It was a false alarm, so why aren’t we relieved?


Pickering Nuclear Generating Station

Since the system was implemented, the few emergency alerts that have screamed from our cellphones, usually in the still of the night, have been mostly about missing children.  The news often evokes feelings of sadness and the hope that the child is found unharmed. So far it’s always had a happy ending.

But last Sunday morning at 7:24 am there was an alert of an entirely different order – many residents across the GTA were shaken by the disquieting news that there was an accident at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station. Given that it was still dark at that time of morning – for most people it could well have been 3:00am – it was not a good feeling to be told that “There has been no abnormal release of radioactivity from the station…” The immediate question on people’s mind surely would have been: What is a “normal” release of radioactivity?  And how often has the station released normal radioactivity?

Those questions receded into the background when an 1 hour 45 minutes later another alert told us that the first alert was sent in error and there was no danger to the public or environment.

The Ontario Power Generation, which is the outfit that runs the station, and the Ontario government rightly came in for serious criticism over the incident.

Ontario solicitor general Sylvia Jones, who is responsible for the emergency alert system, said in a statement that the alert was unintentionally released to the public during “a routine training exercise being conducted by the Provincial Emergency Operations Center.”  She added that the government would investigate and introduce steps to ensure no repeat false alarms occur.

The warning didn’t set off a panic but it didn’t help that the alert spoke of “emergency staff are responding to the situation [and]…people near the …station do not need to take any protective actions at this time…”

If this was a way to allay fears, it missed the mark by speaking of emergency staff responding, and about protective gear. Most people who heard the scream have no clue what to wear for the occasion, but it certainly concentrated the mind. So we were not surprised when we heard through the CBC that within two days “32,388 orders were placed for potassium iodide tablets through Durham Region’s Prepare To Be Safe website, which is jointly managed by the City of Toronto and OPG… The pills can be ingested to protect the thyroid gland from radioactive iodine that could be released into the air in a nuclear emergency.” So there.

Now, we understand that mistakes are made whether by humans or machines, and there is no easy way to break news of this magnitude, but for those who live close enough to the station, and read the emergency alert message carefully, terror, however mild, was the reaction.

This, we’re afraid, won’t do. There is no excuse for such fuzzy communications from the OPG, which employs a highly-paid labour force, and even higher paid consultants who are often considered as experts in “messaging”.

That is a word that is thrown around public relations circles which mostly deal in imprecise language. That’s not the language we need when we are living under the volcano.

The good news is that the plant will be decommissioned in 2025. The bad news is that it will take 50 years before the plant is cleaned up enough for us to breathe a sigh of relief. Greenpeace says that the closure date of 2025 is 10 years past its “best before date.” Huh?