Close Call for Spallation Source

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Materials scientists are breathing easier after a brush with death in Congress. In a last-minute reversal, the House Science Committee voted earlier this week to restore construction funds for the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS), a state-of-the-art accelerator to be built in Tennessee. The vote should help the troubled project avoid potentially deadly delays.

The $1.36 billion SNS, if built as planned at the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Oak Ridge National Laboratory, will give scientists a powerful tool to probe the structure of matter, from proteins to metals, using a pulsed beam of neutrons (Science, 23 January 1998, p. 470). But as the largest new science project in the U.S. budget, it has drawn scrutiny from a Congress wary of the cost overruns that eventually killed the $12 billion Superconducting Super Collider.

In late March, Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), chair of the science committee, announced his opposition to DOE's 2000 budget request for $196 million in construction funds until the project passed a July review and completed other reforms. And at a 25 May committee meeting, he unveiled a DOE authorization bill that prohibited any SNS construction spending until DOE delivered on its promises. "If DOE can get its act together, we can authorize this project," he said.

But rather than wait, Representative Jerry Costello (D-IL) proposed an amendment that would have restored $150 million in construction funds sooner, claiming Sensenbrenner's bill would produce a delay that "would effectively pull the plug on the nation's #1 science project." After a heated debate, the amendment failed on a 17-17 vote and the committee recessed for lunch. But during the break, Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN) negotiated a unanimously accepted compromise plan that included $100 million for construction, which could be released without the committee having to vote again on the matter later this year.

The vote "is good news for maintaining the project's momentum," says Martha Krebs, head of DOE's Office of Science. Even so, it virtually ensures that the SNS will receive less construction money next year than the $196 million requested. And that could pose a problem, say DOE officials, who argue that they need at least $150 million to keep the project on track. A final decision on the 2000 budget may not come until late this year.