Federal cuts may doom Fermilab's prized project

  • Fermilab physicist Bob Zwaska answers questions for International Linear Collider citizens task force member Marge Brown of Wayne and others deep under the lab during a tour in September.

      Fermilab physicist Bob Zwaska answers questions for International Linear Collider citizens task force member Marge Brown of Wayne and others deep under the lab during a tour in September. Mary Beth Nolan | Staff Photographer

Published1/21/2008 12:53 AM

For about a year, a team of residents, scientists and local government officials has plugged away at a task: helping Fermilab in Batavia figure out what it would take for residents to accept construction of a massive underground tube -- essentially an underground lab to study physics.

The International Linear Collider would stretch across a swath of land in the far West suburbs, bringing some of the world's top scientists together to study the essence of matter.


The group spent a Saturday morning touring Fermilab tunnels similar to those that would be required, donning hard hats, riding deep into the ground on freight elevators and stepping gingerly on damp stone paths.

They've learned about the geology of the area, discussed land and mineral rights, messed around with siting maps, read a political science textbook about the governmental land grab that established Fermilab in the 1960s, told scientists what "regular people" might want to know about the effects of the linear collider on their lives, discussed the laboratory's value to the area in terms of jobs, culture and education, and more.

They got a short course in the high-energy physics of the project, where tiny particles called positrons and their anti-particles, electrons, will be hurled at each other so scientists can learn more about the structure of our universe from the resulting head-on collision.

But recent budget news out of Washington, D.C., and London has put the lab's -- and the country's -- bid for the prestigious project in doubt. And might make some wonder if the group's work has been for naught.

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Money gone

Funding for research and development of the collider plan was cut 75 percent for this fiscal year by Congress in a surprise move in December, and Great Britain has said it is dropping out of the project altogether.

This would seem to doom a project that has, from the get-go, been an experiment not just in physics but in true international cooperation and financial responsibility for big-ticket science.

More than 2,000 people worldwide are involved; the directors and other executives on the Global Design Effort team come from England, Germany, Italy, France, Russia, Japan, Korea and Switzerland, as well as the United States.

Technically, federal fiscal year 2008 began Oct. 1, 2007, and Fermilab has already spent its collider money for the year. The laboratory's director has suggested that up to 200 of its nearly 2,000 regular employees could be laid off or subject to rolling unpaid furloughs.


About 170 people are already being shifted to other projects at Fermilab, such as experiments using the aging Tevatron accelerator.

Cost of delay

The physics world, including Fermilab, is one big spider web of international committees, studies, experiments and treaties with nearly 2,500 scientists visiting it to do work each year. Fermilab scientists and supporters have always been proud of the international flavor the lab brought to the area, even down to such nonscientific activities as film series featuring foreign movies, concerts and folk-dancing clubs.

But now, collider project planners worry that any delay in research and development funding could have scientists and designers abandoning Fermilab for labs in countries and facilities that seem more supportive of high-energy physics exploration, such as Japan, the European Union's CERN laboratory in Switzerland or China.

The same budget that knocked out collider funding also cut out funding for another project the U.S. is a partner in, the ITER fusion energy laboratory to be built in France. The U.S. is one of seven international partners. The Department of Energy had to tell the ITER council that this year, it is deferring the U.S. payment and pushing back some of the research and development work the United States was expected to handle.

"It (the ITER cut) calls into question the reliability of the United States as an international partner in big science projects," said Judy Jackson, Fermilab's communications director. "It makes it harder to site the ILC in the United States."

Task force members have been made aware of the precarious and intricate political nature of the project all along.

"What interest is there at the Department of Energy level to get the project?" queried member Ron Bedard of Batavia at a May meeting with Barry Barish, the director of the Global Design Effort for the collider.

It was echoed by others that night.

"Who has to be sold on this first? The global, national or local community?" asked Jayme Muenz of St. Charles.

"The bottom line is if it doesn't sell to many different stratas … it won't happen," said North Aurora Trustee Mike Herlihy, also a task force member.

The idea of the state legislature and the governor working together to come up with a package to interest anybody in siting the collider at Fermilab drew derisive laughter from the task force at its November meeting, given the prolonged fight over the state's budget and transportation funding.

And all this doesn't even touch the science of whether anything at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, due to start operating in May, will produce results that could be further investigated with a linear collider.

So even if scientists determine the linear collider would be a valid and necessary tool to explore yet another question in particle physics, will they be able to get anybody to build it?

That's not stopping the citizens advisory task force at Fermilab from completing its charge. The group meets again Tuesday night for the first time since the federal budget cuts were announced, with the intent of finishing its report.

"We're trying to cobble together some money to get this task force finished," said Doug Sarno of the Perspectives Group, an Alexandra, Va.-based firm that was hired to guide the work of the task force. Jackson said "we have some optimism that there may be some help in this current fiscal year" in a supplemental appropriation.

Sarno expects the task force's report to be ready by April.

While acknowledging the group's recommendations may now be less timely, "I still think the board has relevance," Sarno said.

Just the facts

Learning about particles too small to be seen with the naked eye requires machinery that is awfully big.

As envisioned, the International Linear Collider would start out at 30 kilometers (about 18 miles) long, with room to expand to 50 kilometers (31 miles). The answers are from experts who spoke to the citizens task force, Fermilab staff and project documents.

Q. Where will they put it?

A. The device that would send the tiny electrons and positrons flying at each other for a head-on collision would be housed in a 4.5-meter-wide tunnel about 300 feet underground. Next to it would be a service tunnel.

Q. So it's all underground?

A. No. On the surface, there would be support sites about every 5 kilometers. These could be up to 10 acres in size (about the size of 9½ football fields), and would have tunnel access buildings, utility installations and refrigeration compressor plants. (Parts of the tunnel will be cooled several hundred degrees below 0 with liquid helium to allow superconduction of the particles.)

These sites would not have to be right on top of the tunnel, but if built off to the side, a connector tunnel would be required.

About 92 surface structures are contemplated, about two-thirds of which would be on Fermilab grounds.

Q. Will it go under my house?

A. That's not been decided. So far, Fermilab has asked the advisory committee its opinions about what should be considered when selecting a site.

"We're going to play with maps and straight edges and figure out where these things are going to go," Doug Sarno, the task force facilitator, said in May. Members then used rulers representing the length of the collider and noodled around on road maps, seeing what kind of places and properties could be affected.

If a 50-kilometer collider were centered dead-on Fermilab, it could extend from about Shoe Factory Road near Elgin on the north almost to Route 126 on the south. (A north-south orientation is preferred to avoid going under the Fox River.)

Q. Why is Fermilab eager to get residents' thoughts about where to route the collider?

A. Seeing what towns it could go under gave insight to the committee as to how collider designers might approach people, said Charles McCormick, Kaneland schools superintendent, who is a member of the panel.

West Chicago Ald. Ruben Pineda pointed out his residents may be leery of anything that involves radiation, due to the dumping of thorium-laden radioactive waste throughout town decades ago. So they may have different questions and worries than the people of Wayne.

In Wayne, with its more rural atmosphere, may be more concerned about open space and how the buildings on the ground will look.

Going under a golf course like Villa Olivia Country Club in Bartlett may not worry golfers, McCormick said, but having an access site on it might.

Siting the project to the west, in less-developed land near Route 47, has also been considered. The benefit? Less stuff in the way right now, and fewer landowners with whom to deal.

But that would mean it would need several thousand acres of land to duplicate resources currently available at Fermilab, such as machine shops and offices. Or, workers would have to factor in travel time and costs to and from Fermilab.

And the land may be developed by the time Fermilab needs it since construction might not start until 2012.

Q. Who would acquire the surface land?

A. That's not been established yet either. When the federal government worked to site a national accelerator in the 1960s, Illinois state politicians passed a law allowing the state to take the land through eminent domain, and then gave it to the federal government. It wiped out the small suburb of Weston and farmland.

"The state is going to have to be the first partner in this site," said Vic Kuchler, director for the Americas region of the siting, civil engineering and facilities committee of the Global Design Effort, which is designing the collider.

Q. What about the land 300 feet below? Will property owners be compensated for that?

A. Again, nothing's official yet. But the committee interviewed an expert from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District's Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (also known as the "Deep Tunnel") in Cook County. That project, started in the mid-1970s, involved making tunnels and underground reservoirs and pumping stations to handle stormwater in Chicago and 51 Cook County suburbs. It's not done yet.

Essentially, don't think you are sitting on a figurative gold mine. Because most land owners have little way of accessing the earth 300 feet underneath them and getting any usable, saleable product out of it, value is minimal, the expert said.

State Rep. Mike Fortner, former mayor of West Chicago, was asked to look into land rights issues for the committee after Fermi public relations people got something of a runaround trying to get questions answered by their own lawyers and the state attorney general's office

According to Fortner, the new collider probably would require permanent subterranean easements, similar to those for utilities such as natural gas pipelines. As for determining value with comparative sales? Appraisers might look to TARP for those.

Q. How would the tunnels and caverns be built?

A. Mostly through boring, although there would be excavation on the surface and maybe some blasting.

Chris Laughton, a civil engineer and geologist who specializes in rock mechanics, oversaw construction of Fermilab's Neutrinos at the Main Injector/Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search (NuMI/MINOS) project in the early 2000s (It shoots particles called neutrinos through the Earth to a detector at a laboratory in an old mine in Minnesota.) Laughton told the panel the vibrations from the 300-foot-long boring machine probably would be absorbed in the glacial till before they reached the surface.

But property owners could notice blasting. There may have to be a nighttime moratorium on blasting, and buildings in the path could be inspected before and after the blasting to ascertain blast-related damage, he said.

"There are issues going under people's homes we shouldn't minimize," he said.

Q. How do I let the task force know my opinion and learn more about this?

A. The task force is expected to address these issues and more in its report. The group will start writing the report at a meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the laboratory's Wilson Hall. You can visit its Web site, www.fnal.gov/pub/neighbors/ilc_task_force.html. There's also www.linearcollider.org, for information about the global and scientific aspects.

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