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Keeping momentum

Department of Energy officials meet with Lead, Rapid City residents about major experiment

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Posted: Friday, June 28, 2013 11:30 am

LEAD — Federal and project officials want to make sure that plans for an experiment that could extend the Sanford Lab life to the next 40 years maintain worldwide momentum, despite budget concerns in Washington.

A current environmental assessment to determine the impact the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment will have if it is built at the Sanford Lab is part of an ongoing effort to make sure the project continues to move forward. This week, officials from the Department of Energy, as well as representatives from the Sanford Lab and the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment collaboration, met with about 80 people in Lead, and 28 people in Rapid City to explain the project plans and the environmental assessment.

The Department of Energy is overseeing the environmental assessment that will determine the impact of building and operating the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment, which may be built at the surface or deep underground. The study will examine impact across a broad range of considerations, including the surrounding land, wildlife, water, population, socioeconomic factors, and others. For the rest of 2013, these officials will be gathering data that will determine the effects of building complicated neutrino detectors and their supporting infrastructure in Kirk Canyon or 4,850 feet underground. In early 2014 they will return to Lead with a draft report, seeking public comment about the project. Officials have said they do not expect to find any significant environmental impacts from the project.

Originally planned as an estimated $1.5 billion experiment, with construction 4,850 feet underground at the Sanford Lab, plans to build the surface facility began when federal budget realities hit the project. In 2012 the U.S. Department of Energy told scientists to phase their plans to accommodate for less funding — specifically a total of about $870 million. Though scientists say they cannot do all of the science they need to do for LBNE on the surface, plans to build the Kirk Canyon facility at least keep the ball rolling at the federal levels. Since members of the LBNE collaboration are actively seeking international participation that would provide the balance of resources necessary to move the project underground, keeping the project afloat by making plans for the surface is imperative to proving the U.S. is serious about this experiment.

Additionally, Department of Energy Director of Communications Brian Quirke said the federal agency considers outside participation and support when making its funding decisions for specific projects — making international participation and support from outside sources that much more important. Support from the state of South Dakota to build the Sanford Lab, which the LBNE hopes to one day call home, is part of that outside support the DOE considers.

“We leverage the Department of Energy investment with the investments that have already been made, or will be made, by external partners,” said Michael Weis, site office manager for the Department of Energy’s office at Fermilab.

“We in the science community are incredibly grateful for the investment that the people of the state of South Dakota have made in bringing the Sanford Lab into existence,” said Jim Strait, LBNE project director. “Without the investment we couldn’t do this kind of science and if we did want to do it we would probably have to do it overseas in other countries. Thanks to the investment by the state of South Dakota we have the opportunity to bring the world scientific community here rather than go somewhere else.”

The Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment involves upgrading a neutrino beam at Fermi National Laboratory near Chicago, and shooting a beam of neutrinos through the earth, more than 800 miles, to Lead. By doing this, scientists plan to study how neutrinos change form in transit, and how supernovae work. Since supernovae make and distribute all of the heavy elements in the universe, the experiment could help explain where matter comes from, and why it exists.

LBNE’s prospect of answering the questions that help make such fundamental discoveries about the universe have potential international science partners very excited, Strait said.

“They want to be part of the excitement of discovering these things,” Strait said. “They are very hard experiments to do and they are quite expensive, which means you can’t do more than one or two of them in the world. So if an experiment has momentum and it looks like it is going to go, by getting the first stage of approval from the Department of Energy other people want to come join so they can come do it, rather than waiting around for somebody else to get there. We have some momentum here and we’re moving forward.”

Recent meetings with potential international partners from Europe have been promising, Strait said, and he hopes to have the international participation necessary to move the project underground by next year.

As plans progress for the surface LBNE facility, which could see construction starting in 2017, officials are working two fronts, making sure long-lead time preparations for the underground experiment are done ahead of time to keep the estimated 10-year project on schedule. That ensures that if the U.S. is able to secure enough LBNE participation from international sources to go underground, that is where the detector will be built.

Michael Weis, U.S. Department of Energy Site Office Manager at Fermilab said, “We are looking at the specific activities that position us to be ready if and when we were to get additional funding.”

For instance, Weis said meetings in Lead and Rapid City to educate the public about LBNE plans are important parts of the process.

“This environmental assessment is critical to being able to do some of the activities that have longer timeframes,” he said, pointing to some activities that must be done ahead of time to position the neutrino beam at Fermilab so that it is pointed to the underground facility in Lead. “We want to make sure we have the environmental analysis done and a decision made in time to support that activity. Same thing with the environmental evaluation we are doing. It’s going to cover all the different ranges of alternatives, such that if we are in a position to go to a surface detector, that will be evaluated in our assessment. If we have the support and are able to go below ground, that will be covered in our assessment.

“In parallel, all of these things are done so that we make sure we’re positioned to do the project in any way that it comes to fruition,” he continued. “There are activities going on to position this project to be successful. So we’re doing long lead research for support to be able to be in position so that when the money is approved, we are ready to go.”

Some of that “long lead” research to determine the nature of the proposed LBNE site is already contracted out. The LBNE collaboration, through the Sanford Lab, has contracted with international design company Arup, out of their New York office, to do design work for the underground LBNE detector. That company will lead the bidding process for a drilling company to take core samples at the proposed site, to ensure the detector is positioned in the best location if and when it is sited underground.

“We are trying to work both angles,” said Josh Willhite, director of engineering at the Sanford Lab. “We can delay that (surface geotechnical design and drilling) for a period and not delay the overall project. But if we wait on the underground and we decide to go underground, that becomes the critical path. If we wait, that takes the whole project out. Whereas if we do it now we keep this same schedule for the underground.”

If the U.S. is able to secure enough outside funding sources and/or participation to position the LBNE project underground, there will not be a surface facility constructed.

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