Lessons of Three Mile Island

Bob Cringely was on the Presidential Commission that investigated the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. He’s just published a fascinating blog post looking back on it.

The folks at TMI did not really know how to manage the technology of a nuclear power plant, and that led to a huge mess. The same thing has now happened to our economy. Congress changed the banking and mortgage lending rules without regard to their purpose. Many firms bought derivative securities without the slightest thought to the math behind them or the risk they were incurring. Nuclear power plants run on a chain reaction process of atomic decay. Our government and investment community created a chain reaction of economic decay.

Chemical plants were better designed than nuclear power plants in part because Congress did not legislate how the chemical industry designed their plants. But more importantly most chemical firms of that era had CEO’s with engineering degrees. They had respect for the technology and the risk of misusing it. But that doesn’t make the chemical industry blameless. With the off-shoring of manufacturing a lot of chemical production is now being done in places where there is little respect for the dangers of technology. The chemical industry’s TMI was Bhopal. There will be more Bhopal’s coming because those companies are now being managed by bean counters, not engineers.