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People walk past the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, in Pickering, Ont., on Jan. 12, 2020. Ontario Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones has ordered emergency officials to launch an investigation to find out what happened when an emergency alert about the nuclear plant was sent out accidentally.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

A mistaken cellphone message that warned millions of Ontarians of a non-existent incident at a nuclear plant near Toronto on Sunday was likely a mishap during a routine test of the province’s alert system during a shift change, the provincial government says.

But the Opposition NDP at Queen’s Park says the mix up – which startled residents across the province and near the Pickering, Ont., power plant around 7:20 a.m. – has undermined public confidence in nuclear safety and raises questions about why it took the government almost two hours to correct its mistake with another cellphone alert.

Ontario Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones has ordered emergency officials to launch an investigation to find out what happened. While she said she doesn’t want to presuppose the findings, she confirmed the false alarm was sent in error during a twice-daily test of the province’s emergency alert system. At first blush, she said, the information suggests it happened as shifts changed over.

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“It’s something that we test every day twice a day, one of the many tests that we do to make sure that when the emergency alerts are needed, they’re ready to go,” Ms. Jones told The Globe and Mail on Monday.

She said she has asked Douglas Browne, the acting chief of Emergency Management Ontario, to launch a probe, which she pledged would be swift and made public.

Opposition NDP energy critic Peter Tabuns called for an independent public investigation into the incident and why it took so long to correct the error. Liberal MPP and party leadership candidate Mitzie Hunter, as well as Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner, called for the province’s ombudsman to investigate.

Mr. Tabuns, whose party has called for a cost and environmental review of nuclear power, said Sunday’s misfire undermined the confidence of Ontarians in their emergency-warning systems.

“We need to understand what happened,” said Mr. Tabuns, a former head of Greenpeace Canada, which opposes nuclear power. “If people lose confidence in this system [of emergency notifications] the ability to use it when there is a real emergency will be impaired. That’s dangerous."

The government’s delay in sending out its correction left other agencies, including Pickering Fire Services and Ontario Power Generation, to send out their own information assuring residents that there was no emergency.

Greenpeace program director Shawn-Patrick Stensil said he’s concerned the provincial government does not have the capacity and expertise to run nuclear emergency preparedness.

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“A shift change – if they can’t pull that off, imagine what would happen in the event of a real nuclear emergency,” Mr. Stensil said.

James Kilgour, the director of Durham Emergency Management with Durham Region, said he was awakened by his beeping cellphone like many in the rest of the province. But he said he knew within seconds the alert must be an error, as normal communications protocols were not followed.

He said his municipal team – responsible for responding to a nuclear incident at the Pickering plant or the Darlington complex about 35 kilometres east of Pickering on the shore of Lake Ontario – confirmed this within minutes with provincial officials and with Ontario Power Generation, which runs the plant. He said his team would participate in the probe and hoped it would help improve emergency procedures.

In the case of a real emergency the Pickering plant, he said, plans call for residents within three kilometres to be notified by sirens, followed by auto-dialled landline phone messages for those within 10 kilometres. The province controls the alerts for cellphones.

One source familiar with the incident, whose name The Globe is keeping confidential because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said staff with the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre routinely select from a list of possible scenarios, including other occurrences such as extreme weather events, and send a test message that is supposed to remain internal.

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