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An alert warning Ontario residents of an unspecified incident at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station early Sunday morning was sent in error, Ontario Power Generation said.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

The Ontario government is conducting an investigation after an emergency alert about an incident at a nuclear facility was mistakenly sent to millions of residents Sunday, causing many to fear a serious safety threat was imminent.

Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones said in a statement the alert was issued by mistake during a routine training exercise by the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre (PEOC).

She said there was never any danger to the public or the environment. Training exercises are an important component of emergency management and are conducted “regularly,” said Ms. Jones, who oversees the PEOC.

The province is apologizing for the error and is conducting an investigation to determine what happened and to prevent it from occurring again.

The emergency alert was broadcast early Sunday morning, warning of an incident at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, east of Toronto. The alert was directed at residents who lived within 10 kilometres of the plant and said that no abnormal release of radioactive material occurred during the incident. Another alert was issued about two hours later clarifying that there was no emergency and that the first alert was sent by mistake.

The province’s apology is unlikely to quell public questions and concerns about how such an alert could have been mistakenly broadcast. The mayors of Pickering and Toronto have both called for full investigations and say there are many questions that need to be answered.

Pickering Mayor Dave Ryan wrote on Twitter that while he’s relieved there was no emergency, “I am upset that an error such as this occurred.”

Toronto Mayor John Tory wrote on Twitter he is looking forward to the results of the investigation “so we know how this error happened & what steps will be taken to ensure it doesn’t happen again."

In a statement, federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the false alarm “created anxiety.”

“Canadians rightly expect to be able to rely on the accuracy of these lifesaving services,” Mr. Blair said.

The Pickering Nuclear Generating Station is one of the largest nuclear plants in the world and has been operating since the early 1970s. There has been a handful of safety incidents since the plant opened, including a pipe break in 1994 that led to a major loss of coolant and a spill of 185 tonnes of heavy water.

Ontario Power Generation (OPG), a Crown corporation that owns and operates the Pickering facility, said on Sunday there were no safety incidents and that the emergency alert was issued in error.

“OPG has a sophisticated and robust notification process in place that we would immediately follow in the unlikely event of an incident at the station,” chief nuclear officer Sean Granville said. “I want to assure the public that there was no incident at the station, and the plant is operating as designed.”

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News the emergency alert was sent by mistake is prompting questions about how the error occurred.CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

The false alarm is reminiscent of another high-profile incident of an emergency alert sent by mistake in Hawaii. In January, 2018, a false emergency alert was sent to residents of Hawaii warning them of an incoming ballistic missile and advising them to seek shelter immediately. The alert caused widespread panic until another alert, issued about 45 minutes later, told residents the first alert was sent by mistake. An employee sent that alert during a training exercise that he mistakenly believed was real.

Jennifer McKelvie, a Toronto city councillor who represents constituents living within 10 kilometres of the Pickering nuclear facility, said the province must ensure this doesn’t happen again in order to ensure public trust in the system.

“We don’t want to create a situation where it’s like crying wolf and residents start to ignore them,” she said on Sunday. “We need to make sure we don’t have false alarms going forward.”

The province’s Auditor-General highlighted issues with Ontario’s emergency management in her 2017 annual report. Bonnie Lysyk found that provincial emergency management programs needed better oversight and co-ordination.

Ontario doesn’t have a co-ordinated IT system for emergency management, the auditor wrote. The province tried to implement one in 2009, but discontinued the project six years later, “having spent about $7.5-million without it ever going live.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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