Following the accident Wednesday at a nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pa., a spokesman for one of the utility compaines involved found it necessary to announce that, "We are not in a China Syndrome type of situation."

That was good news for Harrisburgers-and for the Columbia Pictures publicity mill, too.

Columbia is the distributor of a movie called "The China Syndrome," the plot of which concerns an accident at afictional nuclear power plant near Los Angeles.

The story told by the movie, and the reallife chronology at Harrisburg, are similar in many respects-and there are no radiation-related deaths in either.

In the film, utility company forces attempt to downplay the seriousness of emergencies at a nuclear plant. An more than two months before "The China Syndrome" was released, real-life utility company lobbyists launched a concerted effort to downplay the credibility of the movie.

The syndrome referred to in both cases is not an Oriental disease, but rather nuclear jargon for the worst concceivable reactor accident, in which the reactor core overheats and melts through the plant floor, theoretically all the way through the earth to China.

The untility spokesman's disclaimer following the Harrisburg accident served to underscore the impact that the movie has apparently had after opening across the nation in nearly 600 theaters.

Starring long time anti-nuclear activists Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon, along with Michael Douglas-who also produced it-"The China Syndrome" opened March 16 and reportedly grossed $12 million at the box office in its first two weeks.

The grosses were aided by a nearly $5-million advertising budget and abetted by an almost simultaneous outbreak of nuclear bad news: Five power plants shut down in Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia and Maine; anti-nuclear protests and arrests in New Hampshire; potentially dangerous radium dumps discovered in Denver and an attempt by a Wisconsin-based magazine, Progressive, to publish an article detailing how a hydrogen bomb is built.

The makers of "The China Syndrome" have declined to discuss the Harrisburg accident, though producer Douglas admitted that there were "ironic similarities between the incident at Three-Mile Island and the movie's fictional power plant."

In fact, the filmmakers have been playing down the nuclear elements of their story from the beginning. In 30 pages of production notes for the movie sent out in press kits, the word "nuclear" doesn't appear once.

But like Costa Gavras' "State of Siege" and "Z," "The China Syndrome" seems propelled by force of events into a fierce political debate.

National polls indicate 40 percent of American adults have not decided whether the benefits of nuclear power are worth the risks. Anti-nuclear forces have rallied to the movie as, in the past, they fallied to nuclear plant site sit-ins-all the while combatted by reams of information from the pronuclear forces.

In fact, the nuclear industry's reaction to "The China Syndrome" was so swift that it preceded the movie's release by two months. In January, letters began arriving at newspapers, TV stations and radio stations across the country.

"The China Syndrome" has "no scientific credibility and is, in fact, ridiculous," charged a letter sent to the Los Angeles media by an executive of Southern California Edison, a company which currently is readying another nuclear plant for commercial power production.

The letter was dated nine days before "The China Syndrome" opened and two weeks before the Harrisburg incident.

When contacted, the Edison executive said that he had not seen the movie when he wrote that "Syndrome" rendered "an unconscionable public disservice by using phonytheatrics to frighten Americans away from a desperately needed energy source."

He said he based his review of the movie on a synopsis sent to him by the Edison Electric Institute, an electric company trade association in New York.v.ithin 10 days, reporters and news directors around the country were reporting that they had received similar communiques from corporations and local utilities with nuclear interests, as well as pronuclear associations such as the American Nuclear Society, the Science and Engineers for Secure Energy, the Atomic Industrial Forum (AIF) and EEI.

One utility company, Northern State Power in Minneapolis, reportedly published a nine-page treatise refuting "The China Syndrome" prior to its release.

Fact or Fiction?

Most pro-nuclear experts intervieded immediately following the release of "The China Syndrome" said that a nuclear accident like the one envisioned in the movie wa spossible, but not very probable.

According to official and unofficial reports emanating from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the real-life accident contained many of the components found in "The China Syndrome" script: a malfunction in the reactor cooling system which led to a "turbine trip," "possible human error" and a sequence of events that could have resulted in a "Core meltdown" had the backup safety system not functioned properly.

In this case, face proved more serious than fiction. In the movie, no radiation was released into the atmosphere.

Interest in the film developed early. Amony those who screened the film before its release were lawyers for the NRC according to Anthony Roicman, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council: "An attorney for one of the NRC commissioners, an attorney who works on legislature for the commission, and one who does litigation." The saw the movie 11 days before it opened and a week before the NRC shut down five nuclear plants.

In Los Angeles, anti-nuclear information was handed out ot moviegoers queued up for the movie's first showings.

Michael Gray, the author of the original "China Syndrome" screenplay, is the only person involved with the movie who is willing to admit what pro-nuclear forces say is obvious-that "The China Syndrome" is a political statement disguised as a thriller.

Formerly a documentary filmmaker and aeronautical engineer, Gray said "The China Syndrome" was documented from its inception in 19728 with story lines layered on as events unfolded in the real world. Material was contributed initially, he said, by a cooperative nuclear power industry. Then, as his anti-nuclear sentiment deepened, he turned to scientists and engineers who were critical of nuclear power. "The really essential stuff" came from the latter group, he said. There even was a plot development derived from information given anonymously at a government nuclear facility in Idaho.

Most of th accident in the movie is based on a June 5, 1970, episode at Commonwealth Edison's Dresden II nuclear plant near Chicago.

Writer T. S. Cook and director James Bridges, who were also given writing credit on the movie, later replaced Gray's documentary filmmaker with Lemmon's reactor operator as the main character. When Fonda joined the project, the script was further rewritten to include her role as a TV news personality.

Prior to her involvement in "The China Syndrome," Fonda had tried and failed to obtain the movie rights to the Karen Silkwood story. Silkwood, who worked at the now-close Kerr-McGee nuclear fuel rod manufacturing plant in Oklahoma, was killed in an auto accident in 1974 while on her way to meet with a New York Times reporter concerning her allegations of unsafe conditions at the plant.

Prior to her death, Silkwood had been contaminated with plutonium. The jury trial on a lawsuit filed against Kerr-McGee by her relatives is now underway. In a deposition, one of her former plant supervisors said that Silkwood had shown him "falsified X-rays" of fuel rods that she had obtained.

Few film reviewers have failed to note that "The China Syndrome" shows a young man carrying falsified radiographs to the media. His car is fun off the road (supposedly by security men from the construction company responsible for the doctored X-rays) exactly as, Silkwood supportedrs claim, her car was run off the road by agents of Kerr-McGee.

"When I began writing 'The China Syndrome,' Karen Silkwood was very much alive," Michael Gray noted. "It was not our intention to make a statement about Karen Silkwood. It was imply taking an idea from life and using it dramatically."

One character from real life was not at all happy about how his own story served dramatically.

"I had been assured by both Michael Douglas and James Bridges that they wanted to present both sides as balanced," said Al Baietti, a nuclear-health physicist who played himself in the movie and delivered his own pronuclear statement. "The only problem is, 90 percent of what I had to say ended up on the cutting-room floor." he said.

"I think the movie is serving a great purpose by raising questions about the safety of nuclear power," said Stan Bohrman, who appeared in the film as a TV anchorman. In real life, Bohrman is an anchorman at WTCH-TV in Minneapolis. "As a matter of fact, I'm doing a five-parter on nuclear safety right now," Bohrman said. "Because of the picture and my involvement in it, it's a natural spinoff."

But Bohrman said that he thinks "The China Syndrome" is more a story about commercial pressures brought to bear on the local news business than about the dangers of nuclear power.

Taking on the 'Powers'

Don Widener would agree. The winner of both an Emmy for documentary filmmaking and a DuPont award for investigative reporting (broadcast journalism's equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize), Widener produced the first major TV documentary on the nuclear power industry for station KNBC in Los Angles in 1971, called "Powers That Be."

After the documentary's initial airing, KNBC received a letter from a Pacific Gas & Electric engineer charging that Widener had deliberately distorted his comments in an interview by overdubbing. The company simultaneously launched a campaign to keep the film from being aired elsewhere.

In a subsequent libel suit brought against the utility by Widener, trial evidence included an internal memo written by a PG&E executive that stated: "Here's formal evidence that KNBC is pro-nuclear. This series of three on-air editorials (pronuclear) is some compensation for the potential damage wrought by Widener's documentary." The memo went on to state that the station's pro-nuclear attitude probably could be attributed to pressure applied to that station and the network by PG&E.

Though both KNBC and NBC denied pressure, PG&E was ordered to pay Widened $7.7 million in damages for defamation of character. That ruling was later reversed, then reversed again. After seven years of litigation, PG&E settled out of court for $475,000.

But "Powers That Be" was never shown again on television. Widener's contract was not renewed by KNBC and he has not worked in network TV since. He claims that he's been blacklisted.

The narrator for "Powers That Be" as well as three other Widener documentaries was Jack Lemmon. In "Plutonium: Element of Risk," Lemmon whipped up a make-believe plutonium bomb in his kitchen. In "China Syndrome," Lemmon plays a dissident middle-management employe of a power company called "CG&E."

Around the same time that Widener was having his difficulties with PG&E and KNBC, Michael Gray began work on a script that was to become "The China Syndrome."

"I had done documentaries and had found a limit in them," said Gray. "They really essential ones you can't get on TV. The advertisers control the news," he said, pointing to General Electric's withdrawal of sponsorship from the Barbara Walters special in which Fonda mentioned "The China Synrome."

"I think the situation was best phrased by Michael Douglas in Chicago recently," Gray said. " 'In Hollywood, the First Amendment operates as long as you are into profits."

"Its was my understanding of exactly that point that caused me to concentrate on the motion-picture industry as a means for conveying this information," Gray said.

Brodsky says Columbia will probably begin international distribution of the movie in June.

The nuclear technical advisers credited in the film, MHB Technical Associates, are three nuclear engineers who resigned from General Electric in 1976 "over the general situation, safety in the industry and public disclosure," said one of the men, Gregory Minor, who is the basis for the minor character Greg in the film.

The three G.E. rebels, who advise and testify on behalf of community anti-nuclear groups around the country, last week released documents intended to corroborate the negative impression of the nuclear industry given by the movie.

Meanwhile, Columbia Pictures executive Jack Brodsky predicts that, "This type of controversy will spread and, two and three weeks from now, begin to broaden."

The controvesy could conceivably take on international proportions in May, when "The China Syndrome" makes its European debut at the Cannes Film Festival as one of three movies representing the U.S. Nuclear power is now a controvesial topic in France, West Germany and Sweden.

In Harrisburg, "The China Syndrome" is one of five films showing at the East 5 moviehouse. Since Tuesday, business there was reported to be a "Little bit above average."