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Sites Came ‘Very Close’ : Geological Concerns Hurt California’s Collider Bid

Times Staff Writer

Geological concerns weighed against California’s two proposed sites for a $4.4-billion atom smasher, but no single factor was responsible for eliminating the state from nationwide competition for one of the biggest scientific plums in decades, members of the site selection panel said Wednesday.

Rather, it was a question of sites in other states appearing more qualified for the superconducting super collider when all of the relevant merits and weaknesses were considered, several members of the selection committee said in separate telephone interviews. Some members said the California sites were intensely debated and came close to acceptance.

“It’s a bit as if you have two senatorial candidates, both of them good,” said Stanley G. Wojcicki, a professor of physics at Stanford University and a member of the committee. “Only one of them gets elected, but it doesn’t mean the other one is unqualified.”

In a report by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering made public Tuesday, the panel of 21 scientists, educators and management specialists recommended eight of the 35 sites proposed by 25 states as “best qualified” for the collider, which the federal Energy Department plans to build for basic research in high-energy physics.

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After four months of studying the proposals and burrowing through 750 pounds of documents submitted by competing states, the panel narrowed the field to Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Based on these recommendations, the Energy Department is to designate a single “preferred” site by July and, after preparing an environmental impact study, make a final site decision in January, 1989.

“It was very close,” one panel member said of the debate on the California sites. He noted that six of the 21 experts were from California, including the committee chairman, Edward A. Frieman, the director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.

“We spent a long time debating the California sites,” this panelist added. “It went back and forth, on the list, off the list. In the end, it was surprising how few of the Californians voted for California.”

Geological Concerns

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Two members of the panel said geological concerns raised by California’s entries pertained mainly to a site proposed near Davis. The character of rock strata, they said, was such that unconventional methods would probably be needed to excavate the 53-mile, race-track shaped tunnel that is to house the collider, which would be the largest and most expensive scientific instrument ever built.

The two experts spoke on condition of anonymity, noting that the committee, under the terms of its contract with the Energy Department, had agreed not to discuss the reasons for rejecting specific sites.

According to one panel member, the most promising tunneling technique for the conditions at the Davis site is familiar mainly to Japanese engineers, who have nevertheless experienced problems with cave-ins in using it. “It is feasible, but this question didn’t even arise with other sites,” this expert said.

Drawback Was Resources

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While there were minor geological concerns about a second California site near Stockton, its main drawback, panel members said, was seen as a relative lack of “regional resources” such as easy access to a major airport and employment opportunities for the spouses of the facility’s 2,500 permanent staff and 500 visiting scientists.

These drawbacks were not considered overwhelming, however, with the result that California was eliminated only by a narrow majority after long and intense debate. All of the six panel members interviewed Wednesday said the deliberations were thorough and fair and, in the end, produced no dissenting minority.

Gov. George Deukmejian, saying he was “very disappointed” that California’s two sites were not among those recommended, said he had asked U.S. Energy Secretary John S. Herrington to “pursue an explanation for California’s omission from the list.”

All of the panelists interviewed Wednesday, however, were adamant in denying that they had been subjected to outside pressure. Several, comparing the experience to sitting on a sequestered jury, said they had all made a point of not reading the hundreds of letters the committee received from backers and opponents of the super collider and even avoided discussing their task with outsiders.

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Pressure for Honesty

“Collectively, there was very strong peer pressure for intellectual honesty. People constantly challenged each other,” said Victoria J. Tschinkel, an environmental consultant from Tallahassee, Fla., who, like most of her colleagues, declined to discuss details of the committee’s work.

“As far as I’m aware, the committee received no pressure, from DOE or anywhere,” Frieman said.

As the review proceeded, he said, it became apparent that the eight sites finally recommended met the Department of Energy’s elaborate criteria for those best qualified. “There was a best-qualified list, a gap, and then the rest. California did not bridge the gap.”

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Frieman said the Energy Department may now be subject to political pressures--and should take into consideration organized groups of backers and opponents that have sprung up in some states--but that this matters less than before because the eight recommended sites are essentially interchangeable on their technical merits.

Political Reality

A small minority on the committee, one member said, felt that even though the committee was under no political pressure, it ought to have been more sensitive to political realities and the project’s need for congressional backing. By this view, he said, “it was a big mistake to knock Ohio and California off the list,” thereby risking the loss of 66 votes in the House.

But nearly all of the 21 panelists disagreed with that view.

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Frieman said there were practical as well as legal reasons for not explaining why specific sites were rejected. Besides avoiding an avalanche of second-guessing by disappointed state governments, this conforms with government procurement procedures that the Energy Department is following.

Losing bidders for procurement contracts are never told why they lose, Frieman noted, but are given a formal opportunity to plead their case again with the agency involved. In keeping with this practice, he said, the Energy Department will probably accept petitions for reconsideration from states rejected by the academy panel.

Times political writer John Balzar in Los Angeles also contributed to this story


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