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“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 has 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.

A FEMA representative declined multiple requests for an interview and instead released a statement. The agency acknowledged that a simulated problem during a no-release exercise is handled on plant grounds. Federal planners say this exercise still requires community decision makers to mobilize and set up communication lines with officials on the site, practicing critical capabilities, even though they won’t need to measure and respond to radiation.

While officials stress the importance of limiting radioactive releases, the revisions also 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.

Timothy Greten, who administers the community readiness program at FEMA, said it wouldn’t be necessary to tell people to stay put “if you could evacuate everybody within 10 or 15 minutes.” But he said hunkering down can be safer in some locations and circumstances, “especially for a short-term solution.”

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. Even a federal study used to shape the new program warns that up to 20 percent of people near official evacuation areas might also leave and potentially slow things down for everyone — and that’s assuming clear instructions.

“If it were me, I would evacuate” even without an official go-ahead, said Cheryl L. Chubb, a nuclear emergency planner with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, who is critical of the changes.

At Fukushima, more than 150,000 people evacuated, including about 50,000 who left on their own, according to Japan’s Education Ministry. At Three Mile Island, 195,000 people are estimated to have fled, though officials urged evacuation only for pregnant women and young children within five miles. About 135,000 people lived within 10 miles of the site at the time.

In its series, the AP reported that populations within 10 miles of U.S. nuclear sites have ballooned by as much as 4 1/2 times since 1980. Nuclear sites were originally picked in less populated areas to minimize the impact of accidents. Now, about 120 million Americans — almost 40 percent — live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant, according to the AP’s analysis of 2010 Census data. The Indian Point plant in Buchanan, N.Y., is at the center of the largest such zone, with 17.3 million people, including almost all of New York City.

“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.

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