False Nuclear Emergency Alert Sent to Millions in Canada

Published on January 14, 2020

A false nuclear emergency alerted millions of Canadians Sunday morning about an “incident” at a nuclear power plant, east of Toronto—was a mistake. 

Nuclear Emergency Terrifies Canadians 

Phone’s sounding an emergency broadcast woke up residents throughout the Canadian province of Ontario, alerting them about an unspecified incident occurring at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station. 

“There has been NO abnormal release of radioactivity from the station and emergency staff are responding to the situation. People near the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station DO NOT need to take any protective actions at this time,” according to a Reuters screenshot. 

Although there was “NO abnormal release of radioactivity,” the alert’s lack of information about the incident terrified people. 

“I just got an alert saying Radiological Hazard Over.  That is the second scariest alert I’ve gotten today. #Pickering #Amber #EmergencyAlert”

-Kevin Frankish (@KevinFrankish) Jan 12, 2020
Second Message Confirms The Alert Was a Mistake

The first phone alert was sent around 7:30 am, and utility officials sent another one almost two hours later, saying the initial message was an error.

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

But Ontario Mayor Dave Ryan said while he is happy this alert was not an actual emergency, he is demanding a full-on investigation.  

“Like many of you, I was very troubled to have received that emergency alert this morning. 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”.

-Mayor David Ryan ( @mayordaveryan) Jan, 2020

To add some clarity and quell questions and concerns, Ontario’s Solicitor General said the phone alert was issued during a routine exercise, and the public should have never received a notification.

“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 appropriate steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again”

-Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones ( @SylviaJonesMPP)
The Message’s Lack of Clarity

But the issue remains in the message’s lack of clarity and complex long paragraph.  

Terry Flynn, Crisis management and communications teacher at McMaster University, told Global News these messages need to be clear, concise and include instructions. 

“It’s like a doctor going to tell a patient they have cancer, but they have the most treatable form of cancer and they have a 99 per cent survival rate. As soon as somebody hears cancer — they stop processing. I didn’t read anything beyond ‘an incident at a nuclear plant’ until later on. I stopped short,” Flynn said.

However, he says this mistake poses the risk of people ignoring these emergency alerts. 

“It could lead to people ignoring them,” Flynn said. “We have too many messages to process and this goes into our automatic cognitive garbage pail.”

Reminiscent of The Emergency Alert Hawaii Sent

The error is similar to the incident in Hawaii in January 2018; when the state sent a message warning locals about an incoming ballistic missile.

James Sean Shields was so frightened he suffered a severe heart attack and was rushed to Straub Medical Center. He went into cardiac arrest and had life-saving CPR performed on, defibrillation and then surgery. 

It took almost 40 minutes for the state to correct the mistake and send a second message. 

Human And Technical Error

Numerous investigations concluded an employee misunderstood a drill for an actual missile heading to the island. It wasn’t his first time and was fired.

And although it was the operators mistake, expert in disaster and emergency management at York University, Jack Rozdilsky, said the layout of the menus are confusing.

“That was a mistake by an operator, but at the same time, the investigation showed that the way the menus were designed in the system could’ve been done better to assist the operator in making selections,” he said. “It could be a combination of human and technology.”

This is what the menu structure look like:

Which is really confusing from an operators standpoint. The categories are scrambled and there is no organization.

According to Global News, Ontario’s province’s auditor general pointed out in 2017 the provincial emergency management programs needed better oversight and coordination.

And Flynn said the state needs to learn from this mistake so it won’t happen again.

“Somebody made a mistake. We’re pretty forgiving people, but (what) did we learn from this and how do we guarantee that this will never happen again?”

Kevin Pichinte is a staff writer at Grit Daily. Based in Los Angeles, he is a news associate at ABC7 and was formerly a digital news intern at NBC7 and TLM20. At Grit Daily, he covers entertainment and culture news.

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