Planning for potential emergencies at the now-defunct Three Mile Island nuclear power plant can be scaled back, federal regulators decided last week.

It’s a decision by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that will allow officials at Exelon to turn their attention only to within the island’s borders, taking away their current responsibility to also monitor the surrounding area.

And that’s troubling to Eric Epstein, with the Harrisburg-based watchdog group TMI Alert, who said he worries about people living in communities near the island, which sits in the Susquehanna River just north of Conoy Township on the Dauphin-Lancaster counties border.

3 Mile Island Zone

“In the event of an accident the community is now left to its own devices,” Epstein said.

Exelon owns Three Mile Island’s Unit 1, which no longer produces electricity after being shut down by company officials last September.

And when nuclear power plants are taken offline it’s common for their owners to request emergency planning reductions, shedding both responsibility and related-cost, Epstein said.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokeswoman Diane Screnci elaborated.

“We consider these requests because the risk of an offsite radiological release is substantially lower, and the types of possible accidents are significantly fewer, once a plant is permanently shut down,” she said.

In this case, it means Exelon can do away with its emergency siren notification system, cease off-site radiation testing and eliminate its oversight of a 10-mile evacuation zone, which includes all of Elizabethtown Borough and Conoy and West Donegal townships, and parts of East Donegal and Mount Joy townships.

Exelon spokesman Dave Marcheskie said it is company officials’ opinion that the island, which also houses the defunct Unit 2 — the site of the 1979 historic partial meltdown — will be safe enough without those measures.

“The plant’s updated emergency plan, recently approved by the NRC and based on an extensive analysis of plant conditions, helps ensure that our emergency planning activities accurately reflect this lower level of risk,” he said.

But the island still houses radioactive waste and likely will indefinitely, Epstein said.

“The plant is a de facto high-level radioactive waste site,” he said. “An island on a river is not an ideal location for a radioactive waste site.”

The island sits upstream of Lancaster County water systems, including Lancaster city’s, which are fed by the river.

Epstein said he made his concerns known to regulators before last week’s decision, and pointed out that one Nuclear Regulatory commissioner, Jeff Baran, agreed. Baran was the only dissenting vote for the planning reduction’s 4-1 approval.

In a filing, Baran cited concerns raised by community stakeholders like Epstein, as well as officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The reduction in emergency planning will officially take hold Jan. 20, 2021, and the site will continue to be monitored by the state Department of Environmental Protection and Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

“DEP and PEMA will continue to conduct planning, training and exercises to ensure state, county and local readiness for possible incidents at the facility,” DEP spokesman Neil Shader said.