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Salvaging the Fortune Spent on the Collider : The assets from the abandoned multimillion-dollar project sit on a Texas prairie. There are several options, but the lawyers' decision is awaited.

February 15, 1994|LIANNE HART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HOUSTON — When Congress canceled funding for the $11-billion superconducting super collider last October, lawmakers called for the "orderly" shutdown of what would have been the largest scientific instrument ever built. Having decided what to do, Congress didn't say how to do it.

As Dr. Tom Bush, associate director of the laboratory near rural Waxahachie, Tex., says: "It's 35 miles out in a cow pasture. What happens to everything that's there?"

Bush doesn't mean the desks and chairs and office supplies. He's talking about a $27-million cryogenics facility, where helium is cooled to just above absolute zero. A half-built linear accelerator--about $9 million from completion--which helps generate a beam of charged protons traveling at nearly the speed of light. A precisely mined tunnel, 14.5 miles long and up to 250 feet deep, part of a planned 54-mile underground ellipse. In all, assets valued at more than $100 million sit on the north Texas prairie outside of Dallas.

Bush wants to open the lab's superconducting facilities to private industry, which could develop new technologies without large additional capital investment.

The state of Texas has other ideas. For starters, it wants a refund from the U.S. Department of Energy for the $440 million the state sank into the project before it was killed. Under the terms of a 1990 agreement, Texas was to get its money back if the collider were canceled.

The amount owed Texas is still under negotiation, says Jeff Sherwood, a spokesman for the Energy Department. Until talks conclude, the disposition of the research labs, the equipment in them and the thousands of acres of land acquired from private owners is at a standstill. Also unresolved is whether to convert the collider site and facilities for other uses or to simply dismantle everything.

"We can't do anything until it becomes clear who owns the property," says Greg Haas, the Energy Department's chief scientist in Dallas. "Frankly, we're waiting on the lawyers."

The basic mission of the super collider was to discover nothing less than the nature of matter. A counter-rotating stream of protons traveling near the speed of light would be slung around the underground ellipse. As the protons collided, physicists hoped, particles that make up the smallest known subatomic particles would shake loose, giving a better understanding of the basic structure of matter.

With the project 20% complete, scientists are scrambling to salvage what was built or bought before its demise. Suggestions have ranged from leasing the cryogenics facility to researchers who need to super-chill materials to finishing the linear accelerator and three energy boosters to create a bargain-basement super collider.

Dr. Hans Mark, former chancellor of the University of Texas system, says that the state should finish digging the tunnel, at a cost of about $200 million. "The scientific reasons for building the SSC are as good as when we originally set the thing up," he says.

"Finishing the tunnel has to do with nailing down the Texas site. I've been around long enough to know that no decision is ever final, and I guarantee you that this thing is going to be revisited in a few years. If we do the right thing now, it will be built here as originally planned. Right now the prevailing opinion is 'pour concrete into the tunnel,' which is stupid."

The Energy Department is currently sifting through 67 unsolicited proposals, ranging from one paragraph suggestions to thick, detailed treatises. Texas Gov. Ann Richards appointed a nine-member panel in December to consider collider alternatives.

"Our first priority is to make Texas whole in the money already invested," said panel member Cathy Bonner, former state commerce director. "This was a contract that was broken with the state of Texas."

At a meeting earlier last month, the panel recommended that 100 scientists be retained for a year to evaluate the proposals. The Energy Department's Haas, who is not on the panel, thinks it will take at least that long to "put together the kind of substantive proposals that are needed and to develop funding sources."

Bush, the lab's associate director, wants to get the ball rolling now while some of the collider's staff remain on site. Half of the 2,200 workers were scheduled to be laid off this month.

"If we don't act soon, obviously the people will be gone, eventually the machinery will be taken out, put in warehouses or sold for scrap metal," he said.

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