Residents demand answers following the “Nuclear” false alarm

By Nicole Georges-Bennett

Joan Lawlor and Glenora Joseph-Parker

Residents within a 10 kilometer radius of the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station are still looking for answers, following an emergency alert of a nuclear “incident” at the Plant.  At about 7:30 am on Sunday morning, the alert which described an ongoing incident, flashed across screens in the province, including the GTHA and Niagara. A follow up alert sent approximately two hours later, said the first alert had been sent out in error which was made during what was intended to be a routine training exercise by the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre.

Residents in Pickering, Ajax and Scarborough are still shaken by the incident and wondering how such an error could have occurred.

Ajax resident Ava M. says the problem with the false alert begins with the type of alert used, “When I first heard the alarm go off, I thought it was a child alert. So I stayed in bed and prayed for that child I thought had been kidnapped. I went back to sleep. It was not till later, I realise what it was about, and when I talked to my colleagues at work, they all said the same thing. Why would they use the same alarm sound for two different kinds of emergency? I think the one for the Plant should be an audible voice alert that says exactly what the situation is, so people can move quickly. It should be a different sound from the child alert.”

Ava M. says her family is prepared in the event of an actual incident but is upset that the alert was not better structured, “We have the tablets, (radiation pills) that the government sent us. But I was so scared when I found out what it was about hours later. We could have all died in our sleep.” 

Her sentiments are shared by Joan Lawlor who lives just outside the 10K radius zone, “And since we just cleared the 10k radius we don’t have iodine tablets that the government gave away a few years back…. so I panicked! We did wait for more information on TV. My husband wanted to know which way the wind was blowing. It was going NNW at that time. Then came the retraction, I believe after about 2 hours. What a relief that was but of course we are all riled up already! My question is the report says there was “No abnormal” release of nuclear matter… does that mean there are normal release? If so, to what degree are we or the people around are being exposed?” 

The lack of clarity also concerns Glenora Joseph -Parker who resides in Pickering, “At first we thought it was a child’s alert. We had the radio on for updated information which came on later on as a test mistake.” Glenora’s family does have an emergency plan in place, “We would wake up our family here, and call those who live in the area to alert them. We would shelter in the basement, making sure we are away from the roof and windows in case of dangerous nuclear particles. We will have goggles to protect our eyes. We’ve researched about the potassium iodide pills in case a dose is needed after a nuclear situation, and to find out what foods should be stored. We also plan to listen to the radio for updated information and health advice.” 

Despite the planning, Glenora says the false alert is a bad sign, “It’s a real concern for this kind of error to happen, and they need to make sure it doesn’t reoccur or the Pickering site and operations management will lose its credibility and be ignored. Can you imagine even the Mayor didn’t know about these tests? No protocol in the place, and we live in the radius zone. Lord help us.”

Both Pickering and Toronto’s Mayors have demanded answers and Ontario’s Solicitor General Sylvia Jones says an investigation is being conducted into the incident.

The Pickering facility is one of the largest nuclear plants in the world, and has been in operation from the 1970s. There have been some safety incidents since the Plant opened including a pipe break in 1994 that led to a major loss of coolant, and a spill on 185 tonnes of heavy water.

 Meanwhile, Premier Doug Ford has extended the life of the 49 year-old Pickering nuclear station beyond its planned 2024 closure, to 2025. The station employs 4,500 people and generates 12 per cent of Ontario’s electricity from six nuclear reactors.