Nuclear safetyPanic: Ontario Residents Sent False Alarm about Nuclear Plant “Incident”

Published 13 January 2020

Ontario, Canada is home to Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, one of the world’s largest nuclear power stations. On Sunday morning the fourteen million residents of the province were awaken by emergency messages sent to their phones, alerting them to an “incident” at Pickering. An hour later, the province’s government sent another message, telling residents that the it was a false alarm – the result of a poorly executed training drill.

Ontario, Canada resident had a rude awakening early Sunday when an emergency messages was sent to their phones, laptops, and desktop computers, warning of an “incident” at a massive nuclear plant east of Toronto.

About an hour later, the government of the province sent another message, saying that the alert had been a false alarm.

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

Ontario Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones said in a statement that the alert was accidentally issued “during a routine training exercise.”

The government of Ontario sincerely apologizes for raising public concern and has begun a full investigation to determine how this error happened,” she said.

The Toronto Star reports that the initial alert reported an incident at the Pickering power plant, located on the shores of Lake Ontario, but said people nearby do not need to “take any protective actions at this time.”

There has been NO abnormal release of radioactivity from the station and emergency staff are responding to the situation,” she added.

The false alert was met with anger and criticism from local mayors, who said the emergency message caused unnecessary panic. The province’s fourteen million residents of Ontario make it Canada’s most populous province

Like many of you, I was very troubled to have received that emergency alert this morning,” Dave Ryan, the mayor of Pickering, wrote on Twitter. “While I am relieved that there was no actual emergency, I am upset that an error such as this occurred. I have spoken to the Province, and am demanding that a full investigation take place.”

Toronto Mayor John Tory also called for an inquiry, saying, “There are far too many unanswered questions.”

The Pickering plant is one of the world’s largest nuclear power stations. It came online in 1971 and is scheduled for decommissioning in 2028. The plant generates 14 percent of the province’s electricity.

In January 2018, Hawaii residents were sent an alert about a North Korean ballistic missile attack on the islands. That mistake, too, was the result of a poorly executed training drill.

Matt Gurney writes in his column in the Toronto-based National Post that there are two quick takeaways from the scary incident:

The first is obvious: the emergency alert system still needs work. Such a system is necessary. Essential, even. But Canada’s has been beset by problems. The project to create the current system ran many years late. Since being rolled out, it has encountered major technical issues getting the alerts out to the public, and has also been the target of much criticism for overly intrusive and disruptive alerts, including middle-of-the-night blasts for missing children to sleeping residents hundreds of kilometres away.

Much of this criticism is unfair and inappropriate. But not all. The fact that it took the alert system over an hour to issue an all-clear alert after Ontario Power Generation had already announced it was a false alarm speaks to the obvious problems remaining with the system.

The second takeaway is for the public, not our government agencies. In a crisis, you’ll be on your own, at least at first. The government that spent Sunday morning trying to figure out what to say on Twitter wouldn’t react any faster had the emergency been real. It’s incumbent on all of us to take modest and reasonable steps to see to the safety of ourselves and our families. This doesn’t mean digging a fallout shelter under your backyard (though for a few minutes this morning I admit I wished I’d taken the time to do exactly that). But if you don’t have an emergency kit to last your household 72 hours, if you don’t have a battery or crank-powered radio, if you don’t have a family plan, if you haven’t taken the time to familiarize yourself with the threats you could reasonably face in your area — how many of you this morning had the slightest clue what an emergency at a nuclear plant would mean or what you should do? — now would be a good time to fix that.