Imagine waking up with an official message on your phone from the government telling you there’d been an incident at a nearby nuclear power plant, but also not to worry about it. That’s what happened to people across Ontario on Sunday. Phones started buzzing at 7:30AM. A push notification from Canada’s emergency alert system informed the public that an incident had occurred at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station. The push alert didn’t explain what the incident was and told readers that the government was in control and there was no need to worry.
Officials later told the press that they knew immediately that message was an error. But it took 40 minutes for authorities to get the message out, another hour before it pushed out a cancellation to phones. For almost two hours, people in Ontario wondered if there’d been a nuclear disaster nearby.
The initial push notification explained it was meant for people living within 10 kilometers of the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station but went out to the millions living in the Greater Toronto Area dozens of kilometres away.
“There has been NO abnormal release of radioactivity from the station and emergency staff are responding to the situation,” the alert said. “People near the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station DO NOT need to take any protective actions at this time.”
At 8:06 am, Ontario Power Generation, the company that runs the power plant, sent out a tweet saying it was a false alarm. “The alert regarding #Pickering Nuclear was sent in error,” it said on Twitter. “There is no danger to the public or environment.”
At 9:11am, almost two hours after the initial alert, the emergency alert system pushed out a retraction to phones across Ontario. Sylvia Jones, Ontario’s Solicitor General, apologized for the incident and told Canada’s CP24 there would be a formal investigation.
“As part of ensuring the system is robust and ready when we have to notify the public...there is tests that occur twice a day,” Jones said. “This particular test that occurred this morning, instead of going through the test system, went through the live system.” Neither Jones nor Doug Brown, Ontario’s Emergency Management head, could tell CP24 why they alert had happened, but both promised to investigate the issue.
Ontario’s false alarm falls on the two year anniversary of the Hawaii false alarm in which people on the islands received a push notification alerting them of an inbound nuclear warhead on January 13, 2018. “Ballistic missiles threat inbound to Hawaii,” the alert said. “Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”
Like Ontario, the Hawaii false alarm occurred during a routine testing of the emergency alert system. A subsequent investigation revealed a cascade of human error led to the false alarm to hit Hawaiian phones. Since then, state and local governments have made adjustments to their emergency alert systems to avoid a false alarm.
Reactions to the false alarm from the public in both Hawaii and Ontario were varied. In Hawaii, some people accepted the possible end of life on the islands and spent their last presumptive moments on the beach. Others scrambled to find shelter. Jim Vlahos of Toronoto told WGN9 the alert woke him up and he immediately booked a hotel room at Niagara Falls with thoughts towards riding out the disaster. “Having watched Chernobyl didn’t help,” he told WGN9. “The lack of communication following the alert didn’t help either.”