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Nuclear power plants need to update how long it would take to evacuate nearby communities in an emergency under a new rule approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Plant operators should update their evacuation estimates after every 10-year census, or when changes in population would increase the estimated time by at least 30 minutes.

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The requirement was among several changes regulators approved regarding emergency preparedness. The changes came as the commission considered sweeping safety changes for the U.S. nuclear industry in response to the nuclear crisis in Japan.

As America’s 104 nuclear reactors have aged, the once-rural areas around them have become far more crowded and difficult to evacuate. By law, evacuations must be prepared for areas within about 10 miles of every nuclear plant, but there are plans that have not kept up with changing populations.

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Populations around some nuclear plants have jumped up over four times since 1980, but companies have not updated some estimates of evacuation times in decades. Meanwhile, aging reactors have been operating at higher power, risking larger radioactive releases.

The new rules do not change recommended evacuation zones, which have remained frozen at a 10-mile radius from each plant since they were set in 1978.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said the commission did not need to wait for approval of the post-Japan reforms before changing the rules on emergency preparedness. The agency’s emergency rules have not significantly changed since 1980.

“This rule represents good work on the part of NRC staff members, who have spent several years working on the rule in coordination with other federal agencies,” as well as industry and watchdog groups, Jaczko said.

The new rule limits the duties of a plant’s onsite emergency responders to ensure they are not overwhelmed during an emergency. It also requires plants to incorporate scenarios based on a terrorist attack or other criminal action in emergency drills and exercises. The rule adds new requirements for back-up measures to alert the public and plant employees in case of emergency.

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