APS News

National Science Board Rejects Funding for Underground Lab

By Michael Lucibella

In an unexpected move, the National Science Foundation in early December opted not to fund further design work on a massive laboratory planned for an abandoned mine in South Dakota. The Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL) would lose millions of dollars to cover budget overages in the lab design process, possibly leaving their partner, the Department of Energy, as the project’s sole financier.

Lab planners, as well as the governor of South Dakota, said that despite this early setback they intend to continue work to develop the $875 million facility, and are currently weighing their options.

In September of 2009, the Committee on Programs and Plans of the NSF’s oversight body, the National Science Board, authorized $29 million to draw up a preliminary design of the lab. However the costs soon overran the allotted budget and the lab’s designers submitted a follow-up request for an additional $19 million for spring 2011, with a further $10 million request likely sometime next year. These “bridge” requests were turned down by the National Science Board.

“It was a bit of a surprise,” said Bob Sanders, spokesperson for the project at the University of California, Berkeley. “It was just supposed to be a continuation of funding.”

In addition to the funding, the National Science Board balked at its proposed role in the project. Under the plan, the NSF would have been part of a stewardship program to run the lab, along with the Department of Energy, the University of California, and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, ultimately turning the current Sanford Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory into the full-fledged DUSEL.

“That model was not appropriate for the role and mission of the NSF,” said Ray Bowen, Chairman of the National Science Board, adding that the NSF does not typically run large science laboratories, a role he said was more in line with the work of the Department of Energy. “There’s never any question of the quality of the science being conducted.”

Bowen noted that the job of helping to run the lab would be outside the NSF’s traditional role in science, but he added that the NSF was not opposed to working with the project should another more acceptable model for its involvement be proposed. “We think the science is great. It’s important, it’s exciting, but there needs to be a way to fix that model to be more consistent with the NSF role.”

The proposed DUSEL facility would dramatically increase the underground laboratory space in the United States. The almost two-mile deep mine is the perfect location to shield sensitive detectors from cosmic rays and other radiation.

The massive underground laboratory will use the defunct Homestake gold mine in Lead, South Dakota. Before it closed, Homestake was the deepest and most expansive mine in the Western Hemisphere. As deep as 8,000 feet in some places, the mine shafts would be ideal for proposed dark matter detectors, and for experiments looking for neutrino oscillations and neutrino-less double-beta decay, as well as for biological, engineering and geological experiments.

The mine has already been used for a variety of notable physics experiments. In 2002 Ray Davis was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work done at a neutrino detector nearly a mile underground that studied neutrinos emitted from the sun and thereby detected the phenomenon of neutrino oscillation.  

However when the Barrick Gold Corporation, which maintained the defunct mine, donated it to the state of South Dakota, the mine was in rough shape. Pumps that had kept the lower levels dry had been turned off for years, and the bottom 3,000 feet of the mine was filled with water. The state of South Dakota has committed about $120 million to refurbishing the mine to prepare it for the science experiments to be installed in its depths. Altogether, including funding for facility design, experimental designs and other work, the NSF has committed about $70 million. The Department of Energy has similarly committed about $100 million to the project.

“There are a number of hurdles over the next couple of years that will have to be overcome,” said Governor Mike Rounds, calling the NSB decision unfortunate but not insurmountable. “We will work through them one at a time.”

For the time being, the cut in funding won’t affect the day to day work being done at the lab.

“For right now it’s business as usual for us,” said Bill Harlan, spokesperson for the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, which helps oversee the facility. “This decision does not affect us immediately.”

He added that the current work refurbishing the mine and pumping out water is fully funded by the state of South Dakota through the end of 2011. In addition to the refurbishment, work has begun in a facility on the surface on two of the first detectors, the Large Underground Xenon dark-matter detector and the Majorana experiment to hunt for neutrino-less double beta decay. Several other smaller experiments are currently being conducted to establish baseline readings deep in the mine.


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