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William Morison. (Courtesy of the family)
William Morison. (Courtesy of the family)

OBITUARY

William Morison: Pioneer led Ontario into the nuclear-energy age Add to ...

You can’t blame William Morison for Ontario’s soaring hydro rates. His fellow engineers say that, in fact, we ought to thank him for setting the province on the path of nuclear-generated electricity, and for thinking green before that was in vogue.

A respected pioneer of Canada’s nuclear energy program who helped design the first CANDU reactor, Mr. Morison was recalled as a calm, knowledgeable presence in an industry that is still hotly denounced in some quarters as dangerous, even potentially deadly.

“The people of Ontario should be eternally grateful to William Morison,” said Dr. Dan Meneley, professor of energy systems and nuclear engineering at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. “He was one of many who built Ontario’s nuclear generating capacity, but he was undoubtedly the philosophical leader who guided the work. Today, more than 60 per cent of our electricity is generated by these plants – safely, steadily, and economically.” .

Indeed, nuclear power generates 60 to 65 per cent of Ontario’s electricity, with roughly one-quarter coming from hydro-electric sources, and the rest from natural gas, solar power, wind and biofuels.

Mr. Morison, who died in Vancouver on Dec. 27 at the age of 90, spent 42 years in the business of splitting atoms, both at Ontario Hydro, as the utility was then called, and at Atomic Energy Canada Ltd. He was head of engineering at Ontario Hydro during the build-out of the nuclear power program in the late 1960s and early 70s.

“He and his engineering team created one of only a handful of successful nuclear power programs in the world, in a country of only 20 million people at that time,” remarked Paul Acchione, former president and chair of the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers. “It was a truly incredible accomplishment for a country that small.”

The CANDU reactor that Mr. Morison helped design has made the Ontario power grid among the lowest-emitting mixed-generation power systems in the world, Mr. Acchione added. Ontario’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2016 from the electrical sector were about 90 per cent lower than the average power system emissions in the United States, Europe and China, he noted. “Bill believed in and supported the development of low-emission generation 40 years before it became fashionable.”

The features Mr. Morison designed for the CANDUs have also made them among the safest in the world “and helped Canada become a leader in precision and advanced manufacturing technologies,” Mr. Acchione said. “He was a truly unique and gifted engineer.”

William Gordon Morison was born in Vermillion, Alta., on Jan. 6, 1926. His father, John, was a farmer until he joined the army to serve in the First World War. He returned as a structural engineer, albeit with no formal training, but his knowledge was enough to build bridges for the provincial government. John Morison stressed the need for an education that would lead to meaningful work, and all four boys born to him and his wife, the former Doris Underhill, became engineers.

Mr. Morison graduated in engineering physics from the University of Alberta in 1948, followed by graduate studies in electrical engineering at Stanford. He started his career with Ontario Hydro in 1949 researching applied mechanics. Eight years later, he transferred to Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. in Chalk River, Ont., to study nuclear power systems and technology. He eventually became AECL’s chief design engineer for the Pickering nuclear power station, east of Toronto, and headed the design of the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, on the eastern shore of Lake Huron.

He returned to Ontario Hydro in 1969, and in 1983, was named vice-president of design and construction, responsible for design, development and construction of nuclear, fossil and hydraulic power stations and all related facilities.

Mr. Morison exhibited his capacity for keeping his cool when construction of the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, east of Oshawa, Ont., racked up cost overruns of more than $7-billion, nearly doubling the initial construction budget, and fell behind schedule. Even though the startup delay was “a big deal for Ontario Hydro,” Mr. Morrison “never applied production pressure, and this allowed the team to complete their work with due diligence,” recalled Rick Hohendorf, director of components engineering at Ontario Power Generation. Also, Mr. Morison “took the time to understand the basics of the somewhat arcane technical issues and was able to internalize them so well, that he later authored a technical paper so that others in the industry could learn from the experience.”

His mettle was tested in the days following Aug. 1, 1983, when a pressure tube in the Pickering A reactor developed a two-metre-long split, sending thousands of litres of boiling radioactive water into a nearby room.

“We weren’t aware that there was a serious problem going on,” Mr. Morison said at the time. “Maybe that’s a little lack of foresight, but we didn’t.” Despite the loss of coolant, there was no damage to the reactor core, he said, because a pumping system kept up with the leak, and the fuel did not overheat. Operators shut the reactor down, gradually lowering the power to zero.

The accident was not a meltdown, and Hydro insisted the public was not in danger. “Still, it was too close for comfort,” The Globe and Mail reported in an analysis of the disaster four years later. “When engineers discovered that a third of the tubes in the 12-year-old reactor and its sister, reactor No. 1, could have failed at any moment,” the paper reported, “they decided to take drastic action: They would rebuild the two reactors.”

So in early 1984, Hydro announced it would gut both reactors and use new tubes made from zirconium-niobium – a stronger steel alloy that absorbs less hydrogen and is less likely to blister, Mr. Morison explained. The tubes would last 25 years and the reactors “should go on indefinitely,” he predicted confidently.

While other officials said the reactor was safer than before, Mr. Morison told The Globe, “It’s hard to describe whether one could say it’s safer.” He compared the refurbished plant to an automobile. “It’s something like having two sets of brakes on your car, and then you put another set on. Would you consider that to be an increase in safety or not? It’s just really defence in depth that we’ve increased. As you build reactors, you keep adding little features to cope with added concerns.”

Even so, the Pickering plant continued to be plagued with problems well after Mr. Morison retired from Ontario Hydro in 1991.

In 1994, Pickering A was the site of Canada’s “worst accident at a commercial nuclear station,” according to a 2001 Senate report on Canada’s nuclear safety, when a pipe break in reactor 2 resulted in a major loss of coolant and a spill of 185 tonnes of heavy water. The reactor was restarted 14 months later.

On the other hand, also in 1994, Pickering Unit 7 set a world record for continuous operation (894 days) without a shutdown, a milestone broken only last year by a plant in the United Kingdom.

Still, nuclear energy continues to have its critics. “Quite simply, nuclear plants like those at Pickering should not be allowed to operate based upon mysterious unfounded calculations or operating confidence levels as low as 70 per cent,” retired nuclear researcher Dr. Frank Greening told the Ontario Clean Air Alliance a year ago. It appears, he added, that there is a “considerable amount of guesswork” underlying the industry.

The 2001 Standing Senate Committee report Canada’s Nuclear Reactors: How Much Safety is Enough? notes that despite the fact that “nuclear reactors have been in operation in Canada since the 1970s without a major accident or incident on the scale of Three Mile Island or Chernobyl, the issue of their safety is never far from the public eye.”

Mr. Morison, who believed in constructing multiple layers of safety systems, said the catastrophic 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl happened because the Soviet operators switched from automatic to manual, thus disabling protective devices. “They were relying on manual controls and in a big power reactor, it is just not possible to control it that way,” he explained. “The only time you do these things is when you are sure you have provided the backup protection needed.”

Mr. Morison was predeceased by his wife, Ruth, in 2008 and by his daughter, Cathy, in 2012. He leaves behind his brothers Bob and Doug, a sister, Doris, and sons, Kip and Don – both engineers.

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