Without fanfare, US nuclear power regulators have overhauled community emergency planning for the first time in more than three decades, requiring fewer drills for major accidents and recommending that fewer people be evacuated right away. The revamp, the first since the program began after 1979's Three Mile Island accident, also eliminates a requirement that local responders always practice for a release of radiation. These changes, while documented in obscure federal publications, went into effect in December with hardly any notice by the general public.
The revisions favor limiting initial evacuations, even in a severe accident. Under the previous standard, people within two miles would be immediately evacuated, along with everyone five miles downwind. Now, in a large quick release of radioactivity, emergency personnel would concentrate first on evacuating people only within two miles. Others would be told to stay put and wait for a possible evacuation order later. Federal officials say people could risk worse exposure in an evacuation impeded by overcrowded roadways or bad weather. This change, however, raises the likely severity of a panicked exodus outside the official evacuation area. An AP investigative series in June exposed weaknesses in the US emergency planning program and documented considerable population growth around nuclear power plants.