Muons and Megabucks: Super Collider - Super Bust?

By Hudgens, Gayle | The Nation, March 19, 1990 | Go to article overview

Muons and Megabucks: Super Collider - Super Bust?


Hudgens, Gayle, The Nation


The Texas mystique has taken a pretty bad beating in the past few years, what with the bankruptcies of the Hunt brothers and Braniff Airways, the resignation of Speaker of the House Jim Wright and the general malaise of the banking, real estate and oil industries. But the Lone Star State hopes to get a big boost soon - 20 trillion electron volts, to be exact. That's the jolt carried by the Superconducting Super Collider that the Department of Energy wants to construct beneath the rolling farmland some twenty-five miles south of Dallas.

The collider, which is designed to study the nature of matter, is Texas-size in every respect. It would be 18,000 times bigger in diameter than the cyclotron that ushered in the atomic age more than fifty years ago. Its tunnel would be ten feet in diameter and form an underground oval more than fifty-four miles in circumference; it would contain 10,000 superconducting magnets, each one fifty-seven feet long and weighing nine tons; and it would smash subatomic particles at a velocity close to the speed of light. The most recent cost estimate for building this big science" bonanza is almost $8 billion-just the kind of number Texas kingpins love to embrace.

Of course, the Superconducting Super Collider, or S.S.C., comes with a few problems that are also rather large: the probable removal of several hundred families from some of the 19,000 acres to be bought up for the collider and its above-ground "campus"; the projected influx of up to 30,000 people in the next decade, and aU that implies for the environment of rural Ellis County; the effects of the radiation that will inevitably escape from the tunnel; and, not least, the disposal of radioactive waste from the megaproject.

D. Allan Bromley, President Bush's science adviser, is not even sure the United States has the industrial capacity to build the mammoth magnets for the S.S.C. We're pushing technology to the absolute limits,' he says. The budget is pushing in the same direction, as calls for more money keep coming in, along with predictions that cost overruns will eventually put the S.S.C.'s price tag at more than $10 billion. Even the normally boosterish Dallas Times Herald warned recently that the nation would be better off not building it than building the S.S.C. as a boondoggle."

None of that seems to bother the Texas collider cartel, a combination of politicians, real estate speculators and other assorted wheelers and dealers led by Dallas tycoon Morton Meyerson, chair of the Texas National Research Laboratory Commission (T.N.R.L.C.), which drew up the site proposal, and Tom Luce, the former chair and a candidate for governor in the Republican primary on March 13. This lobby already has spent millions of taxpayers' dollars to win for Texas the D.O.E.'s high-speed proton subway, beating out six other finalists-Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina and Tennessee. Ellis County itself has chipped in $2 million for land acquisition, and some businesses are so eager for the project's infusion of dollars that they've donated land.

In 1987 a statewide bond issue reached deep into the pockets of Texas taxpayers, authorizing $1 billion in general obligation and revenue bonds to help pave the way for the S.S.C. by building roads and other infrastructure. Voters in this constitutional-amendment election were asked to support referendums and propositions on horse racing, jail districts, libraries, economic development and a vague high-tech "superconducting super collider research facility." The collider cartel poured several hundred thousand dollars into a media blitz to persuade people that Proposition 19 would be just swell for Texas, providing jobs and bringing cash to the state's flagging economy. Only 18 percent of the state's electorate approved Proposition 19, since only 29 percent of the registered voters bothered to vote on the proposition, and of those, 64 percent voted for the promise of economic nirvana. …

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