Congress is playing hot-potato with the plans to build the world's most powerful atom smasher. On Wednesday the Senate passed a bill giving the United States Department of Energy $100 million for research and development to keep the $4.4 billion project alive. Then it tossed responsibility for construction to the next administration. The House did the same.
President Reagan requested $363 million for the superconducting supercollider, some of which would have been for construction. Mr. Reagan kept his budget within the limits of the Gramm-Rudman Act by cutting funds for projects like Amtrak and waste water treatment grants - areas that Congress was not willing to sacrifice.
``Reagan will get the credit for proposing the project, even though he knows there is no money to pay for it,'' says Proctor Jones, deputy staff director of the Senate Appropriations Committee. ``That way, he gets to say `I'm the vanguard of science and technology.'''
According to Mr. Jones, this type of project normally proceeds after an initial ``gestation period'' of a few years. ``Eventually, some new machine similar to what is proposed now will be built,'' he says. ``But the only way I see the next administration paying for it is by getting Congress to cut other projects that it has not wanted to cut in the past - or raise taxes.''
The collider would be a research tool for high-energy and astrophysical projects. Proton beams hurled toward each other at close to the speed of light would reproduce events like those said to have happened a fraction of a second after the Big Bang - an explosion that scientists believed formed the universe. Within the 53-mile-long, oval tunnel, physicists hope to discover particles that are smaller than the most elementary particles known today, as well as heavy particles that theoretically should exist, but have never been seen.
The Energy Department plans to announce the preferred site for the accelerator by late November, says a department spokesman. Seven states are still in the running - Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.