JUST a few weeks before the Senate decides the fate of the Superconducting Super Collider, the big-ticket science project has become embroiled in controversy over alleged mismanagement and runaway spending.
The charges are hardly surprising given the ambitious task SSC backers have set for themselves. The super collider, under construction since last year in Waxahachie, Texas, about 30 miles south of Dallas, would be the largest experimental facility ever built. Its 54-mile underground tunnel, lined with 10,000 superconducting magnets, is designed to hurl protons at nearly the speed of light.
Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, whose department is building the atom smasher, hopes it will provide information about the "origins of the universe, the fundamental composition of matter, and the forces which explain the world around us."
When the project was first endorsed by President Reagan in 1987, the Energy Department estimated that it would cost $5 billion. But by 1990, estimates soared to $8.25 billion after managers admitted that the SSC had to be radically redesigned to perform all of its planned missions.
Now, the Energy Department estimates that the project will cost $11.8 billion to complete - plus $2 billion to $3 billion more if, as intended, President Clinton stretches the completion date from 1999 to 2001 in order to reduce yearly payments.
Foreign support lags
The state of Texas is committed to paying $1 billion of the total budget, and United States officials hoped to get foreign support as well. But so far foreign governments have committed only $400 million for next year - considerably less than the $1.7 billion that was originally expected.
To add to its problems, the SSC has been criticized by both the General Accounting Office and the Energy Department's inspector general for management deficiencies. A draft inspector general's report, leaked to the press by the independent Project on Government Oversight just before a House vote was taken on the SSC, found that $216 million out of $508 million spent by contractors was "unnecessary, excessive, or represented uncontrolled cost growth."
Among the expenses criticized by the inspector general: $2,425 for liquor; $35,000 for a Christmas party; $56,000 for potted tropical plants for office decoration; and thousands more for "picnics, key chains, T-shirts, insurance for art work, automobile leasing...."
Following the release of that report in June, the House voted overwhelmingly, 280 to 150, to kill funding for the super collider. The Senate is scheduled to take up the matter when it gets back from a month-long recess in September.
Hoping to boost support, Secretary O'Leary announced earlier this month that she was firing the main SSC contractor, Universities Research Association, a nonprofit group representing 80 colleges in the US and Canada. No new contractor has been named.
Although O'Leary acknowledged management problems, she insisted that the SSC is still "on budget, on time."
Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan, the powerful chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, challenged that assessment. In a letter to O'Leary, he said that Energy Department staff members had told him that the project might cost an extra $2 billion, not counting stretchout expenses.
"It's outrageous," says Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) of Arkansas, a leading critic of the SSC. "Congress doesn't know what to believe. I can't think of a better reason to torpedo the whole project."
Senator Bumpers adds in an interview that he isn't mollified by the change of management: "We know it's just calculated to get them through one more appropriations period. The truth is, the project is a disaster. And it'll remain a disaster."
But supporters of the SSC hope that the management change will convince fence-sitting senators to jump on board.
O'Leary takes 'bull by the horns'
"It'll have a very positive effect," says Gerald Staub, executive director of the National Association for the Superconducting Super Collider, an industry lobbying group. "The perception has been out there that better management is needed, and O'Leary has taken the bull by the horns."
Although it's too early for head counts, both sides believe that the Senate vote will be close. Last year 32 senators voted to kill the project, but this year more opposition is expected because of the lopsided defeat in the House and because there is no Democratic senator from Texas to keep party members in line.
The key supporters now are Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana and GOP Sens. Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. Senators Gramm and Hutchison are trying to deliver at least 30 Republicans for the project, and are counting on the White House and Democratic leaders to rustle up the remaining votes.
President Clinton has endorsed the SSC, but Gramm and Hutchison wrote to the president last month: "We find no evidence of any work by the White House to promote this scientific project."
Both sides believe that if the president rallies support for the SSC he can provide the margin of victory in the Senate. Then it would be up to a House-Senate conference committee to decide the project's fate.