An emergency alert that woke thousands to warnings of an unspecified “incident” at a GTA nuclear power plant Sunday morning was sent out by “human error” during a training exercise, Ontario’s provincial government says.
The alert, which was sent to cellphones, radios and televisions across Ontario through the province’s emergency reporting system around 7:30 a.m., was meant to be sent to an internal list, the office of Premier Doug Ford told the Star.
In a statement, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said the alert was “issued in error to the public during a routine training exercise being conducted by the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre,” adding: “There was no incident at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station that should have triggered public notification. Nor was there ever any danger to the public or environment.
“The Government of Ontario sincerely apologizes for raising public concern and has begun a full investigation to determine how this error happened and will take the appropriate steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”
The first mass alert — which said emergency staff were responding to a situation at the plant but said “there has been NO abnormal release of radioactivity” — was followed by a second about two hours later.
The follow-up clarified there was no active emergency at the plant and that the previous alert “was issued in error.”
“There is no danger to the public or environment. No further action is required,” the second alert read.
Still, the false alarm sparked anger and calls for answers after it led to a stressful Sunday morning for residents used to the living close to the plant.
Ian Portsmouth said that when he was woken up by the alert on his cellphone, which was on his bedside table, he at first assumed it was an Amber Alert before he read further and saw the words “Pickering” and “nuclear facility.”
But then, the 52-year-old media professional reasoned, had there been an actual radioactive emergency, he probably would have heard sirens.
Portsmouth, who lives with his family about five kilometres from the plant in Pickering, said his wife was less sure everything was fine.
She was “quite worried” about what to do, he said in an interview at a coffee shop near the plant on Sunday — the options were either believe the alert and go back to sleep or start packing bags to leave with their three daughters as quickly as possible, he said.
Soon after, they saw a Facebook message saying the alert had been sent in error.
“That’s when I said, ‘OK, nothing to worry about,’” he said.
Pickering Mayor Dave Ryan tweeted he is troubled by the emergency alert and demanded that “a full investigation take place.”
“While I am relieved that there was no actual emergency, I am upset that an error such as this occurred,” he wrote. “I have spoken to the Province, and am demanding that a full investigation take place.”
Toronto Mayor John Tory joined that call for investigation, saying in a tweet: “I join @MayorDaveRyan in calling for a full investigation into why this error occurred because there are far too many unanswered questions.”
In a statement from Ontario Power Generation, the Crown corporation that runs the plant, chief nuclear officer Sean Granville said that in “the unlikely event of an incident at the station,” OPG has “a sophisticated and robust notification process in place that we would immediately follow.”
He added: “I want to assure the public that there was no incident at the station, and the plant is operating as designed.”
Ted Gruetzner, a former vice-president of corporate relations and communications at OPG, said nuclear plants are quite safe and that the province has a detailed emergency plan with a prescribed process for reporting any problems.
“Like any emergency crisis plan, you assume the worst and then you assume what it is that people need to do or what the public needs to know — because the top priority is public safety,” Gruetzner told The Star.
Many unlikely situations, such as electrical failures or issues with the plant’s pumps, could prompt an alert like the ones that went out Sunday morning, he said, adding: “but we do have emergency responses to all these problems.”
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As for Sunday’s alerts, Gruetzner said it’s worth also reviewing how the information was given. “Clearly something wrong happened today and the province needs to look into it,” he said.
“Sure today was an error, but even if it was real, today made us question if this is the best way we would want to communicate.”
The first emergency alert said it applied to people living within 10 kilometres of the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station.
The power plant sits just five kilometres from Toronto’s eastern edge on the north shore of Lake Ontario; that 10-kilometre radius includes parts of eastern Scarborough.
In the event of a nuclear emergency, detailed evacuation plans exist for residents living within the 10-kilometre zone.
In 2015, residents and businesses inside that radius began receiving free supplies of potassium iodide (KI) pills, which help prevent thyroid cancer in the event of a radioactive release.
Portsmouth, the Pickering media worker, said he has “never had any real concerns” about living near the plant, saying he understands that the “facility is one of the safest there is.”
That view is shared by Thomas Fairfull, an entrepreneur who was enjoying breakfast with his wife Anne and some friends in the coffee shop.
The Ajax couple, who live within 10 kilometres of the plant, have their KI pills stored at home, but don’t believe they’ll ever need them. They said they don’t really give safety at the facility a second thought — a view Sunday’s alerts didn’t change.
“I don’t believe anything is going to happen there as long as they do their servicing and maintenance,” Thomas Fairfull said.
“I don’t think people should be worried in the least.”
Jeff Weagle, an engineer who works in Pickering, admitted he felt “fearful and scared” about the alert and considered not going into work Sunday morning.
He doesn’t work at the plant but he said he at first couldn’t reach any of his friends who do.
His cousin who lives near the plant and later his sister, who lives in Aurora but has friends at the facility, told Weagle it was a false alarm.
“I was relieved,” he said.
Anyone living within 50 kilometres of either the Pickering plant or the nearby Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, which sits 30 kilometres further east, can request a supply of pills using the website preparetobesafe.ca.
The website reads: “In the very unlikely event of a nuclear emergency and a release of radioactive iodine to the public, KI pills will help prevent the development of thyroid cancer, and are especially effective at safeguarding children’s thyroid glands. It is important for each household (within 10 km of a nuclear plant) to have a supply of these pills because they are most effective if taken just before or soon after exposure to radioactive iodine.
“The distribution of KI pills is not due to any change in the risk of a nuclear emergency and is not meant to cause alarm. We believe that staying safe means being prepared, even for the most unlikely of events.”
About 4.5 million people live within 50 kilometres of the two plants.
The Pickering facility, which has been operating for 48 years, is one of Canada’s largest and oldest nuclear power plants.