The partial meltdown at the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 was a perfect coalescing of factors in two senses. First, a series of cascading mechanical and human errors brought the plant close to a catastrophe that would have potentially made much of the East Coast uninhabitable, we’re told in the new documentary “Meltdown: Three Mile Island.” Second, coming as it did both within memory of the height of Cold War paranoia and days after the release of the film “The China Syndrome,” the disaster was perfectly primed to set off anxieties about the danger of atomic energy.
“Meltdown: Three Mile Island,” a new four-part documentary on Netflix, does an elegant job of braiding those two truths — that Three Mile Island was a narrowly averted nightmare scenario and that it lives on in the public imagination as an argument against nuclear energy. It can default, especially in its early going, to tools of the trade that feel underbaked — reenactments of, say, a phone ringing in a school where children wait for news about the disaster, the camera somewhat schlockily pushing in to amp up what’s already dramatic enough. But the power of the story “Meltdown” tells, as well as the insight of those on whom director Kief Davidson trains his camera, ultimately carries the day.
The reenactments and overtly sentimental touches are most noticeable in the early going, focused on the incident itself and its immediate aftermath. But that only represents the beginning of the saga, and the less interesting part besides. As “Meltdown” goes on, Rick Parks, an engineer with the engineering corporation Bechtel, comes to the forefront; he describes in sharply drawn detail manners in which the cleanup operation, in an attempt to save money and time, was shoddy to the point of risking further contaminating the air and land around Three Mile Island with radiation. (One anecdote, about the implementation of duct tape in the cleanup process, must be heard to be believed.)
Parks, whose life — and whose health, he purports — was thrown off course by his role in the Three Mile Island story, is at once a fascinating character and a welcome guide to the long tail of this story. The incident at Three Mile Island set in motion a botched cleanup that was as effective an argument as could be marshalled against the use of what is, when conducted safely, a clean source of energy. (One compelling piece of contemporaneous footage comes when a homegrown anti-nuclear power activist turns a Pennsylvania town meeting into a roaring display of might, urging her neighbors to voice their disapproval of venting the gas built up within the plant.)
By contrast, Parks is not an ideologue, although he put a lot on the line in order to make sure the cleanup happened safely (just how much is a revelation that “Meltdown” makes deliberately, after nicely establishing the context and the stakes). He seems to be, though, a believer that what went wrong at Three Mile Island was, first, a series of errors and, more perniciously, a calculation of what corners to cut. “We’ll never have a viable nuclear industry in this country,” Parks tells the camera, “until we take the profit motive out of it.” A slow burn of well-controlled indignation, “Meltdown” makes Parks’ case methodically and well.
“Meltdown: Three Mile Island” premieres on Netflix on Wednesday, May 4.