An alert warning Ontario residents of an unspecified incident at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station early Sunday morning was sent in error, Ontario Power Generation said. OPG sent out a tweet about 40 minutes after the emergency alert, which was pushed to cellphones at about 7:30 a.m., saying it was a mistake. The Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, in Pickering, Ont., is seen Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Erroneous nuclear alert issued during training exercise, Ont. government says

The alert scared local residents

The unintended release of an Ontario-wide alert about an ”incident” at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station on Sunday has sparked a provincial investigation into how such an error could happen and how such future mistakes can be avoided.

The province’s solicitor general said the error occurred during a routine training exercise being conducted by the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre (PEOC).

The PEOC — which is responsible for co-ordinating the provincial government’s response to major emergencies — conducts exercises testing the system twice daily, but there was no intention to notify the public, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said in an interview.

“At one of those tests this morning, instead of it going out on the test side, it went out live to the people of Ontario, and for that I sincerely apologize,” she said. “It should not have happened, which is why I have asked the chief of Emergency Management Ontario, Doug Brown, to launch a full investigation.”

She said the investigation will examine the sequence of events that led to the alert being sent out and what contingency measures should be in place. Jones said she expects the results of the probe to be made public.

“I want to delve deeper into the specifics of how it occurred, because it is very unusual,” she said.

The alert was pushed to cellphones across the province at about 7:30 a.m., and Ontario Power Generation, which oversees the Pickering plant, sent out a tweet about 40 minutes after the emergency alert saying it was a mistake.

A follow-up alert was sent to cellphones nearly two hours after the original notification, and about an hour after the OPG tweet.

Jones said it took so long to send a second alert because the province felt it needed to “trust, but confirm” that there really was no impending disaster.

“There is NO active nuclear situation taking place at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station,” the alert said. “The previous alert was issued in error. There is no danger to the public or environment. No further action is required.”

Still, some residents who awoke to the alarming news sprung into action in the time it took the government to send the update that the alert was an accident.

Jim Vlahos, a 44-year-old father of two in Toronto, awoke to the alert and quickly made a hotel reservation roughly 130 kilometres away in Niagara Falls. He said he figured he would go as far west as possible and then cross the border.

“Having watched ‘Chernobyl’ didn’t help,” he said, referring to the HBO show about the 1986 nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union. “The lack of communication following the alert didn’t help either,” he said.

“I have no problem leaving my phone on for these types of alerts,” Vlahos said. “But I would expect some more info from the government so I wouldn’t have to overreact the way I did.”

OPG spokesman Neal Kelly said the public was never at risk and there was no radiological event at the nuclear plant, but he declined to comment on who authorized the alert.

“What I can tell you is that we’re working with the province to investigate,” he said.

“So we will determine over the coming days why that alert was issued.”

The original alert warned people within 10 kilometres of the facility east of Toronto of an unspecified incident, but it went to residents all across Ontario.

A similar error occurred in Hawaii two years ago when Hawaiian officials mistakenly sent out an alert warning the public about a nonexistent incoming ballistic missile at about 8 a.m. on Jan. 13, 2018 — a Saturday. The debacle triggered panic until the agency sent another message 38 minutes later notifying people it was a false alarm. State officials said the mistake occurred during a drill.

Terry Flynn, who teaches crisis communications at McMaster University, said there’s a danger that this type of error will erode public trust.

“Whether it’s a nuclear plant or it’s a community flooding event, these systems are designed to help people make decisions that protect their health and safety.

“When we have continuous problems in these systems, then we have a lack of trust and people begin to ignore them. So that’s the biggest fallout from this scenario.”

Ted Gruetzner, a former vice-president of communications at OPG who now works at the private-sector firm Global Public Affairs, said such mistakes should be anticipated, but that precautions should be taken to prevent their inadvertent release.

The messages should be written in a way that clearly states it’s a test, he added.

“I’m really surprised that wasn’t on there.”

In this case, the message was identified as an emergency alert from the Province of Ontario but read “there has been NO abnormal release of radioactivity from the station … People near the Pickering Nuclear Generation Station DO NOT need to take any protective actions at this time.”

The province’s auditor general highlighted issues with Ontario’s emergency management in her 2017 annual report. Bonnie Lysyk found that provincial emergency management programs needed better oversight and co-ordination.

Ontario doesn’t have a co-ordinated IT system for emergency management, the auditor wrote. The province tried to implement one in 2009, but discontinued the project six years later, “having spent about $7.5 million without it ever going live.”

The Pickering nuclear plant has been operating since 1971, and had been scheduled to be decommissioned this year, but the former Liberal government — and the current Progressive Conservative government — committed to keeping it open until 2024. Decommissioning is now set to start in 2028.

It operates six CANDU reactors, generates 14 per cent of Ontario’s electricity, and is responsible for 4,500 jobs across the region, according to OPG.

ALSO READ: More shippers and shipping companies promise to avoid Arctic routes

— With files from Nicole Thompson and The Associated Press

Allison Jones and David Paddon, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Popular retired UFV therapy dog passes away

Mac the Therapy Dog consoled countless students and staff, as well as wildfire victims

Imagination Library Fraser Valley celebrating Christmas in July

Dolly Parton early literacy intiative looking for financial support to help with waitlist

Exercise and cancer to be explored via webinar

UFV’s Dr. Iris Lesser to lead Zoom event for cancer patients and supporters

Vancouver double homicide leads to arrest in Harrison Hot Springs Wednesday

VPD and RCMP tracked dumped vehicle connected to killings to Chilliwack

Multiple accidents slowing westbound Highway 1 traffic

3 accidents in Langley, Abbotsford within 30 minutes

B.C. sees 25 new COVID-19 cases, community exposure tracked

One death, outbreaks remain in two long-term care facilities

Man shot dead in east Abbotsford suburbs

Integrated Homicide Investigative Team called to investigate

RCMP ‘disappointed’ by talk that race a factor in quiet Rideau Hall arrest

Corey Hurren, who is from Manitoba, is facing 22 charges

NHL’s Canadian hubs offer little economic benefit, but morale boost is valuable: experts

Games are slated to start Aug. 1 with six Canadian teams qualifying for the 24-team resumption of play

‘Made in the Cowichan Valley’ coming to a wine bottle near you

Cowichan Valley has the honour of being the first sub-GI outside of the Okanagan

VIDEO: Vancouver Island cat missing 18 months reunited with family

Blue the cat found at Victoria museum 17 kilometres from home

VIDEO: Alberta man rescues baby eagle believed to be drowning in East Kootenay lake

Brett Bacon was boating on a lake in Windermere when he spotted the baby eagle struggling in the water

Police nab three impaired drivers in one night in Maple Ridge

Ridge Meadows RCMP served 80 impaired driving infractions in June

Conservationists raise concerns over state of care for grizzly cubs transferred to B.C. zoo

‘Let them be assessed now before their fate is sealed,’ urges B.C. conservationist Barb Murray

Most Read