Panel Reluctantly Recommends Shuttering Last U.S. Collider

Untimely demise. The PHENIX detector studies quark-gluon plasma produced by the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, which could close prematurely because of a budget crunch.

Brookhaven National Laboratory

BETHESDA, MARYLAND—A panel of scientists has recommended shutting the last U.S. grand atom smasher, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, to make room in a tight budget for other projects funded by the Department of Energy (DOE).

Closing RHIC would be a disaster for the U.S. nuclear physics community, says Robert Tribble, a nuclear physicist at Texas A&M University, College Station, who chaired the committee that suggested doing exactly that in a report today to DOE's Nuclear Science Advisory Committee (NSAC). "I don't think there are winners and losers here," he says. "We're all losers if this comes to pass." NSAC is expected to approve the report tomorrow, and DOE has usually followed such recommendations from its advisory panels.

The report comes in response to a budget crunch within DOE's nuclear physics program. The program runs two major facilities, and physicists hope to build a third. But those projects would require significant growth in the annual budget for nuclear physics, now $547 million. Instead, the DOE science budget is more likely to shrink than to grow, warns its director, William Brinkman.

The Tribble committee weighed the relative importance of three very different facilities. RHIC uses twin accelerators to smash heavy nuclei together to produce fleeting puffs of a weird type of matter called quark gluon plasma that filled the newborn universe. In contrast, DOE's other existing major nuclear physics rig, the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility (CEBAF) at Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia, fires electrons into protons and neutrons to study their inner workings. In addition, physicists plan to build a $615 million Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) at Michigan State University in East Lansing that would generate myriad exotic nuclei usually produced only in supernova explosion.

Researchers are currently finishing a $310 million upgrade to CEBAF, and the committee recommended exploiting that investment, Tribble told NSAC. That forced the group to choose between continuing to run RHIC, which has been collecting data since 2000, and building FRIB, which could start taking data by the end of the decade. The committee included representatives from all three projects, says Tribble, who declined to give the vote tally.

FRIB backers were gratified by the report. "FRIB is such a fantastic and important opportunity for the country, I'm convinced that it has to go forward," says Konrad Gelbke, director of the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State. But RHIC supporters are not throwing in the towel. "I think the big picture [message of the report] is the importance of continuing all these programs," says Doon Gibbs, interim laboratory director at Brookhaven. "So we're going to work hard to make that happen."