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New research suggests that allowing our fears to prevent action can be deadly.

How Many Lives Are Lost Due to the Precautionary Principle?

By Adam Thierer @AdamThierer

No matter how well intentioned, sometimes hyper-precautionary rules can be deadly. By defaulting public policies to super-cautious mode and curtailing important innovations, laws and regulations can actually make the world less safe. 

A new NBER working paper finds exactly this: the authors examined the “unintended effects from invoking the precautionary principle after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident,” which occurred in Japan in March 2011 due to a tsunami. They find that the Japanese government’s decision to entirely abandon nuclear energy following the incident resulted in many unnecessary deaths, primarily due to increased energy costs and corresponding cold weather-related welfare effects. Japan’s decision also has had potentially serious environmental implications.

The precautionary principle, in other words, can cost more lives than it saves.

How Excessive Regulation Costs Lives

The precautionary principle refers to the idea that public policies should limit innovations until their creators can prove they will not cause any potential harms or disruptions. Where there is uncertainty about future risks, the precautionary principle defaults to play-it-safe mode by disallowing trial-and-error progress, or at least making it far more difficult.

The problem with the precautionary principle is that uncertainty about the future and risks always exists. Worse yet, defaulting to super-safe mode results in a great deal of forgone experimentation with potentially new and better ways of doing things.

As I summarized in my last book, “living in constant fear of worst-case scenarios—and premising public policy on them—means that best-case scenarios will never come about. When public policy is shaped by precautionary principle reasoning,” I argued, “it poses a serious threat to technological progress, economic entrepreneurialism, social adaptation, and long-run prosperity.”

But can the precautionary principle really lead to deaths? Yes, it can. The aforementioned NBER paper by Matthew J. Neidell, Shinsuke Uchida, and Marcella Veronesi finds that, in the four-year period following the Fukushima accident, there were 1,280 cold-related deaths due to the government’s decision to completely end nuclear power production in Japan.

In the wake of that decision, Japanese citizens experienced immediate electricity price hikes as the country went from 30 percent nuclear power production to zero percent in just 14 months. Japan had to increase reliance on fossil fuels to offset that shortfall, which resulted in the rapid increase in electricity prices and corresponding increased fatalities from cold weather-related problems.

“This suggests that ceasing nuclear energy production has contributed to more deaths than the accident itself,” the authors find. In fact, the authors note, “[n]o deaths have yet to be directly attributable to radiation exposure, though projections estimate a cumulative 130 deaths.” But that total would still fall well short of the number of lives lost due to increased electricity prices overall. 

Again, the study covers just four years, from 2011 to 2014. The authors say that fatalities due to higher electricity prices likely grew in the years beyond that because the effects of the nuclear ban continued to be felt—and those effects continue right up to present time.

The authors also note that there were likely significant health impacts associated with replacing nuclear power with fossil fuels due to the deterioration of local air quality, although they did not model those results in this study. Taken together, however, “the total welfare effects from ceasing nuclear production in Japan are likely to be even larger than what we estimate, and represents a fruitful line for future research,” they conclude.

The Golden Rice Case Study

This isn’t the only example of how the precautionary principle can undermine public health or lead to death. There are many others. A particularly powerful example involves Golden Rice, a form of rice that was genetically engineered to contain beta-carotene, which helps combat vitamin A deficiency.

Science writer Ed Regis recently published Golden Rice: The Imperiled Birth of a GMO Superfood, which provides a history of this super food. It serves as a cautionary tale of how the precautionary principle can cause unnecessary suffering and cost lives. Scientists in Germany developed the modified rice in the early 2000s to address the global vitamin A deficiency, which led to blindness and an estimated million deaths each year, primarily among children and pregnant women in undeveloped countries.

Unfortunately, anti-GMO resistance among environmental activists and regulatory officials held up the diffusion of this miracle food. Regis argues that one of the primary reasons it took 20 years to develop the final version of Golden Rice was “the retarding force of government regulations on GMO crop development.” He continues:

Those regulations, which cover plant breeding, experimentation, and field trials, among other things, are so oppressively burdensome that they make compliance inordinately time-consuming and expensive. Such regulations exist because of irrational fears of GMOs, ignorance of the science involved, and overzealous adherence to the precautionary principle. Ingo Potrykus, one of the co-inventors of Golden Rice, has estimated that compliance with government regulations on GMOs caused a delay of up to ten years in the development of his final product. 

Ironically, in view of all the good that Golden Rice could have been doing in ameliorating vitamin A deficiency, blindness, and death during those ten years, it was precisely the government agencies that were supposed to protect people’s health that turned out to be the major impediments to faster development of this life-saving and sight-saving superfood. As it was, countless women and children died or went blind in those intervening years as a result of government-imposed regulatory delays. While that is not a 'crime against humanity,' it is nevertheless a modern tragedy.

Regis points out that the real problem with the precautionary principle is that it treats innovations like Golden Rice as “guilty until proven innocent.” This is the essential danger associated with the precautionary principle that I documented in my last book and all my writing on this issue. Risk analysts and legal scholars have also criticized the precautionary principle because they argue it “lacks a firm logical foundation” and is “literally incoherent.” They argue the principle is, in essence, a non-principle because it fails to specify a clear standard by which to judge which risks are most serious and worthy of preemptive control.

But the precautionary principle really is rooted in a principle, or at least a preference. It is an implicit preference for stasis, or preservation of the status quo. Advocates of the precautionary principle might believe that doing nothing in the face of uncertainty seems like the safer choice. But to borrow a line from the rock band Rush, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice,” and by opting for stasis and disallowing ongoing innovation, precautionary principle advocates make a choice for us that leaves the world less safe in the long-run.

The late political scientist Aaron Wildavsky dedicated much of his life’s work to proving how efforts to create a risk-free society would instead lead to an extremely unsafe society. In his important 1988 book, Searching for Safety, Wildavsky warned of the dangers of “trial without error” reasoning, and contrasted it with the trial-and-error method of evaluating risk and seeking wise solutions to it. He argued that wisdom is born of experience and that we can learn how to be wealthier and healthier as individuals and a society only by first being willing to embrace uncertainty and even occasional failure:

The direct implication of trial without error is obvious: If you can do nothing without knowing first how it will turn out, you cannot do anything at all. An indirect implication of trial without error is that if trying new things is made more costly, there will be fewer departures from past practice; this very lack of change may itself be dangerous in forgoing chances to reduce existing hazards. . . . Existing hazards will continue to cause harm if we fail to reduce them by taking advantage of the opportunity to benefit from repeated trials.

This is the most crucial and most consistently overlooked lesson about the precautionary principle. When taken too far, precaution makes us less safe. It can even cause us suffering and lead to deaths. The burden of proof, therefore, is on advocates of the precautionary principle to explain why stopping experimentation is good for us, because it almost never is in practice.

“The Hidden Cost of Saying No”

More generally, the two case studies discussed above once again illustrate the simple truth that trade-offs exist and policy incentives matter. Regulation is not a magic wand that instantly grants society cost-free blessings. Every policy action has potential costs, many of which are hard to foresee upfront or even to estimate after the fact. The precautionary principle is static and short-sighted, focusing only on mitigating some direct, obvious risks. By stopping one potential risky outcome, policymakers can assure citizens that no potential danger can arise again because of that particular activity.

But sometimes the greatest risk of all is inaction. Progress and prosperity are impossible without constant trial-and-error experimentation and a certain amount risk-taking. Without risk, there can be no reward. In a new book, scientist Martin Rees refers to this truism about the precautionary principle as “the hidden cost of saying no.”

That hidden cost of precautionary regulations on Golden Rice resulted in “a modern tragedy” for the countless people who have suffered blindness or died as a result. That hidden cost was also quite profound for Japanese citizens following the Fukushima incident. If regulation forbids one type of energy production, something else must take its place to maintain living standards. The country’s decision to forbid nuclear power apparently lead to unnecessary deaths after other substitutes had to be used.

To be clear, the Fukushima incident was a horrible accident that had many other costs in its own right. Well over 100,000 residents were evacuated from the communities surrounding the plant due to contamination fears. But it remains unclear how much harm came about due to the release of radioactive materials relative to either the destructive power of the tsunami itself (or the resulting regulatory response).

The International Atomic Energy Agency maintains a site dedicated to ongoing Fukushima Daiichi status updates and notes that cleanup efforts are ongoing. Regarding sea area monitoring, the IAEA says that the “levels measured by Japan in the marine environment are low and relatively stable.” “The situation with regard to the safety of the food supply, fishery and agricultural production continues to remain stable,” as well.

There may also be long-term health care issues due to radiation exposure, even though that has not been proven thus far. Importantly, however, some lives were lost during evacuation of the area, especially among elderly individuals. Official reports from the Japanese government’s Reconstruction Agency found over 1,600 “indirect” deaths attributable to stress and other illnesses during the evacuation phase, which was more than those directly attributable to the disaster itself.

Risk Analysis is Complicated, But Essential

The dynamic nature of regulatory trade-offs such as these is what makes benefit-cost analysis so challenging yet essential. Policymakers must do a better job trying to model the costs of regulatory decisions—especially those involving sweeping precautionary controls—precisely because the costs of getting things wrong can be so profound.

A 2017 Mercatus Center working paper entitled, “Death by Regulation: How Regulations Can Increase Mortality Risk,” by James Broughel and W. Kip Viscusi found that “regulations costing more than $99.3 million per life saved can be expected to increase mortality risk. A cost-per-life-saved cutoff of approximately $100 million is a threshold cost-effectiveness level beyond which life-saving regulations will be counterproductive—where rules are likely to cause more expected fatalities than they prevent.” In other words, at some point regulation can become so costly that it actually does more harm than good. Where we find rules that impose costs beyond such a threshold, we should look for alternative solutions that will be more cost-effective and life-enriching.

In the aggregate, it is impossible to know how many lives are lost due to the application of the precautionary principle. There are just too many regulatory scenarios and dynamic effects to model. But when some critics decry efforts to estimate the potential costs associated with precautionary regulations, or insist that any cost is worth bearing, we must remind them that no matter how difficult it is to model risk trade-offs and uncertain futures, we must try to ensure that regulation is worth it. We live in a world of resource constraints and tough choices.

Indirect Opportunity Costs Matter Deeply

Generally speaking, however, it is almost never wise to completely foreclose important types of innovation that might offer society important benefits that are difficult to foresee. In the case of nuclear power, however, the benefits were quite evident from the start, but many countries opted to tightly control or stifle its development anyway.

Conversations about nuclear power in the United States were always tainted by worst-case thinking, especially following the Three Mile Island incident in 1979. Although that incident resulted in no deaths, it severely curtailed nuclear power as a major energy source in the US. Since that time, few new nuclear power plants have successfully been built and put online in the United States. That trend only worsened following the Fukushima accident, as regulatory requirements intensified. Political wrangling over nuclear waste disposal also holds up progress.

But the costs of those policy decisions are more evident today as we face questions about how to combat climate change and reduce carbon emissions. In a recent Wall Street Journal essay, Joshua S. Goldstein and Staffan A. Qvist argue that, “Only Nuclear Energy Can Save the Planet,” and offset fossil fuel consumption fast enough. Concerns about disasters and waste management persist even though, relatively speaking, nuclear power has had a fairly remarkable safety record.

Waste disposal concerns are also overstated. “An American’s entire lifetime of electricity use powered by nuclear energy would produce an amount of long-term waste that fits in a soda can,” they note. That is certainly a challenge we can handle relative to the massive carbon footprint all of us currently produce.

This case study about how the precautionary principle held back nuclear power innovation is instructive in a couple of ways. First, as suggested by the new NBER study and other research, the precautionary principle has had significantly negative direct costs in the form of increased electricity costs as well as increasing carbon emissions, due to forced continued reliance on fossil fuels.

Second, there have likely been many indirect costs in the form of forgone innovation. We simply do not know how much better nuclear power plants would be today if experimentation with new methods had been allowed over the past four decades. The dream of making power “too cheap to meter” via nuclear production might have become more than just a catchphrase or utopian dream. At a minimum, we would have likely had more Thorium-based reactors online that could have significantly improved efficiency and safety.


This points to the need for greater humility in policymaking. We do not possess crystal balls that will allow us to forecast the technological future, or all our future needs. Many countries (especially the United States) likely made a serious mistake by discouraging nuclear technologies, and now we and the rest of the world, are stuck living with the ramifications of that precautionary miscalculation. Likewise, the Golden Rice case study points to the dangers of regulatory hubris on the global stage, as policymakers in many held back life-saving innovations that could have alleviated suffering and death.

It is time to reject the simplistic logic of the precautionary principle and move toward a more rational, balanced approach to the governance of technologies. Our lives and well-being depend upon it. 

This originally appeared in The Bridge. 


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