Fukushima: A lesson in the Precautionery Principle

A couple of weeks ago I published a blog titled ‘Caution with the Precautionery Principle’. Since then Matthew Neidell and his team at Columbia University have produced a paper with a similar title: ‘Be Cautious with the Precautionery Principle Evidence from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident

The tsunami which hit Fukushima in March 2011 caused the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. As a result, many people were evacuated from the area, and 54 Japanese nuclear reactors were shut down. This led to a surge in imports of coal, gas and oil, as well as a spike in electricity prices.

Matthew Neidell and his team contend that deaths from radiation following the tsunami were in single figures. But many people responded to the higher electricity prices by switching off their heaters. This led to the average electricity consumption per household falling by 8% in 2012. This increased exposure to the cold weather in winter caused 1,280 deaths from 2011 to 2014.

Damage to the Fukushima nuclear reactor in March 2011

At least 2,000 more people died following the evacuation, some in the chaos immediately after the accident and more from secondary health problems such as stress, suicide and interrupted health care. Even after the evacuation orders were lifted in September 2011, 35,000 people refused to return.

Neidell and his team argue that the Precautionery Principle – taking dramatic action to prevent a worst case scenario – resulted in poor policy making and conclude “our estimated increase in mortality from higher electricity prices significantly outweighs the mortality from the accident itself”. 

This devastating example reinforces my theme that we need to avoid the tendency to look for simple solutions to complex problems. Simple solutions can be counterproductive have severely reduced effectiveness and divert limited resources. It is a complex world. There are no simple solutions.


2 comments on “Fukushima: A lesson in the Precautionery Principle”
  1. Roger Merry says:

    Interesting and, as usual with your posts, it made me think. I’m usually a bit dubious about ‘spurious accuracy’ where an exact figure, like 1,280 deaths, appears to add strength to an argument. How many of these deaths were due not just to hypothermia, but to people actually turning their heating down? As for extreme reactions, and as I think I commented on the earlier version of this, 20/20 hindsight is a wonderful gift. Looking back, this ‘extreme’ set of reactions was very damaging, but at other times, NOT reacting can prove equally damaging (Chamberlain’s piece of paper maybe?) Nobody really knows what will happen until it has happened!

    1. Thanks Roger. As I said before I am not against the PreCautionary Principle. But the consequences of the reaction to it need to be really thought through and modified as the evidence emerges. Sounds like we need a Cosby Coffee morning.

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