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Chu Pegs ILC Cost at $25 Billion

The International Linear Collider (ILC), a proposed 40-kilometer-long particle smasher, would cost a lot. But how much? U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and the leader of the project don’t agree.

Yesterday, Chu said that “the total price tag will be about $25 billion.” But Barry Barish, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena who directs the ILC Global Design Effort, says that figure is likely an overestimate and that the United States would pay only a fraction of the total anyway. He worries that when Department of Energy (DOE) officials quote such huge numbers, they undermine the project’s chance of winning U.S. support. “If it turns off all dialogue [with other officials], then it hurts us,” Barish says. Still, Barish says he’s optimistic that Chu, a Nobel Prize–winning physicist, will approach the project with an open mind.

Chu made his remarks in Washington, D.C., while congratulating middle- and high-school students for participating in DOE Science Bowl, a national competition that tests their knowledge of science. His estimate is even higher than the $20 billion figure that DOE officials have routinely quoted in the past couple of years, Barish says. That slightly less astounding sum is most likely an extrapolation from the cost estimate that ILC designers produced in February 2007, which put the “value” of the machine at $6.65 billion plus 13,000 person-years of labor. The 2007 figure did not include contingency funds or inflation during design and construction.

At the time, physicists had hoped to complete the machine by 2016, so that it might run concurrently with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the new highest-energy particle smasher at the European particle physics laboratory, CERN, near Geneva. (The ILC would study in detail the wild new things physicists hope the LHC will glimpse after it starts taking data this fall.) But less than a month after the cost estimate came out, then-Under Secretary for Science Raymond Orbach warned physicists that it would likely take until 2025 or later to get the thing built.

Barish says ILC designers have had essentially no contact for more than a year with officials above those working in DOE’s High Energy Physics program, which is investing $35 million in ILC research and development this year. “I expect that, when things settle down [with the changing of Administrations], we’ll get a better hearing" from Chu and Steve Koonin, awaiting confirmation as Under Secretary for Science, than from the previous set of top DOE officials, Barish says. ILC designers hope to have the details of the “technical design” finished in 2012. Don’t look for the governments of the world to pony up the billions needed to build the ILC until the LHC discovers something really new and surprising.