When “Nuclear” is the Star of Stage and Screen

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer

Anything radioactive makes for good drama – or so many television and movie scriptwriters believe. “China Syndrome” in 1979 and “Silkwood” in 1983 are just two movieexamples of movies with nuclear themes – reactors in one and materials in another. But how accurate are Hollywood’s depictions of radioactive substances?

Often they’re off the mark by a lot.

But there are times when writers and producers check with us on whether a script or scene is close enough to reality for Hollywood’s purposes. This year we’ve gotten questions about the sequence of a reactor meltdown and its aftermath. We walked through the scenario in generalities, careful not to reveal security details or other protected information. We feel it’s in our best interest to have whatever accuracy is possible in a Hollywood production.

That being said, entertainment is not a documentary and often facts don’t get in the way of a good tale.

For instance, the 2005 season of the pressure-packed “24” had a “black box” that could remotely operate all U.S. nuclear power plants via the Internet. It made for thrilling TV, but this is what we said about that plot point: There is no such black box or suitcase for controlling nuclear power plants. Control systems at the plants are not accessible via the Internet.

“NCIS: Los Angeles” also aired an episode titled “Empty Quiver,” during which bad guys hijack a Department of Energy Secure Transport. One of our NRC experts saw the show and had first-hand knowledge of these vehicles. This is what he said about it: “The only similarity between what was shown on TV and reality is that in both cases the transport vehicles each had 18 wheels!”

In another example, the 2006 season of “West Wing” featured the government response to a nuclear power plant accident that in many – but not all ways – was fairly accurate. This is what the NRC said at the time: The NRC understands the writers’ literary license in assigning roles and responsibilities to various characters in the show, but the NRC would be the federal coordinating agency in any event involving a nuclear power plant.

So what’s the bottom line? When the plot synopsis reads “nuclear,” feel free to enjoy it, but don’t confuse fiction with fact.

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