April 20, 2018

Flames rise from a manhole in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

The Three Mile Island disaster caused hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate their homes. It absolutely dominated the news cycle. It led to a complete rethinking of nuclear energy. And it all stemmed from a plumbing problem, a valve that didn’t shut. 

But the Three Mile Island accident isn’t the only meltdown caused by a seemingly small issue that snowballed into a gigantic disaster. To find out exactly how this happens, we talked with Chris Clearfield, co-author of Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It.  

Three Takeaways 

  • Clearfield says that a high level of complexity makes a system vulnerable to this type of meltdown. And with our increasingly interconnected and complex world, more and more systems are vulnerable. Whereas in the 70s, only a few systems - like nuclear power plants - were vulnerable, now complexity envelops our financial system, computers, our websites, hospitals, and more.
  • There are a lot of ways to prevent meltdowns from happening, but Clearfield believes that an ability to get a handle on small problems before they become big problems is absolutely critical. People need to feel comfortable with pointing out issues, without being afraid that they’ll be fired or severely reprimanded. 
  • He also points out that having a diverse team helps stop meltdowns from occurring. Different perspectives and areas of expertise actually create speed bumps and increase friction, which can lead to problems and issues being addressed before they spin out of control. 

More reading

Chris Clearfield, The Oscars, Three Mile Island, Meltdown, transparency, system failures

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