Canada is dusting off and updating emergency protocols to deal with fallout from a possible tactical nuclear exchange in Europe or the spread of radiation across the ocean from a Ukrainian power plant explosion.
Internal Public Safety Canada notes show the measures include updating a highly secret plan to ensure the federal government can continue to function in a severe crisis.
Ottawa was also taking steps to finalize a protocol for advising the Canadian public of an incoming ballistic missile, say the notes obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February last year prompted a series of federal discussions and initiatives aimed at bolstering Canada’s preparedness for a catastrophic nuclear event.
Public Safety notes prepared in advance of an August 2022 meeting of senior bureaucrats involved in emergency management show much of the concern focused on Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, which was hit by shelling.
“Ongoing military activities have eroded safety systems, disrupted routine maintenance, weakened emergency response capabilities and impacted operating staff, increasing the risk of a severe accident,” the notes say.
Officials anticipated the potential effects of an uncontrolled release of radioactivity, through direct exposure or eating contaminated food, would depend on proximity to the plant.
Global Affairs Canada procured potassium iodide pills as a precaution, with stocks distributed to Kyiv and neighbouring diplomatic missions in August 2022.
Officials also developed plans for a “significant surge in requests for consular assistance” expected after a power plant disaster.
No radiological effects to health were foreseen outside Ukraine following a major radiation release from Zaporizhzhya, nor any “appreciable risk” to people in Canada, the notes say.
“No immediate protective measures would need to be implemented, although there could be some controls put in place for imports from Ukraine and surrounding areas due to potential contamination.”
Under the Federal Nuclear Emergency Plan, Public Safety would coordinate communication with the public about an international nuclear event.
“A timely and well-co-ordinated response will be necessary to address public concern and high-risk perception, and maintain trust in government.”
The notes also say Public Safety and the Privy Council Office were doing a “rapid refresh” of the Continuity of Constitutional Government plan, intended to ensure essential executive, legislative and judicial processes can take place during a major calamity.
The plan sets out a process for relocating key institutions including the Prime Minister’s Office, the federal cabinet, Parliament and the Supreme Court to an alternate site outside the National Capital Region.
The plan is a modern version of a Cold War-era program that would have seen members of the government move to an underground installation west of Ottawa now known as the Diefenbunker, a nod to Canada’s 13th prime minister.
The internal notes also say a national Missile Warning Protocol had been ratified and “initial engagement” with the provinces and territories had taken place.
The federal government and Canadian Armed Forces developed the protocol in 2018 to set out how the public and key federal partners would be informed of an inbound intercontinental missile. On Jan. 13, 2018, a false ballistic missile alert sent terrified people in Hawaii scurrying for cover.
In a written response to questions, Public Safety Canada said both the constitutional continuity plan and the missile warning protocol are “constantly evolving” based on lessons learned from other events, ongoing input from partners and the changing risk environment.
It is not unusual for a crisis like the one unfolding in Europe to prompt officials to accelerate a review of emergency plans, said Ed Waller, a professor at Ontario Tech University who researches nuclear security.
“I think that shows a responsive system,” he said in an interview. “It’s actually very encouraging that they’re taking a good, solid look at this now.”
Overall, Canada has long had well-thought-out and developed plans for dealing with a nuclear emergency, given the number of power reactors on its soil, he added.
“I honestly believe that we’re in decent shape. Can it get better? Yeah, anything can get better.”
Although some sensitive material in the newly released notes was withheld from release, Waller said it “looked encouraging that they were addressing the right things.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 19, 2023.
Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press