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High and dry? Gran Sasso National Laboratory put experiments on hold after a chemical spill raised fears that the lab might be leak prone.

Italian Neutrino Lab Paralyzed

Work at the world's largest underground facility for the study of subatomic particles from space, Italy's Gran Sasso National Laboratory, has nearly ground to a halt. The reason is a court-ordered report that said the lab's drainage system could contaminate local water supplies. But physicists there say that fears are exaggerated and that the shutdown could set their research back by months or more. "This is a disaster for us," says Gianpaolo Bellini of the University of Milan, a spokesperson a solar-neutrino detector under construction at the lab called Borexino.

Last August, two researchers working on the Borexino experiment spilled pseudocumene (1,2,4-trimethylbenzene), a liquid chemical that scintillates when a neutrino strikes. The Borexino detector uses 300 tons of the fluid to spot neutrinos coming from reactions of beryllium-7 in the sun. The scientists raced to contain the spill and reported it immediately to the lab and local authorities, says Frank Calaprice, the head of a collaborating team at Princeton University. The volatile chemical quickly evaporated, but some of it drained into a nearby creek, where picnickers smelled it; a dead fish was also found at the scene, Calaprice says.

Environmentalists seized on the incident and took the lab to court. A tribunal in Teramo ordered an independent engineer to prepare a report on environmental safety conditions at the lab. Meanwhile, Italy's high-energy physics research institute, the National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN), ordered the lab to halt any work involving pseudocumene in Hall C, the area where the spill took place. The 10,000-page report was released on 29 May. It acknowledged that no traces of trimethylbenzene had been found in local drinking water but concluded that a chemical spill might contaminate the local drinking water and river. In response, the Teramo tribunal immediately sealed off Hall C indefinitely, stopping all activities except safety checks, and INFN issued a general ban on the handling of fluids throughout the lab.

Some experiments--such as Icarus, a detector for muons produced by cosmic ray interactions in the atmosphere--do not require the handling of liquids and are still running, says Gran Sasso laboratory director Alessandro Bettini. But others, such as Borexino, are in limbo. "Borexino is the best hope, in the near future, of seeing beryllium-7 neutrinos," says Wick Haxton, a physicist at the University of Washington, Seattle. "This is a very bad time for them."

Bettini says he hopes to persuade the local judiciary to reopen Hall C. INFN is prepared to appeal to Italy's Supreme Court of Cassation in Rome, he says.

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Gran Sasso Lab
More about the Borexino experiment