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Super competition for superconducting super collider

The Smithsonian Institution, renowned for its museums along the Mall in Washington, is sometimes nicknamed America's attic, a comfortable place where visitors can wander about and rummage for knowledge. There is the Friendship 7 capsule that made John Glenn the first American to orbit the earth, the Hope diamond, one of the lead tractors from the farmer tractorcades of the 1970s and, easily overlooked between "Textiles" and an 1865 telescope from Vassar College at the National Museum of American History, a relic from the early efforts to take atoms apart.

"The first successful cyclotron 'tube,' constructed and tested . . . late in 1930," says the description next to the hockey-puck like "tube," which is four inches in diameter and one inch thick. It is small enough to fit comfortably in a man's hand. Visitors tend to pay more attention to the display behind it: a full-scale model of a 1936 cyclotron that used a massive World War I surplus 70-ton magnet and a 27-inch vaccuum chamber that looks like a large, hollow metal pancake.

"We just had a test on this," one teenager said during an Eastertime visit to the atom smasher display. Replied her companion, "How do they get one atom? I don't understand."

Seven blocks away, in the Energy Department headquarters building overlooking the Mall, are some of the people who understand how cyclotrons work and who want to go to the frontier in high-energy physics: the superconducting super collider (SSC). It would be the largest and most expensive scientific machine ever built — a racetrack-shaped ring of 10,000 super-magnets 53 miles in circumference — carrying a price tag of at least $4.4 billion and conceivably closer to $5.3 billion. "This will be the crown jewel of high-energy physics," Energy Secretary John Herrington said January 30 in announeing President Reagan's decision to go ahead with it.

The degree of scientific knowledge may not be as high at another building anchoring the Mall, the Capitol, but congressmen understand the value of a multibillion-dollar project — especially if they can get it for their hometown. To some callous people, this is high-tech pork. If it is built, the super collider will employ about 3,000 scientists and technicians and lure related industries, schools and laboratories to the area. "The SSC is the most significant economie development 'plum' of the last quarter of the 20th century," says Nevada Gov. Richard Bryan. The annual budget for collider operations would be $270 million.

The administration wants a congressional decision this yeair on whether to build the collider. The competition among states (site proposals are due August 3) is as spirited and aggressively as the "Let's Make a Deal" enthusiasm displayed the past few years for automobile plants. Only a sour person would note that Reagan may get credit for the collider but someone else will have to pay for it. The big bills for construction — more than $600 million annually for five years and peaking at $709 million in 1994 — will not come until Reagan is out of office. The winning site should be named in July 1988, when the presidential campaign is heating up, although it won't be final until January 1989.

"The question that Congress has to face is: Is it worth the investment of tax dollars to increase the base knowledge of the construction of the universe?" said proponent Rep. Terry Bruce (D-19, Olney). He is a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, a key committee in deciding if the collider will be built. "Based on the information we have received, they [scientists] feel the information is so basic and so valuable, we would be unwise not to get such knowledge if we can," said Bruce.

Bruce's chairman, Rep. Robert Roe (D-N.J.) was not as sanguine when Congress started looking at the project. With an eye on the price, he cautioned, ''There must be a strong public consensus for this project or it simply will not go forward." Senators sounded even tougher. "Those who want the SSC have their work cut out for them,'' said Sen. Wendell Ford (D-Ky.), chairman of the Senate Energy Research Committee. Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Daniel Evans (R-Wash.) accused the administration of creating an unfair bidding war. "I conclude the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. I don't see how they will compete with a state that offers $50 million or $100 million," Domenici said.

The collider would be an awe-inspiring machine. It would be 20 times more powerful than any particle accelerator now in use. Using super-cooled magnets, it would push beams of protons to nearly the speed of light. The head-on collisions of the beams would mimic the conditions at the birth of the universe. Scientists expect experiments on the super collider will yield information about the history of the universe, as well as the nature of matter and the energy and particles of which it is composed. "Here is a machine that not only explains how the universe works but how it evolved. It's not often you get a two-fer like that," says physicist Leon Lederman, director of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia in Kane County. Fermilab is home of the Tevatron, the most powerful accelerator now in use. It can accelerate protons to one trillion electron volts, whirling them around a ring four miles in circumference. The ordinary household flashlight produces around three electron volts.

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Proponents forecast a shower of inventions although it is impossible to predict what benefits the super collider would produce. Past atomic research helped lead to nuclear medicine, computer chips and advanced electronics. Some supporters say one-third of the gross national product can be traced to atomic research. ''High energy physics both requires and develops advanced technologies — frontier science stimulates frontier technology," the Energy Department says. "The technology to build the super collider will also lead to industrial innovation in such areas as computing, electronics, cryogenics, tunneling, etc."

Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Illinois' proposed site for the super collider, is located in Batavia in Kane County. Currently the world's highest energy accelerator, Fermilab could be eclipsed by more powerful colliding beam accelerators being developed and built in Europe and the Soviet Union.
Photo provided by the U.S. Department of Energy

Prestige and brain-power are as much an issue as easily quantified things like patents or new uses for technology. "America's lead in the high energy physics field is threatened by Switzerland, Germany and the Soviet Union — all involving colliding beam accelerators exceeding 1 TeV [trillion electron volts]. The biggest discoveries in the last decade — the W and Z particles and the Top quark — came out of CERN, the European laboratory for particle research on the French-Swiss border near Geneva," Illinois proponents said in 1985. CERN is building a new accelerator that will be finished in 1989. West Germany also is building one in Hamburg for completion in 1990. Japan recently completed a large accelerator but has not tested it yet.

Lederman, who considers himself an unofficial propagandist for the super collider, said the SSC could reverse the physics brain drain in which bright young physicists have left America to work in Europe and elsewhere. He says other countries, like Japan, will be willing to help pay for the collider. "I think if we play our cards right, we could get contributions from western Europe," he said in a recent interview. Why would other countries contribute to a U.S. SSC? Because it would be the biggest atom smasher in the world, and they would want access to it.

CERN is more equivocal. Its director general, Herwig Schopper told congressmen the next step in research should be a hadron collider on a CERN accelerator and invited U.S. participation. (Hadrons are a family of subatomic particles, composed of quarks, which interact strongly with one another.) Science would benefit, he said, from "a truly international collaboration" on facilities, just as scientists now work together. "It seems necessary now to explore the possibility of extending this practice to the planning and construction of accelerators," Schopper said.

American businessmen are concerned if cost-sharing comes in the form of foreign components instead of money. A maker of superconducting magnets says it would be "extremely serious and possibly a disaster" if foreigners supply the magnets.

Cost-sharing also is a factor domestically. At the minimum, the government expects free land for the collider, which could cover up to 16,000 acres or 25 square miles. Bidders also have to guarantee 250 megawatts of electricity and 2,200 gallons per minute of water. Energy Department officials are artfully vague about what else they expect. "Obviously you want it to be a good deal for the taxpayer," Energy Department research director Alvin Trivelpiece told congressmen who tried to tease out details. The department says, "Although cost considerations are significant, primary emphasis will be placed" on technical considerations. At the top of the list is hospitable geology for the collider, followed by regional resources like housing, airports, universities and cultural events. Next on the list are envrionmental factors, then the setting and utilities.

Officials repeatedly have said there is no frontrunner, but this does not stop speculation. Some states, among them llinois, California, Colorado, Ohio, Texas, Utah and Washington, together have spent several million dollars in getting ready for the site competition, and they usually are named as the leaders. North Carolina and Florida objected almost immediately to the timetable for picking the site. "There will be a perception we were not treated fairly. It will persist if we are not given time," Rep. Tim Valentine (D-N.C.) said in delivering a veiled warning to the Energy Department. North Carolina Gov. James Martin said a December 31 deadline for bids would be fairer.

Texas, with two potential sites, vows to supply $500 million in bonds to help pay for the collider. California has established a collider commission to promote a site east of Stockton. Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste touts the industrial and research base of Ohio. Illinois has spent $4.5 million since 1982 on the collider competition, apparently the most by any state, and Gov. James R. Thompson is asking for $15 million more. The state has hired M.B. Oglesby, former White House liaison with Congress, to lobby for the collider and has one of its Washington staffers — hired somewhat later than originally proposed — devoting time to it.

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Illinois congressmen also are promoting the project, both for the nation and for Illinois, although Bruce says it is more important now to get the project approved than to scrap over which state will get it. Since 1985, two years after an Energy Department advisory panel endorsed research into the feasibility of the collider, a not-for-profit organization, SSC for Illinois Inc., has been trying to coordinate and promote private-sector involvement. It is headed by Donald Perkins, former chairman of the Chicago Commercial Club, and its 31-member board is crammed with heavy weight civic, business and academie leaders. Among them are Bob Malott, chairman of FMC Corp.; Jim O'Connor, chairman of Commonwealth Edison; and Lester Crown, chairman of Materials Service Corp. Executive director is Kristin Dean, who says SSC for Illinois, among other things, has been working on the incentives to offer the government. "We're kind of keeping them under our hats. We're looking at any type of goodies that will either reduce the cost to DOE or increase the quality of life for people using the facility," she said.

Illinois also has the Tevatron, which is the ideal size for the "injector" for the super collider and a $500 million cost advantage according to Illinois proponents. Rep. Bruce also points to the knowledge amassed from the Chicago area's Deep Tunnel project. "We probably have the most sophisticated engineers in tunneling in the world in Chicago," he said. Illinois would build the collider several hundred feet underground.

Energy Department officials may not be as easily persuaded. It is more expensive to build a collider deep underground as it would be in Illinois. In early February Trivelpiece questioned whether the Tevatron would be modern enough to modify for use as an injector and how much it would cost.

Every state with a high energy physics laboratory has reason to be worried about where the collider will go. "I suspect it will become the mecca. The next generation of high energy physicists would flock to it," Trivelpiece said. The corollary is obvious for less attractive labs.

Under the Energy Department's timetable, it will screen the state proposals, discarding the obviously deficient bids, and turn over the rest in September for review by a panel of about 15 experts chosen by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. The panel will return its "best qualified list" of sites by December 15, with the department announcing its list of finalists later in the month. In July 1988, it will name the preferred site — by all odds, the winner. If it passes environmental review, it will be formally named the winner in January 1989. Construction work would begin that year and the project could be completed by 1996. Although there will be plenty of detailed analyses and a special Energy System Acquisition Advisory Board at the Energy Department to help pick the winner, the selection will be formally made by the energy secretary, a presidential appointee. There are stories of deal-making over Fermilab, but the Atomic Energy Commission chose Illinois as the site at a time when a wily Texan, President Johnson, was in the White House. On the other hand, the U.S. space flight center is in Texas.

Nothing is assured. Some scientists and congressmen wonder if the United States, running huge federal deficits, has the money to put into the collider, especially with other big-ticket projects, such as the space station and the space shuttle, also on the agenda for funds from the Energy Department's budget line item 250, "general science, space and technology." "We are not taking away" money from other research, Herrington says. That's one reason for the emphasis on cost-sharing; Herrington hopes a quarter to half of the price will come from other governments. But the House budget, passed in early April, would spend at least $1.5 billion less on general science, space and technology projects than Reagan proposed, which effectively puts all science projects into competition unless someone finds a source of new money to pay for the collider. Advances this year in superconductivity, the field that specializes in reducing resistance to electrical currents, raise questions whether the collider design soon may be outdated. Trivelpiece says it could take 10 to 20 years to put the new ceramic superconductors into use as supermagnets. Two experts also agree it would take years to see if the new ceramics will work.

Just like the question whether America can afford to build the collider is the question whether it is willing to run it, judging by the way it treats high energy physics now. Fermi director Lederman quickly acknowledges having to scrimp so he can keep the Tevatron running this year. "Despite the fact you know it's going to hurt, you know if we don't have this thing [the collider] 10 years down the road, the field will dry up," he said.

Congress probably cannot steer the decision on where to build the collider — how many congressmen would vote to give it to another state? — but it certainly could cause problems by holding up appropriations or refusing to build it at all. As Sen. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) said, "If we want the SSC, we better really want it. We better want it so much that when the site is selected in someone else's state, we still vote for the appropriations. . . . We better want it so much that when the home-town programs are hit, we still support and vote for the appropriations for the SSC." There were battles over putting Fermilab in Illinois, including complaints about housing bias. Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Pekin) in May 1967 threatened retaliation against projects in other states if Fermilab was denied funding.

In the current Congress, proponents keep up the drumbeat for building the collider. "Physics is a difficult science to make advances in, but it is not difficult to explain," Lederman said in an interview. He pointed out that the American system, in which researchers also are classroom instructors, has the side effect of training them to explain their work to the public. That's what Lederman is doing, with the added dimension of explaining why the super collider should be built in Illinois. He wryly paints a picture of himself in pursuit of the super collider, walking down long airport corridors, carrying two briefcases filled with slides, "like a Willie Loman."

Perhaps that will be the description of him some day in the Smithsonian's exhibit on the superconducting super collider.

Charles J. Abbott is a regular contributor to Illinois Issues. He covers Midwest issues from Washington, D.C., for The United Press International.

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