chernobyl disaster) as well as residents of the surrounding area about their experiences lends a degree of both accuracy and intimacy to Meltdown that a docudrama can’t quite match. Through this extensive cast of experts, engineers, and civilians, the documentary paints a damning portrait of a business and regulatory culture that just can’t seem to treat nuclear energy with the reverence and responsibility it requires. Unlike Chernobyl, which was more of an accidentally jerry-rigged nuclear explosion, the disaster at Three Mile Island was a proper partial meltdown, caused by not one but two instances of “Eh, good enough:” a faulty release valve in the coolant lines, and a cleaning procedure that, when completed in a way that did not abide by regulations, led to that valve becoming stuck open and depriving the core of one of the plant’s two reactors of coolant. This is only half the story, however. Amazingly, as clean-up efforts proceeded in the following years, one engineer’s concern that a pivotal crane was not fully prepared to operate in a radiation-rich environment seem to have been ignored, and that engineer forced to become a whistleblower and virtual pariah in his professional community–though, thankfully, the crane in question was ultimately strengthened. More than Chernobyl, Meltdown thus questions the wisdom of nuclear power as a whole, not, as so many environmentalists might, on the basis of its sustainability ot disposal of its waste, but on the basis that humans seem incapable of actually running it safely, whether through private corporations whose immediate bottom line outweighs long-term safety or underfunded government regulatory agencies at times more concerned with public image and international propaganda.

Yet with all this drama, it can feel at times like the team behind Meltdown felt like their subject matter needed even more of a draw, and the way the whistleblower’s and his ex-girlfriend’s daughter’s testimony were handled, eventually leading to their first reunion since his split with her mother during his ordeal, felt contrived and awkward. For all the valid questions it raises, too, Meltdown really only confines itself to the story of Three Mile Island, failing to give its audience any further context concerning the development of nuclear energy over the past half-century–and whether it should give us hope, or cause for grave concern.

Though these factors make it just less than perfect as a documentary, Meltdown remains a fascinating look into a widely recognized yet relatively unknown event that could have radically reshaped United States–and our own personal–history. While its place in current debates over energy policy and climate change is perhaps not all its creators might have wanted it to be, Meltdown is certainly a fascinating watch, and a good conversation starter between friends and family as to just what the proper attitude should be to these supremely powerful installations that, in many cases, lurk right in people’s backyards.

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