The image featured with this review is the poster for Containment: Life After Three Mile Island. However, the photo could have easily been taken by yours truly. Throughout my life, I have always lived within fifteen miles of Three Mile Island (TMI).
Today, even as I drive down Pennsylvania Route 441 or across the South Bridge on Interstate 83, I can’t help but notice those four ominous cooling towers — two of which are bellowing steam and two of which are silenced and out of commission. Even when the stacks aren’t visible, you can hear the 96 sirens wail occasionally — either in honor of the accident or during a “test” to ensure audibility in the case of an emergency.
Years after the incident, I remember receiving pills in the mail with instructions to ingest if history repeated itself or worse. I don’t know if these pills would’ve helped stymie radiation or if they were even FDA approved, but I suppose they provided comfort. My point is this: whether you live in or travel through the Central Pennsylvania area, TMI is hard to miss and its effects are difficult to forget.
On March 28, 1979, the TMI-2 reactor (a.k.a. “Unit 2”) suffered a partial meltdown. The accident began when the secondary non-nuclear cooling system’s main feedwater pumps failed at precisely 4:00 a.m. EST. This caused the pilot-operated pressurizer relief valve to open automatically — resulting in the overheating of the reactor core and thereby a near-repeat of Chernobyl. In the end, half of the reactor core had melted, and the power plant was only 30 minutes away from a total meltdown
The accident made national headlines, served as a magnet for reporters, inspired musicians, raised awareness, and resulted in the cancellations of 51 new American nuclear reactors between 1980 and 1984. Yet, while the TMI nuclear mishap shocked the world, it exacted its hardest toll on the local community. More than 200,000 people were exiled from their homes, anti-nuclear activism rose, property values plummeted, and long-term health effects remained in question.
Containment is a run of the mill documentary on TMI and the nearby community of Middletown. The documentary is divided into four distinct sections: “THE ACCIDENT,” “THE AFTERMATH,” “THE RESTART,” and “THE LEGACY.” Each section includes commentary from the town’s residents (including two memorable old ladies, an overboard anti-nuclear supporter named Gene, and Jim “Slim Jim” Buchanan [then a DJ, now a local meteorologist]).
Unwisely, Containment spends too much time on “THE LEGACY.” Gene receives unwarranted focus in recapping anniversary after anniversary. Each year Gene is arrested for crossing a picket line; then, after the staged drama (the guy calls the cops on himself), the cameras follow Gene and company to a local diner for a hot breakfast. Is this what the legacy of TMI boils down to? Nonetheless, even with this excess time spent with those in opposition of nuclear power, viewers are still able to arrive at their own conclusion.
Varying viewpoints are presented from everyday townspeople, high school students, members of the media, medical professionals, and President Jimmy Carter. The film’s most intense and polarized moment is found in the Middletown NRC meeting, where tempers flair as locals seek to defend their stance. All in all, Containment’s raw footage provides those interested with a glimpse into the accident and its impact.
Although it took home several Central PA film awards (like “Best Overall Film” at the Quittapahilla Film Festival in Annville, PA), Containment still possesses problems in pacing and doesn’t know when to quit. The film’s major flaw is in editing its mountain of footage into a cohesive molehill. Considering the documentary took more than five years to develop, it seems as though directors/producers Chris Boebel and Nick Poppy were too consumed with filming Gene and the anniversaries that they overshadowed and overcooked the meat and potatoes of the legacy.
Obviously, Containment did not receive a wide release in 2004, and that is part of the reason why it is only loosely recommended. While a Central Pennsylvanian may catch the film at a local screening and enjoy it, chances are others around the nation will not even have the opportunity to place this documentary in their rental queue. Maybe there’s a lack of national interest; or maybe the film just not good enough to compete with today’s standards. Take your pick. Either way, remember: “fear has no half-life.”
Coincidentally, 4:00 a.m. on March 28 is not only the exact moment of the incident, but also the precise time and date of the plant’s opening in 1978.
U.S. Release Date: 2004
Running Time: 1:00
Directors: Chris Boebel & Nick Poppy
Producers: Chris Boebel & Nick Poppy
Music: Oshin Baroyan and Christopher Ziter