"They're saying, 'If there's no way to evacuate, then we won't,'" Phillip Musegaas, a lawyer with the environmental group Riverkeeper, said of the stronger emphasis on taking shelter at home. The group is challenging relicensing of Indian Point.
In February, a national coalition of environmental and anti-nuclear groups asked the NRC to expand evacuation planning from 10 miles to 25 miles and to broaden separate 50-mile readiness zones to 100 miles. The groups also pressed for some exercises that simulate a nuclear accident accompanied by a natural disaster like an earthquake or hurricane — akin to the combination of tsunami, blackout and meltdowns at Fukushima.
The new U.S. program has kept the 10- and 50-mile planning zones in place, as well as the requirement for one full exercise for a 10-mile evacuation every two years. However, required 50-mile planning exercises will now be held less often: every eight years, instead of every six years.
Exercises are full-blown tests, with FEMA evaluation, of the entire range of community capabilities needed in an accident. Smaller drills of specific skills are run more frequently.
In the state-led 50-mile exercises, emergency personnel practice the logistics of dealing with contaminated food and milk over a large region. They also prepare the mechanisms to relocate people, clean up contamination and later return evacuees to their communities.
Gary Lima, who manages the nuclear readiness program at the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, said 50-mile exercises should be run more frequently than once every eight years. "Recovery is really your hardest work," he said.
Even when the program mandated a six-year timetable, federal authors of the 2002 program manual acknowledged that "many (first responders) have indicated a desire" for even more frequent exercises in the 50-mile zone.
The Japanese disaster reinforced such worries when officials told some towns beyond 12 miles from the disabled plant to evacuate. Soil and crops were contaminated for scores of miles around. At one point, health authorities in Tokyo, 140 miles away, advised families not to give children the local water, which was contaminated by fallout to twice the government limit for infants.
The U.S. government recommended that Americans stay at least 50 miles from the Japanese plant. Government officials said the same kind of action could be taken domestically in a similar accident, but advance planning for U.S. evacuations is, in fact, restricted to 10 miles.
Nuclear regulators advocate "one standard to protect Japanese people and one standard for the American people," said Richard Brodsky, a former New York state lawmaker who is fighting relicensing of Indian Point.
The Japanese government had budgeted $14 billion through March 2014 for the cleanup, but it's expected eventually to cost far more. And some evacuees may never return home.
Paul Blanch, a retired engineer who worked on safety in the U.S. nuclear industry, said the American government largely ignores the potential economic costs of nuclear accidents when it calculates risk. "How do you clean up trees and leaves and soil?" Branch asked referring to fallout. "How do you put a value on that?"
Officials for FEMA and the NRC said they are still studying whether Japan's experience points to the need for further changes in the United States.
Pressed on the reduced frequency of 50-mile exercises, federal planners said community personnel can practice skills as often as they like, without needing a full-blown federal evaluation each time.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's main advocate, strongly backed the eight-year timetable to reduce the burden of adding the attack exercises. Asked about the other changes, NEI spokesman Steven Kerekes said they bring more federal oversight, formalizing practices already begun at many sites.
However, no nuclear plant has ever been shut down for deficiencies in the emergency response plan of surrounding communities.