Nuclear power regulators overhauled community emergency planning for the first time in more than three decades, requiring fewer exercises for major accidents and recommending evacuating fewer people right away.

The revamped model, the first since the program began after Three Mile Island in 1979, was four years in the making. What is interesting is the new rules went into effect in December.

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Some of the changes fly in the face of the lessons learned from the reactor crisis in Japan. A mandate that local responders always run practice exercises for a radiation release has gone by the wayside.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which run the program together, 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.

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Still, some emergency officials say this new exercise doesn’t go far enough.

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

Michael Mariotte, director of the anti-nuclear group Nuclear Information and Resource Service, normally tracks such rules very carefully. Not this time as he learned about them from a reporter.

“Unless there are public interest groups out there pointing to the things these agencies are doing, they generally prefer to be operating in quiet, especially if it’s likely to be controversial,” he said. “A typical American does not read the Federal Register.”

The Web archives of FEMA and the NRC show no news releases on the changes during December 2011 and January 2012. The revisions took effect Dec. 23, at the peak of the holiday season.

There are weaknesses in the U.S. emergency planning program. With nuclear reactors now operating beyond their design life under rules relaxed to account for deteriorating safety margins, there has also been big population growth around nuclear power plants and limitations in the scope of emergency exercises.

The latest changes, especially relaxed exercise plans for 50-mile emergency zones, are under fire 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 said 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 terrorist 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 changes requested by the industry.

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.

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