Nuclear physicists in the United States are one step closer to building their next dream machine. But numerous obstacles remain.
On 1 August, the Department of Energy (DOE) approved the “baseline” cost and schedule for construction of the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB), a straight-shot linear accelerator in the works at Michigan State University in East Lansing. The accelerator would be used to generate rare, highly unstable nuclei not now seen outside of stellar explosions for a wide variety of nuclear physics experiments. The DOE review fixes the cost of the experiment at $730 million, $94.5 million of which will be provided by Michigan State, and the completion date for construction at 2022.
“It’s a step forward and an important one,” says Thomas Glasmacher, a nuclear physicist at Michigan State and leader of the FRIB project. “Especially given the federal budget situation we’re just happy to be going forward.”
The DOE decision doesn’t quite give researchers the green light to start construction. Rather, the DOE directive allows them to start buying materials such as high-purity niobium, which will be needed to make the high-tech guts of the accelerator. But workers won’t be allowed to start the “civil construction” of digging the 150-meter basement in which the accelerator will lie until Congress passes a budget for fiscal year 2014, which starts 1 October. And researchers must pass another major review before they get permission to start building the accelerator itself—the hard part of the project.
However, with Washington mired in partisan bickering, many observers doubt that Congress will pass a budget this year. Instead, they expect that legislators will simply extend the current budget through next year in a “continuing resolution”—just as they did this year. If that happens, researchers won’t be able start civil construction for another full year, Glasmacher says. Still, physicists will cope, he says: “We’re going to manage whatever the constraints.”
Meanwhile, it’s not clear that DOE’s nuclear physics program, which has an annual budget of $520 million, can afford to follow through on the project. In January 2012, then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu warned that it might not be able to. A year later, an advisory panel begrudgingly told DOE officials that if they cannot afford to both build FRIB and continue to run a 14-year-old atom smasher known as the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory, which does a different type of nuclear physics, then they should build FRIB. But some observers say that issue may eventually involve Congressional politics. For the moment, though, FRIB continues to move forward.