D’oh won’t cut it

Cartoonists within the catchment area of the GTA had a field day using the notorious Homer Simpson character at the helm of a nuclear plant. The subject matter, however, was anything but humorous.

This past weekend an alert was sent out warning of an issue at the Pickering nuclear plant. According to the alert, the emergency bulletin applied to people within 10km of the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station (PNGS). An incident was reported at PNGS and there had been no abnormal release of radioactivity. Emergency staff were responding to the situation and the people near the plant did not need to take any protective actions. Residents were advised to stay tuned to local media for further details.

Ontario Power Generation, not part of posting the initial warning, tweeted an hour after the first alert that there was nothing to worry about. The original messenger recanted almost two hours later, noting there was nothing to fear, but in the meantime, news agencies around the province struggled unsuccessfully for quite some time to elicit an update from any official sources.

Currently a review ensues.

Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, who oversees the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre (PEOC), says the incident was a mistake that came out of a training exercise. A “d’oh” such as Homer might offer under such a circumstance just isn’t going to cut it.

There are some subtleties with this whole situation that require further examination.

Nuclear, despite its safety procedures and relatively decent track record in North America, can be a tremendous source of worry. While the technology differs from that used in other countries, most people have heard about Chernobyl and Fukushima. Understandably, people close to Pickering were unnecessarily terrified for what turned out to be a non-event. People with families were very concerned and one can only imagine the thoughts racing through their heads during that two-hour stretch.

Since that announcement, more than 32,000 orders were placed for potassium iodide pills. Iodide helps prevent the absorption of radioactive iodine. In a typical month 100 to 200 orders are placed, so clearly, the erroneous announcement worried thousands of people enough to place an order.

At a meeting last fall at Queen’s Park it was impressed on our contingent by no less than two ministers of the crown and numerous Conservative MPPs, that their communication strategies were focused on immediacy of message.

Whether through social media or in this case text alerts, they were explicit in not wanting to waste time with journalists or traditional modes of communication, instead preferring a direct and unfiltered line to citizens. If this incident does anything, it should demonstrate the folly of that thinking.

Governing is not a game of chance.