Message which appeared on cellular phones in Ontario, January 12, 2020
Message which appeared on cellular phones in Ontario, January 12, 2020Screenshot

Residents of the Canadian province of Ontario woke up early Sunday morning to a cellphone alert warning them of an “incident” at the nuclear plant in Pickering, just east of Toronto.

About two hours later they were told the alert was a mistake, but not before panic ensued.

The message, pushed around 7:20 a.m. local time, said an unspecified event had occurred at the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station. There was no abnormal release of radioactivity, it stressed, and people did not need to take protective action.

Message warning Ontario residents of "nuclear incident" east of Toronto.
Message warning Ontario residents of "nuclear incident" east of Toronto.Photo: Screenshot

Almost two hours later, as residents were still scrambling to figure out what to do, another message was sent to cellphones saying the alert “was sent in error” and that there was “no danger to the public or environment.”

Ontario residents given the "all clear".
Ontario residents given the "all clear".Photo: Screenshot

The provincial government said the emergency alert was sent because of a “human error” during a training exercise.

The alert went out during a routine training exercise being conducted by the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre, Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said, according to The Associated Press.

She said the government had started a full investigation and would “take the appropriate steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

Pickering Mayor Dave Ryan said he was “very troubled” by the message, writing on Twitter that he spoke to provincial officials and demanded an investigation.

Toronto Mayor John Tory wrote that there were “far too many unanswered questions” about the warning that was sent across the province of 14 million people.

A similar incident occurred two years ago in Hawaii, when a false emergency alert warning of an incoming ballistic missile caused massive panic in the state for about 40 minutes. That incident occurred amid heightened tensions with North Korea.