U.S. nuclear emergency drills overhaul leaving us less prepared?

In this Nov. 4, 2011 file photo, a disaster response team works inside a decontamination tent set up outside Banner Gateway Medical Center in Gilbert, Ariz. during a state-wide drill for a nuclear disaster. AP/East Valley Tribune

(AP) 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.

The revamp, the first since the program began after Three Mile Island in 1979, also eliminates a requirement that local responders always practice for a release of radiation.

At least four years in the works, the changes appear to clash with more recent lessons of last year's reactor crisis in Japan.

Under the new rules, 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.

And some view as downright bizarre the idea that communities will now periodically run emergency scenarios without practicing for any significant release of radiation.

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These changes, while documented in obscure federal publications, went into effect in December with hardly any notice by the general public.

An Associated Press 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 considerable population growth around nuclear power plants and limitations in the scope of 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 terrorism 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.

The FEMA instruction manual for the preparedness program says the agency won't evaluate defense capability of community forces because of "confidentiality of sensitive security information" — an apparent reference to the risk of exposing vulnerabilities during a public exercise.

When pressed, though, federal emergency planners gave other explanations. They said state and local police are more likely to be needed for tasks like escorting damage control teams rather than confronting attackers.

"We're assuming these guys don't want to escape, or else they wouldn't have showed up," said Randy Sullivan, a health physicist who works on emergency preparedness at the NRC. "A dragnet and security sweep is less important than saving equipment that is important to core damage."

None of the revisions have been questioned more than the new requirement that some planning exercises incorporate a reassuring premise: that no harmful radiation is released. Federal regulators say that conducting a wider variety of accident scenarios makes the exercises less predictable.

However, many state and local emergency officials say such exercises make no sense in a program designed to protect the population from radiation released by a nuclear accident.

"We have the real business of protecting public health to do if we're not needed at an exercise," Texas radiation-monitoring specialist Robert Free wrote bluntly to federal regulators when they broached the idea. "Not to mention the waste of public monies."

Environmental and anti-nuclear activists also scoffed. "You need to be practicing for a worst case, rather than a nonevent," said nuclear policy analyst Jim Riccio of the group Greenpeace.

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