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Evacuations, training relaxed near nuke plants

| Wednesday, May 16, 2012, 9:47 p.m.

Federal officials months ago quietly approved evacuating fewer people in the immediate wake of a nuclear disaster, despite recent calls to possibly expand evacuation zones around the nation's nuclear power plants.

"It's a retreat from public safety," said Eric Epstein, chairman of TMI Alert, a safe-energy group formed in 1977, two years before the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg. "We knew there was a swarm of legislation pending, but we thought the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was moving in a different direction."

The old standards called for an immediate evacuation of everyone living within two miles of a nuclear plant, along with those five miles downwind. Now, emergency officials will evacuate those within two miles of a large, quick release of radiation, and others will be told to stay put until an evacuation order is given.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials and the nuclear power industry said the changes introduce more variability into training exercises and will help keep responders prepared. Critics said it's just a way for the government to save money.

The standards require state and local police to take part in exercises every eight years that prepare them for a terror assault on their nuclear plant. Federal officials will grade them on their preparation.

Jennifer Young, a spokeswoman for FirstEnergy Corp., which owns the Beaver Valley Power Station in Shippingport, said state and local police participate in full-scale training exercises at the Beaver County plant, along with two in northern Ohio, every couple of years.

"These are all positive changes," Young said. "This won't detract from our emergency capabilities at all."

Kevin Sunday, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said Pennsylvania still has the discretion to expand evacuation areas.

"We have always had that flexibility to protect the public in an emergency, and if needed, we'll do whatever is needed to limit radiation exposure in the unlikely event of a nuclear power plant accident," Sunday said.

Cory Angel, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, said the state trains to evacuate a 10-mile zone in a 360-degree radius. The state has five nuclear plants.

"For a 2-mile radius, we're way beyond that," Angel said.

Epstein noted that two days after the Three Mile Island emergency began, officials recommended evacuating 5,000 pregnant women and children within five miles of the plant. But more than 140,000 people from central Pennsylvania eventually fled.

When an earthquake and tsunami caused a meltdown and radiation release at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan in March 2011, authorities evacuated everyone within a 12-mile radius, but U.S. officials told Americans within 50 miles to get out, based on immediate concerns of a huge radiation release.

"The value of emergency planning extends beyond anticipating a nuclear accident," Epstein said. "The more planning you have, the readier you are to respond to natural disasters."

The rules reduce the frequency of training exercises for monitoring potential food and water contamination in a 50-mile radius around plants. They must now be done only every eight years, instead of every six.

Amesh A. Adalja, an associate and clinical assistant professor with the Center for Biosecurity of UPMC, said that a March report by the center criticized the gap between training.

"You erase a lot of institutional memory when they're done that far apart," Adalja said.

Sunday said the DEP still plans to conduct its 50-mile exercises more often.

The rules, which had been under consideration for more than four years, took effect in December. The revamp of community emergency planning eliminates a requirement that local responders always practice for a radiation leak during evacuation drills.

Officials still must conduct a full evacuation drill every two years for a 10-mile radius around a nuclear plant under the supervision of state and federal agencies.

Onsite security forces at nuclear power plants have practiced defending against make-believe assaults since 1991. They increased the frequency of these drills after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Federal personnel will 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 will be evaluated during exercises. That threat-based training must begin by 2015, Angel said.

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