Under siege. The Baksan Observatory's solar neutrino detector may be shut down early.

New Twist in Gallium Struggle

MOSCOW--A tug-of-war over the ownership of a large quantity of an ultrapure precious metal is threatening to undermine a major neutrino experiment. Last week, a federal court ruled that the Baksan Neutrino Observatory in Prielbrusye must hand over 7 tons of its gallium to the Russian Ministry for Fuel and Power Production--a decision which Baksan scientists say could end the $60 million Soviet-American Gallium Experiment (SAGE).

A child of the Cold War, SAGE is one of the largest collaborations between Russia and the United States. Its 60-ton gallium detector sits in a mine shaft in the Caucasus. Run since the mid-1980s by Moscow's Institute of Nuclear Research (INR), the detector studies neutrinos streaming from the sun. It's best known for confirming an unpredicted shortfall of solar neutrinos.

The tussle over the silvery-white metal began in 1997, when the fuel ministry asked the Cabinet for permission to sell the gallium, at a third of its market value, to Russia's State Research, Development, and Design Institute of Rare-Metal Industry (GIREDMET) plant in Moscow. It presumably would resell the gallium to foreign buyers (it's used, for instance, in gallium-arsenide semiconductors and has a market value of $500 to $600 per kilogram) and reap the profits (Science, 11 April 1997, p. 193). The transaction was halted by then-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, after a protest letter from 12 Nobel laureates and an appeal from U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

Later that year, however, a deputy prime minister decreed that at least 7 tons of gallium should be handed over to the fuel ministry. Project scientists resisted, arguing that the detector's sensitivity would be so diminished that the experiment would no longer be worth running. (It's slated to continue through next year.) In response, the fuel ministry and the GIREDMET plant lodged a complaint against the Baksan Observatory. In December, the City Arbitration Court in Moscow ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, ordering the Baksan Observatory to give up the 7 tons--a decision upheld on 22 February by the Federal Arbitration Court of Moscow.

Still, INR's deputy director Leonid Bezrukov says that the lab may not comply. "There are many ways to delay the fulfillment of the court decision," says Bezrukov. But he fears that GIREDMET may use other tactics to get the gallium. In February, the observatory was visited by local police and GIREDMET experts, as part of a criminal investigation into alleged "wasting" of the metal. Although no signs of waste were found, "no one knows what could happen next," says Bezrukov. Losing even a small portion of the gallium would mean the end of SAGE, Baksan director Vladimir Gavrin told ScienceNOW.