Human error to blame for Pickering nuclear plant emergency alert

It was an alarming Sunday morning for many Ontarians who woke up to an emergency alert about the Pickering Nuclear plant which was later redacted. Erica Natividad with the province's explanation and apology.

By News Staff

The provincial government says an emergency alert warning of an “incident” at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station was sent in error on Sunday morning.

A statement from the Premier’s office says “human error” during a training exercise is the blame for the province-wide alert which jolted many Ontarians out of bed around 7:23 a.m.

The alert said an incident had been reported at the power plant but that “there has been NO abnormal release of radioactivity from the station.”

“People near the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station DO NOT need to take any protective actions at this time,” the alert said.



Just after 8 a.m., Ontario Power Generation issued a tweet saying the alert “was sent in error.”

“There is no danger to the public or environment.”

A provincial alert admitting that the previous alert was an error was finally sent around 9:11 a.m. but it gave no further details as to why the first alert was sent.


Pickering Mayor Dave Ryan was among many calling for a full investigation into the incident.

Toronto mayor John Tory joined Ryan in calling for a full investigation, saying there are “far too many unanswered questions.”

“I know many @CityOfToronto residents – especially those who live near Pickering – were unnecessarily alarmed by this alert,” he said on Twitter.

“The alert was issued in error to the public during a routine training exercise being conducted by the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre (PEOC),” Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said in a statement.

Jones said there was no incident at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station that should have triggered public notification and there was never any danger to the public or environment.

“Emergency exercises are a critical component of ensuring preparedness for emergency management and response agencies. The PEOC conducts training exercises regularly and there was no intention to notify the public in this instance,” she said. “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, adding that she has 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.

In addition, Jones explained that the reason it took so long for a follow up retraction alert to be sent was because the province felt it needed to “trust, but confirm” that there really was no impending disaster.

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

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.

“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 messages should be written in a way that clearly states it’s a test.

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

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.”

CityNews spoke with several residents who say, while they are relieved to know the incident was a false alarm, there are still a number of questions that need to be answered.

Reaction also poured in on social media, with many expressing everything from anger and suspicion, to relief and even some morbid humour.

Pickering is Ontario’s oldest nuclear station and has been operating since 1971. It had been scheduled to be decommissioned this year, but the former Liberal government – and the current Ford government – committed to keeping it open until 2024. Decommissioning is now set to start in 2028.

It has experienced several earlier incidents. In 2011, a pump seal failure caused the spill of more than 19,200 gallons (73,000 litres) of demineralized water into Lake Ontario, though with no significant risks to public health, according to local authorities.

In 1994, the plant automatically shut down after a faulty valve caused 132 tons of heavy water to spill. It was the first time a Canadian nuclear reactor had to use the emergency core cooling system to prevent fuel overheating,

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

While this particular alert turned out to be a false alarm, the Alert Ready system, when used correctly, is a vital resource to inform residents about potential emergencies.

If you did not receive the alert, your wireless device might not be compatible with the alert system.

Alert Ready says your device must meet three basic requirements:

  • Your device should be a  wireless public alerting (WPA) compatible device, such as a smartphone that can connect to an LTE network.
  • It should be updated and have the latest version of its operating software.
  • It should be connected to an LTE network at the time the emergency alert is issued or join the network while the alert is still active.

Older cell phones that operate only on non-LTE networks will not get an alert.

Click here for a full list of FAQs about alerts.

Files from The Canadian Press were used in this report

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