By JEFF DONN, Associated Press
Without fanfare, the nation's nuclear power regulators have overhauled community emergency planning for the first time in more than three decades, requiring fewer exercises for major accidents and recommending that fewer people be evacuated right away.
Nuclear watchdogs voiced surprise and dismay over the quietly adopted revamp — the first since the program began after Three Mile Island in 1979. Several said they were unaware of the changes until now, though they took effect in December.
At least four years in the works, the changes appear to clash with more recent lessons of last year's reactor crisis in Japan. A mandate that local responders always run practice exercises for a radiation release has been eliminated — a move viewed as downright bizarre by some emergency planners.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which run the program together, have added one new exercise: More than a decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, state and community police will now take part in exercises that prepare for a possible assault on their local plant.
Still, some emergency officials say this new exercise doesn't go far enough.
These changes, while documented in obscure federal publications, went into effect with hardly any notice by the general public.
Michael Mariotte, director of the anti-nuclear group Nuclear Information and Resource Service, normally tracks such rules very carefully. This time, he learned of them from an Associated Press reporter.
"Unless there are public interest groups out there pointing to the things these agencies are doing, they generally prefer to be operating in quiet, especially if it's likely to be controversial," he said. "A typical American does not read the Federal Register."
The Web archives of FEMA and the NRC show no news releases on the changes during December 2011 and January 2012. The revisions took effect Dec. 23, at the peak of the holiday season when Americans tend to focus on last-minute gift shopping and social gatherings.
An AP investigative series in June exposed weaknesses in the U.S. emergency planning program. The stories detailed how many nuclear reactors are now operating beyond their design life under rules that have been relaxed to account for deteriorating safety margins. The series also documented dramatic population growth around nuclear power plants and limitations in the scope of emergency exercises. For example, local authorities assemble at command centers where they test communications, but they do not deploy around the community, reroute traffic or evacuate anyone as in a real emergency.
The latest changes, especially relaxed exercise plans for 50-mile emergency zones, are being flayed by some local planners and activists who say the widespread contamination in Japan from last year's Fukushima nuclear accident screams out for stronger planning in the United States, not weaker rules.
FEMA officials say the revised standards introduce more variability into planning exercises and will help keep responders on their toes. The nuclear power industry has praised the changes on similar grounds.
Onsite security forces at nuclear power plants have practiced defending against make-believe assaults since 1991 and increased the frequency of these drills after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The new exercises for community responders took years to consider and adopt with prolonged industry and government consultations that led to repeated drafts. The NRC made many changes requested by the industry in copious comments.
Federal personnel will now evaluate if state and local authorities have enough resources to handle a simultaneous security threat and radiation release. Their ability to communicate with onsite security officials during an attack also will be evaluated during exercises.
But community planners wonder why local forces won't have to practice repelling an attack along with plant security guards — something federal emergency planners acknowledge could be necessary in a real assault.
They said state and local police are more likely to be needed for tasks like escorting damage control teams than for confronting the attackers.