Picking Up the Pieces Of the Super Collider

Scientists scramble to salvage parts of the doomed project

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

ELECTRICAL engineer Kenneth Hess and three co-workers usually play a quick game of cards in the cafeteria at the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) during their lunch break. But since Congress voted to kill the project late last month, work on the giant atom smasher has come to a grinding halt and Mr. Hess and his fellow engineers have plenty of spare time.

``We have time for an extra hand of bridge, but now we have to start archiving our records and drawings to document the work we have done,'' Hess says. One of 2,100 employees at the SSC, Hess and his co-workers must now begin plowing through the mountains of data collected since the project began.

Saddled with a virtually useless 14-mile-long section of tunnel and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment, the Department of Energy (DOE) faces a formidable task in shutting down the SSC. Thus far, $2 billion has been spent on the project. Last month, the House and Senate approved an additional $640 million to shut down the project, but no one knows if that will be enough. By July, DOE must decide what will be saved and what will be sold.

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In the meantime, ideas abound. It seems that every scientist at the SSC has a plan to keep part of the project going. Some hope to find $2 billion to complete the four smaller accelerators, which could then be used for physics research.

A less grandiose scenario involves completing the 800-foot-long linear accelerator, which is capable of hurtling protons at hypersonic speeds. Seen as useful for treating certain types of cancer, it would cost about $60 million to complete.

Many scientists agree that the labs, which build and test the superconducting magnets that were to line the 54-mile-long collider tunnel, will be saved. The labs could develop new magnet technology or they could produce magnets for the new collider project being built in Switzerland by the European Center for Nuclear Research, a consortium supported by 15 European countries.

Several industrial uses for the superconducting magnets are possible, including magnetic-levitation trains, high-efficiency motors, energy storage, and low-loss power distribution systems.

While some of the infrastructure will be saved, no one knows how many workers will keep their jobs or for how long. With a payroll exceeding $12 million a month, Russ Wylie, director of external affairs for the SSC, says layoffs will begin as soon as DOE formulates a plan. ``We can't keep 2,100 people on the payroll who don't have any work to do,'' he says.

Mr. Wylie says some money will be spent on severance pay and job-placement programs. The bigger tasks will be decommissioning some 1 million square feet of office and warehouse space, and organizing and storing tens of thousands of pages of documents, blueprints, and drawings, as well as magnets, machinery, and prototypes created for the project. ``This information has to be prepared so it can be put at the disposal of other scientists,'' he says.

If DOE decides to completely abandon the project, the tunnels and shafts (which are up to 250 feet deep) will have to be filled. Before that can happen, Wylie says, DOE will have to do an environmental-impact statement, a costly process that could take several years.

For Lithuanian physicist Guenakh Mitselmakher, who still hopes the SSC can be saved, the losses are not just economic. ``The major resource here is the human resource. The world's best scientists came here. This is more than a loss of jobs. It is perspective which was lost. But now that the project is over, the stupidest thing would be to just close it and lose the $2 billion that has been invested.''

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