Energy Secretary John S. Herrington on Thursday named Texas as the “preferred” location for construction of the world’s largest and costliest scientific instrument--an oval-shaped particle accelerator that measures 53 miles around--called the Superconducting Supercollider.
The announcement formally ended a spirited 22-month contest in which more than half the nation’s states vied for a project that promised the winner a dazzling infusion of jobs, money and worldwide prestige. The machine is expected to cost at least $4.4 billion and pump $270 million a year into the local economy when completed in the late 1990s.
Congress, however, has yet to authorize construction of the supercollider, and its future remains in doubt. There were immediate accusations from losing states that politics had outweighed the objective merits of competing sites.
Charging that the decision to award the project to Texas “has the strong smell of White House politics,” Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.) said: “We and the other five finalist states got a raw deal.”
The supercollider would consist of an oval, concrete-lined tunnel 53 miles in circumference, which would surround the rural Texas town of Waxahachie (population 18,000), near Dallas. Inside the tunnel, 10,000 superconducting magnets would accelerate two counter-rotating beams of protons nearly to the speed of light, then steer them into collision at energies 20 times higher than existing accelerators can achieve.
The Administration, with President Reagan’s support, has endorsed the project as a means of ensuring American leadership in the competitive world of high-energy physics into the next century and as an instrument likely to reveal fundamental new understanding of the relations between matter and energy.
Calls Texas Site ‘Superior’
Herrington said that the Texas site had “no significant overall weaknesses” and was “superior” to those in six other finalist states--Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina and Tennessee.
California, initially considered a leading contender, was eliminated last December by a review committee of the National Academy of Sciences, which expressed concern about the geological suitability of two sites promoted by the state. The final selection, however, was based on scores assigned to the remaining six sites by an internal Energy Department committee of 10 scientists and managers, headed by Dr. Wilmot N. Hess, the agency’s associate director for high energy and nuclear physics.
In addition to announcing its location, Herrington declared that the atom smasher would be named the “Ronald Reagan Center for High Energy Physics,” in tribute to “the President who had the vision to move forward with the outstanding scientific project of this century.”
Some department officials, however, privately expressed anguish at what appeared to be Herrington’s personal decision to break with tradition and name a major national facility for a sitting President. One official, calling it a “dumb” idea, worried that the name would only add to the impression of political taint in awarding a major federal plum.
Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) called on the congressional General Accounting Office to review the objectivity of the selection process, while Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), contending that no other location “could match the Illinois site point for point,” said Congress itself should examine how Texas was chosen.
Disappointment appeared keenest in Illinois, the home of Fermilab, now the nation’s leading center of high-energy physics, with its 4-mile-long Tevatron accelerator.
Charging that the decision to award the project to Texas was “based on politics rather than on merit and the good of the American taxpayer,” Sen. Alan J. Dixon (D-Ill.) argued that incorporating the existing Fermilab machine as a starting booster for the supercollider would cut construction costs by $426 million and annual operating costs by $88 million.
But Hess, who headed the department’s site review committee, said this approach would have yielded no more than about $300 million in savings over the lifetime of the project, a figure he termed “interesting but not significant.” Hess also noted that political opposition to the project existed in Illinois, mostly among landowners around the proposed site.
Herrington, insisting that the selection of Texas was free of politics, said the department committee operated independently of senior officials and presented its findings to him only last Tuesday.
He said that the committee had awarded Texas alone an “outstanding” rating on the four most important site selection criteria--geological conditions, regional resources, environment and “setting,” a category that included local political support and ease of land acquisition.
“I have to tell you,” Herrington told a news conference, “there are no politics in this.”
Congressional sources, however, noted that few states stand a better chance of navigating a multibillion-dollar project through the shoals of Congress as it grapples with a huge federal budget deficit than Texas. It will also not hurt, these analysts added, that President-elect George Bush’s official home is Texas.
Joining Herrington in the news conference were jubilant members of the Texas delegation, among them Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright; Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Republican Sen. Phil Gramm, the influential co-author of the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction law.
Bentsen, smiling but still hoarse from a last, unavailing flurry of campaigning as the Democratic vice presidential candidate, and under doctors’ orders to conserve his voice, scribbled out a note and handed it to Gramm.
“It’s not often that I get to speak for Lloyd Bentsen,” Gramm quipped. “He says it’s a superb choice for the nation, and that he’s speechless.”
See Congressional OK
All three endorsed the supercollider as a vital national project of enormous potential benefit not only to Texas but to the nation at large, and they voiced confidence that a majority of Congress would agree.
Wright, for one, said the supercollider was needed to “re-establish the primacy of the United States” in high-energy physics. He also said the facility “could lead to heretofore untapped sources of energy,” a claim that goes well beyond the speculative benefits advanced by most of the project’s scientific proponents.
Gramm, best known outside Texas for his efforts to restrain federal spending, insisted that the nation could afford the supercollider, an undertaking he said was “not Texas’ project, but America’s project.”
Gramm predicted that federal revenues would rise by $80 billion next year, of which half is to be applied to offsetting the deficit, leaving $40 billion for additional expenditures. “We’re talking about setting priorities,” he said. “Part of this money should go to this project.”
He noted that Texas had already pledged to defray federal costs of the project with a billion-dollar package of state subsidies.
Congress so far has appropriated $205 million for research, development and engineering--$100 million for fiscal 1989, which began Oct. 1--but spurned an Administration request to authorize money for its construction.
According to a new study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, construction costs could exceed the department’s estimate of $4.4 billion by as much as 46%, if the agency follows the pattern of the last two much smaller accelerators it built at Fermilab in recent years.
The study concluded that it would be cheaper but scientifically riskier to join CERN, the European nuclear physics research organization, in building a smaller but still advanced new machine near Geneva.
Under federal law, the Texas site remains the government’s “preferred” location for the supercollider until an environmental impact review is completed in early January.