Gallium Row Threatens Neutrino Detector

MOSCOW--Cash-strapped government officials are threatening to confiscate 60 tons of valuable gallium from a neutrino observatory in southern Russia. Physicists involved in the Soviet-American Gallium Experiment (SAGE), however, have vowed to protect the precious metal at all costs rather than see their neutrino vigil come to an end.

Buried in a mine in the north Caucasus mountains, SAGE is one of two solar neutrino detectors built to resolve a major crisis for theorists. Early detectors only found one third of the predicted neutrinos, casting doubt on either models of the sun's interior or the understanding of neutrinos. SAGE, operating since the mid-1980s, and its Italian rival GALLEX were designed to search for low-energy neutrinos from the sun's primary power source, the fusion of hydrogen into helium. Initial results from the detectors, published in the early 1990s, confirmed the neutrino shortage, but researchers had hoped to keep SAGE running until 2002 to look for possible variations in neutrino flow during the 11-year cycle of solar activity.

But in February, officials from the Institute of Rare Metals showed up unannounced at the SAGE site, under orders from the ministry of fuel and power-production industries to confiscate the gallium. SAGE researchers replied that they would rather burn themselves in the mine shaft. Bringing the gallium to the surface, they say, would not only kill SAGE, but also contaminate the highly purified metal and render it useless for future research.

The fuel ministry won't reveal its plans for the gallium, although researchers suspect that it would be sold to pay wages at state businesses. "I can only guess that it is meant to be sold abroad," says Vladimir Gavrin, the Russian head of SAGE. "Its minimum price on the market is $200 per kilogram." At that price, all of Sage's gallium would fetch $12 million.

At first, a deputy prime minister came to the rescue. Physicist Vladimir Fortov called off the confiscation on 6 March, but ironically he lost that authority after becoming science minister. A week later, first Deputy Prime Minister Alexey Bolshakov issued a new order, calling for the removal of a smaller amount of gallium--7 tons. Although Bolshakov later lost his government seat, his order still threatens SAGE. Last week, Fortov met with representatives of the fuel ministry, the chemical metallurgic plant, and the Russian Academy of Sciences, but he failed to break the stalemate. Thus, SAGE's fate still hangs in the balance.