The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Thursday, 02 June 2022 00:44

Updated: Power line project threatens regionally popular greenway on the Oak Ridge Reservation

Written by

OAK RIDGE — WBIR channel 10 News 2-minute video highlighting a controversy that has been brewing for a decade.

Infographics and more details added May 5, 2022

Tree clearing would radically degrade the visual experience and take away shade crucial to enjoyment of a walk during increasingly hot weather

On April 4, TRISO-X LLC, a subsidiary incorporated last August by X-Energy LLC, disclosed plans to build a plant at Horizon Center to manufacture a new kind of “unmeltable” tri-structural isotropic nuclear fuel (TRISO) for high-temperature pebble-bed gas reactors. It will use uranium, enriched to less than 20 percent, to fabricate spherical, billiards-ball sized High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU) pebbles.

Horizon Center,

situated among sensitive natural areas, was designed as an upscale light-industrial and office park. Despite its fancy landscaping with sculpture gardens, it failed to attract the many buyers that had been anticipated when it was created a quarter century ago. A principal argument for its establishment was that Oak Ridge needed to attract more private enterprise to reduce dependency on Federal jobs.

Terragenics’ $38 million plant, which was built to manufacture implantable radioactive pellets to treat prostate cancer never went into full production and was abandoned in 2005. 2015, with Governor Haslam in attendance, Canadian CVMR promised 620 jobs, using the plant for it’s first U.S. production site and to move its headquarters to it from Toronto, too.

The TN legislature set aside a $13 million incentive fund for the move. All in vain! But 2016 the plant was purchased by LeMonde Composites to manufacture industry-changing high-volume, low-cost carbon fiber and consumer products, such as  carbon-fiber bicycles, expecting to scale up to high volume production 2018-20. And again, that dream never came to fruition.

The park continued to remain mostly vacant. The ORNL Carbon Fiber Technology Facility and Philotechnics have been relatively small tenants. The latter is the sole private business. It has less than 20 employees.

Recently a developer intended to build a motor sports park here. It would have violated conservation easements. The plan also faced strong opposition from greenway enthusiasts and neighborhoods within hearing distance of the race track.

In December 2021 the old Terragenics plant was acquired by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to relocate development activities of Y-12’s National Security Complex from an outdated building on its main Oak Ridge campus.

Shovel-ready, but possibly not connection-ready

The Oak Ridge Industrial Development Board (IDB) has contended that insufficient electric power capacity — ready to be hooked up to — has been a major obstacle in marketing the park. For more than a decade IDB has urged the city to build a new high-capacity power line. But given a history of speculative utility extensions that had remained underutilized and didn’t recover their investments with expected tax revenues, the city could ill afford another uncertain gamble.

Several proposals and studies of where to locate a new power line focused primarily on the shortest distance between Substation 900 (at Blair Road west of Poplar Creek) and Horizon Center. Although that might minimize construction costs, most of this route would be along North Boundary Greenway.

Clearing required for a power line here would obliterate the scenic values of the greenway

Because of its nearly level course, this stretch at the bottom of the North Boundary Greenway loop is particularly suitable to walk and bike for families with young children. It is also much used by others who don’t feel fit enough for steeper greenway and trail segments or those who don’t want to exert themselves to an uncomfortable or dangerous degree on sweltering summer days.

A landscape worthy of preservation — literally at our front door

Photographs by Doug Colclasure

Joomla Gallery makes it better.

So far, all proposals and studies have neglected to assess the indirect costs of lost opportunities and unavoidable impacts!

The most detailed engineering study of power line options, done in 2013 for the City of Oak Ridge Electric Department (CORED) by Cannon & Cannon, Inc. explicitly mentions that “estimated costs provided in this report do not include … environmental study costs … or other costs outside of the known access and construction method restrictions.” But like a 2011 Bechtel Jacobs Company LLC Environmental Study Report and the current CORED proposal that offers 6 options, it acknowledges neither the reality of externalities nor the economic value of the acres of forest to be destoyed and of the ecosystem services to be lost.

Furthermore, neither Bechtel Jacobs nor Cannon & Cannon noticed the coincidence of the proposed electric power right of way (RoW) with the already existing and well marked underground pipeline RoW! Thus, they failed to mention complications and safety concerns posed by the close proximity of the preferred route to the 300 psi natural gas pipeline.

Even Leidos — contracted by DOE to prepare the 2020 Addendum to Bechtel Jacobs’ Environmental Study Report — overlooked this pipeline, despite listing in a table under cumulative impacts that ORUD had constructed 1,742' of natural gas line in the natural-area corridor between development areas 5 and 6. Of course the regulator station for the low-pressure gas distribution lines of the park is located there (as shown on the map later in this article), but only a fraction of the total length of the distribution lines are actually within that short corridor. Leidos was aware of the park's gas infrastructure but did not care to check where that gas is coming from?

We need more engaged citizens like Doug

Retired engineer Douglas Colclasure, who worked at Y-12 and K-25, was the first to wonder whether it is permissible to locate a high-voltage power line in close proximity to a high-pressure natural gas pipeline.

Doug has been a staunch supporter of area biking, greenway and environmental groups. He often volunteers for hands-on tasks, such as trail building. He is an ardent observer of conditions that may threaten our natural heritage, open opportunities for better stewardship or for reaping greater public benefits from community assets. He monitors what’s happening in the meetings of councils and commissions that decide on land use and conservation issues. He is a great communicator, explaining complex ideas in an easily understandable way. Doug also generously shares his insights and photographs with everyone. He always submits thoughtful and forward-looking comments when the public is given the opportunity to do so.

After asking around and researching the power and pipeline literature, Doug discovered industry guidelines on the safety of collocated electric and gas transmission lines. This report states that electrical interference from high voltage power lines can accelerate steel pipe corrosion and “may pose a safety hazard to personnel or the public, or may compromise the integrity of the pipeline.”

Imprudent choice

The report defines 5 easy to estimate interference factors. They help to assess the probable severity of collocation issues and to recognize when a thorough engineering study is needed to more accurately quantify the risks and to determine what mitigation measures would be required to proceed with a project.

Below, the numbers of CORED’s preferred power line option are matched with the location specifics of the existing gas pipeline at Horizon Center.

Options 1 wants to put a 69 kV power line on the same 50'-wide RoW occupied by the 8" diameter, 300 psi natural gas steel pipeline. It renders a concerning ranking:

  1. Separation distance — When less than 100' separation  Severity = High (Option 1 has less than 50'!)
  2. Power line phase current — When between 100 A and 250 A (or between 500 A and 1,000 A) relative interference Severity = Medium to High  (Option 1A initially would have 217 A plus 615 A with future under-build.)
  3. Soil resistivity — Needs to be measured in place and will vary with temperature and moisture conditions, but is almost certainly below 10,000 ohm-cm and probably mostly below 2,500 ohm-cm, thus likely relative Severity = High to Very High  (Our southern temperatures are high and this RoW is at the bottom of a hill with high groundwater table, mostly in a flood plain, i.e. soil rich in organic matter and often saturated!)
  4. Collocation length — When greater than 1,000' relative Severity = High (Length of option 1 is about 5,800'!)
  5. Crossing angle — When less than 30º relative Severity = High (In option 1 the gas and electric transmission lines will be parallel, i.e. close to 0º over the entire length!)

Inductive and conductive interferenceIllustration of inductive steady-state high-voltage alternating current interference (left) and of combined inductive and conductive interference during fault conditions (right).  From: Criteria for Pipelines Co-Existing with Power Lines, The INGAA Foundation

CORED downplays the concern, claiming measures could be taken to mitigate interference risks, but has not given any specifics of what it considers appropriate measures, let alone what they would cost.

Clearing the 50' RoW would totally eliminate the marvelous tree canopy that has grown over the past 75 years to cover the greenway. It is impossible to limit the tree cutting at a RoW boundary because utility companies cut tall trees “in the public interest” beyond that line if they might fall onto the wires. Trees in the BORCE are tall and, next to this RoW, many stand on a slope. If option 1A gets built, that condemns them automatically.

Powerline infographicHellbender Press has adapted and slightly modified and annotated CORED’s illustration of option 1A, to more realistically represent the hilly nature of the BORCE. It now better visualizes the need to cut trees far beyond the edges of the right of way to assure power reliability. Even using just CORED’s stylized trees that correspond to 75' in height, it becomes clear that tree cutting would at the very least extend to twice the width of the 50' RoW. Moreover, in contrast to this figure, many of the planned pylon locations, previously marked on site, are close to an edge of the RoW.

This greenway is specially attractive, because on many of its stretches the canopies now extended from both sides to meet almost seamlessly.

To make these trees respect the boundary of the RoW, CORED may deem it necessary to mutilate them horrendously, a sight we are aware of only too well from seeing how many utilities maim trees next to power distribution lines along highways.

Tree 110 Ft Tall 24 In Dia Red Oak Across N B Greenway E Fork RD110' tall, 24" diameter red oak fell across North Boundary Greenway. During heavy storms — of which we are getting more — that is not a rare occurrence in a mature forest.  Doug Colclasure

What’s particularly ironic about the option 1 route choices is that they are prone to damage the Black Oak Ridge Conservation Easement (BORCE), which was set up to compensate for environmental damages.

Advocates for the Oak Ridge Reservation (AFORR) argued against using a somewhat shorter version of this “preferred” route in a letter to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) as early as 2012 because of ecologic impacts, violation of existing conservation easements, and degradation of the greenway’s present and future recreational, social and economic values.

Excerpts from a letter dated October 2, 2020, in which the Oak Ridge Environmental Quality Advisory Board (EQAB) informed the Oak Ridge City Council about the importance of these values:

Under the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) Act, in the early 2000s, the US Government (DOE) made a … solemn commitment to the citizens of Tennessee to compensate us for harm that DOE operations caused to Watts Bar Lake. Thus, the roughly 3000-acre BORCE was created “for recreation and enjoyment of the citizens of Tennessee” to remain “in a natural state in perpetuity”. Management of BORCE was given to Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA). …

Back then, the Easement itself was valued at $10 million and its recreational value assessed at $250,000 per year. EQAB can prove that in today’s money, the present value of future stream of benefits plus the physical capital is at least $40 million, perhaps $50 million, because BORCE is now visited tens of thousands of times per year by people near and far looking for peace, quiet, and healthy physical exercise in a natural setting. Volunteers donated thousands of hours building and maintaining a very popular network of trails that connect to the Greenway system.


At its Jan. 13, 2022 meeting, the Oak Ridge Recreation and Parks Advisory Board also unanimously approved a resolution that the City consider other options for providing additional power to Horizon Center.

However these appeals — along with others to DOE and the City of Oak Ridge — fell on deaf ears.

It is perplexing that Oak Ridge City Council and staff appear to have forgotten already the facts and conclusion from the 2017-19 intensive community-wide visioning process that resulted in the Oak Ridge Blueprint Plan — which was approved unanimously by Council just three years ago! Did they ever look at it, if not study it?

They’ve also demonstrated obliviousness of the recommendations in the Oak Ridge Natural Assets Guidebook, prepared by the Legacy Parks Foundation for the City of Oak Ridge, Anderson County and Roane County. The guidebook was commissioned after the City Blueprint revealed not only that preservation of open space, natural beauty and critical environmental areas is among the top priorities for the city, but also that it is the priority that enjoys the highest degree of consensus among Oak Ridge residents.

Below is a page from that guidebook. Hard to grasp?

Outdoor recreation

TRISO-X announcement is a game changer

TRISO-X Fuel Fabrication Facility building siteTRISO-X Fuel Fabrication Facility building site (development area 6) at Horizon Center  Courtesy of Doug Colclasure

The power-line project now seems to have become a necessity. No concern is due about this company’s solvency either. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, or BIL) allocates almost $2.5 billion through 2025 to DOE’s part of the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program. Moreover, the Department of Defense and NASA also partner in the program — for mobile military and extraterrestrial nuclear reactor projects.

Terrapower and X-Energy have been selected to demonstrate their reactor prototypes by 2030. Each company will split the cost of its reactor with DOE. X-Energy asserts it could eventually receive around $1.1 billion under its agreement with DOE.

Since 2016, X-Energy has built up teams in the Oak Ridge area which now total 40 employees at 5 locations. One of them is the TRISO-X Pilot Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The company has invested over $75 million in this project, so far. It hopes to start up the commercial TRISO-X Fuel Fabrication Facility (TF3) as early as 2025, create more than 400 local jobs and attract some $300 million in investments to the area economy.

TRISO X Pilot Facility at ORNLThe TRISO-X Pilot Facility operates inside Oak Ridge National Laboratory via a public-private partnership and produces kilogram quantities of HALEU fuel.  Courtesy X-Energy

The article inserted below provides additional details about Horizon Center, BORCE, and options of the present power line proposal. It was written by AFORR Board members Virginia Dale, Ellen Smith and Jimmy Groton for the May newsletter of the Harvey Broome Group of the Sierra Club’s Tennessee Chapter.

AFORR Update: Development in Oak Ridge’s Horizon Center

The Horizon Center industrial park is on Oak Ridge land once owned by the US Department of Energy (DOE) that was transferred to Oak Ridge Industrial Development Board some decades ago. The initial transfer was contingent on mitigation conditions under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requiring that certain “natural areas” be protected. Several years later, the Black Oak Ridge Conservation Easement (BORCE) was created adjacent to the Horizon Center. It includes 3,073 acres of land on Black Oak Ridge and McKinney Ridge, containing interesting community types including hemlock-rhododendron forest, beech maple forest, and cedar barrens, as well as species that are unusual for the Ridge and Valley region. The border between the Horizon Center and BORCE is a DOE gravel road that has become a greenway popular for hiking, biking, and viewing wildlife.

For many years, Advocates for the Oak Ridge Reservation (AFORR) and Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning (TCWP ) have been concerned about environmental implications of an electric transmission line that the City of Oak Ridge seeks to build to increase power supply to the Horizon Center. As a member organization of AFORR, the Harvey Broome Group (HBG) is also interested in the impact of this power line. The proposed line would follow the DOE gravel road on the boundary between Horizon Center and BORCE. It would encroach into Horizon Center “natural areas” and require tree-cutting in both the natural areas and BORCE.

Recently, the City of Oak Ridge explored 5 alternatives for supplying power to the Horizon Center. The HBG, AFORR, and TCWP believe option 5 has the least impact on environment and recreation. Information about the alternatives can be found at Power to Horizon Center On April 2, the HBG and AFORR sponsored a walk along the route of two of the alternatives (the city’s preferred alternatives: 1A and 1B). Attendees saw wetlands, streams, upland forests, and cultural resource sites that could be compromised by a power line.

On April 4, it was announced that a local company, TRISO-X (subsidiary of X-Energy), plans to acquire some Horizon Center land and build a large industrial facility that would require additional power. The HBG, AFORR, and TCWP hope this company will endorse option 5 for providing added power

What you can do: 

  • Communicate to Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  • Thank the City of Oak Ridge for exploring alternative routes for the power line 
  • Urge the City to adopt option 5.

The Foundation for Global Sustainability (which publishes Hellbender Press) supported the establishment of AFORR as a nonprofit corporation in 1999 and became AFORR's first organizational member.

Horizon Center Power Options 1A5This map of Horizon Center shows well how the numbered “development areas” are embedded within the natural area that is protected by a permanent conservation easement.
The racetrack project intended to span areas 5, 6 and 7 across the intervening wildlife corridors that provide connectivity for species that need the riparian habitat of East Fork Poplar Creek as well as the forest cover of the BORCE, which surrounds Horizon Center on three sides.
Power option 1A would use the same 50'-wide RoW as the 300 psi gas pipeline next to the greenway. Option 5 taps the existing TVA transmission line, which connected the Norris Dam, Bull Run and Kingston power plants to K-25 and crosses the southernmost corner of Horizon Center. Option 5 minimizes the clearing of mature forest. Development area 3B(b), in the corner of which a new substation would be located, was already cleared a long time ago.
The ORNL Carbon Fiber Technology Facility is on 3B(a). Development activities of Y-12’s National Security Complex are relocating to 3A.
In 2009 the Community Reuse Organization of East Tennessee (CROET) concluded area 4 is uneconomical to develop and offered to donate it to AFORR, which gratefully suggested that a transfer to the Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation would be a better solution. That was accomplished in 2010. Poplar Creek Trail, the leg of the North Boundary Greenway that runs along the entire length of the southwestern border of Horizon Center is shown between the parallel red lines as belonging to area 4.
TRISO-X is planning to build TF3 on area 6(a) —  touch button to show pop-up image of area 6:  Horizon Center development area 6 subdivision Philotechnics is on 6A.   ORNL Federal Credit Union owns area 2.


Power for Horizon Center Alternative 5Power to Horizon Center — Oblique aerial view of option 5, which taps into the TVA 161 kV line that crosses Oak Ridge Turnpike and Bear Creek near its confluence with East Fork Poplar Creek.  Atelier N / Hellbender Press

Oak Ridge Reservation still lacks site-wide environmental impact statement

The impetus for the creation of AFORR was DOE’s failure to follow its own guidelines to prepare a cumulative site-wide Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for its Oak Ridge Reservation (ORR). As defined by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) an EIS must assess all past, present and reasonably foreseeable future impacts of human activities.

An EIS establishes thorough scientific background information and is valuable as a baseline reference for efficient management of activities on a property and for effective conservation of its natural resources.

Despite repeated assurances, the ORR has remained the only major DOE site across the nation without a site-wide EIS. Meanwhile, some comparable DOE locations have already prepared a second EIS!

“Now is the time to say whoa, wait a minute — time out! Let’s stop the incremental environmental damage to the Exclusion Areas and and mistaken application of NEPA, and engage all stakeholders to reach the most balanced plans going forward to achieve a universally defensible and beneficial outcome. Furthermore clearcutting a power line RoW through the most beautiful and sensitive natural areas cannot be in the best interest of all stakeholders. It just simply cannot. Remember CORED originally requested a RoW much wider than the proposed 50' width. TVA recommends 75' for a 69 kV line,” Doug Colclasure said.

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