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

B.C. salmon farms challenge activists’ demands for site closures

News reporting also unfair, inaccurate and distorted

Tofino considers beach fire ban after tumultuous summer

“It’s a juggling act, constantly.”

Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Sept. 27 to Oct. 3

World Farm Animals Day, Drink Beer Day and Virus Appreciation Day are all coming up this week

Vancouver Island Indigenous leaders supportive of B.C.’s new plan for old forest preservation

More than 260,000 hectares in Clayoquot Sound mapped for immediate old growth harvesting deferral

HISTORY COLUMN: Reflecting on the 32nd anniversary of Canada’s apology to Japanese-Canadians

Japanese-Canadians an integral part of Tofino and Ucluelet’s history.

105 new COVID-19 cases, 1 death as health officials urge B.C. to remember safety protocols

There are currently 1268 active cases, with 3,337 people under public health monitoring

B.C. nurses report rise in depression, anxiety, exhaustion due to pandemic

A new UBC study looks into how the COVID-19 response has impacted frontline nurses

National child-care plan could help Canada rebound from COVID-induced economic crisis: prof

A $2 billion investment this year could help parents during second wave of pandemic

Search suspended for Indigenous elder last seen mushroom picking in northwest B.C.

Mushroom picker Thomas (Tommy) Dennis has been missing since Sept. 16

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

16 MLAs retiring from B.C. politics add up to $20M in pensions: Taxpayers Federation

Taxpayers pay $4 for every dollar MLAs contribute to their pensions

‘Bonnie’ and ‘Henry’ among latest litter of service dog puppies

B.C. Alberta Guide Dogs names two pups after provincial health officer

B.C. VOTES 2020: Few solutions offered for ‘out of control’ camping

B.C. Liberals, NDP spend millions as problem keeps growing

Most Read