NSF and Energy Department Agree to Keep Pumps on for Underground Lab Site

Bill Harlan/S. Dakota Science and Technology Authority

A plan to convert an abandoned gold mine in the Black Hills of South Dakota into the world's largest underground laboratory remains afloat, but just barely.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE) have agreed to pay for pumping water out of the Homestake Mine near Lead so that it does not flood. That accord should preserve the site while the two agencies wrangle over how to transfer primary responsibility for the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL) from NSF to DOE. The real question is which, if any, part of the original $875 million multifaceted design will survive.

DUSEL began in 2001 with a failed attempt at a congressional earmark and evolved into an ambitious quest for scientific treasure. Scientists had hoped that NSF would take the lead in building a facility that would host multiple experiments in particle physics as well as in biology, geology, and engineering. But in December, NSF's oversight body, the National Science Board (NSB), turned down a request for $19 million in additional funding to keep developing the site through this year.

In particular, the board balked at the projected $480 million cost of the lab's infrastructure, especially when the biggest project in the lab would be a gigantic particle detector built by DOE. DOE officials immediately said that they would work to salvage the project. But the board's decision created the possibility that, if NSF turned off the pumps, the mine might refill with water before DOE could decide what it wanted to do.

That worst-case scenario now seems unlikely. A deal has been reached "that will keep DUSEL moving forward," presidential science adviser John Holdren told the House of Representatives science committee last Thursday in testimony on the Administration's 2012 budget request. The day before, Kevin Lesko, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, who leads the DUSEL design team, explained how it would work. NSF will spend up to $4 million to keep the pumps running from June until the current fiscal year ends on 30 September. At that point, DOE would take over, using $15 million it has requested in the president's proposed budget for 2012. South Dakota is currently paying to run the pumps.

Although that plan keeps the general idea of DUSEL alive, the details remain shrouded in question marks. The entire cost of DUSEL may be too much for DOE to swallow, so the agency may have to choose its favorite parts of the project--perhaps the facilities for the particle physics experiments, or for one gigantic detector. DOE is conducting a study of its options and hopes to have it finished by June, in time to incorporate a plan into its 2013 budget request, says William Brinkman, head of DOE's Office of Science.

One huge unknown is the severity of DOE's budget crunch. A bill passed by the House on 19 February to fund the federal government through the rest of fiscal year 2011 would cut the budget of the Office of Science by 18%, from $4.9 billion to $4.0 billion. Even if the Senate lessens the blow in its own continuing resolution expected next week, any sizable cut this year would make it much harder for a subsequent DOE budget to accommodate a massive project like DUSEL.

See our 2012 Budget coverage