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By William Thomas
With spending legislation passed in September, Congress is providing the Department of Energy (DOE) with resources to press ahead quickly on five projects at four major scientific user facilities:
DOE’s light and neutron sources—which also include the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II) at Brookhaven National Laboratory and High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) at Oak Ridge—provide unique capabilities for thousands of researchers annually in fields ranging from physics to biomedicine.
The surge in support for facility upgrades is part of a broader, multi-year funding increase for the DOE Office of Science, the nation’s largest funder of physical science research.
DOE originally began advancing this latest suite of upgrades between 2009 and 2011, when it provided initial approval for STS, APS-U, the LCLS-II facility, and a facility called the Next Generation Light Source.
However, the department soon put all four projects on ice. Rather than expand SNS, it decided to bring the existing facility up to full capacity. Then, in 2013, an external review concluded DOE’s light source plans were insufficiently ambitious and would “leave the U.S. behind the international community.” That verdict sent LCLS-II and APS-U back to the drawing board and derailed the Next Generation Light Source altogether.
A revised plan for LCLS-II soon followed and the $1 billion facility is now on track for completion in 2020. In 2016, DOE’s planning coalesced around the current five projects, which, combined, are likely to cost over $3 billion.
With bipartisan agreement on the projects’ value, Congress is eager to proceed. It accelerated spending on APS-U, ALS-U, and PPU last year and this year they will be almost fully ramped up. Funding for LCLS-II-HE is increasing even as construction continues on the original facility. STS, the most ambitious project of the five, is receiving dedicated project funding for the first time. Congress is also directing DOE to submit a plan for doubling the number of beamlines at NSLS-II.
Earlier this year, DOE Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar explained, “The things that were part of our long-term five-year plan for our various labs, those are being brought forward so our lab directors at Stanford and Berkeley are all of a sudden working on things they were hoping to get money for two, three, four, five years down the road.”
Meanwhile, the scientific community has its sights set further ahead. This summer, APS released a report recommending the U.S. invest in a new generation of research reactors to help overcome a diminished capacity for neutron scattering experiments. Such a facility would complement HFIR and SNS, but the U.S. has not commissioned a new high-performance research reactor in almost half a century.
Congress is already championing a research reactor, albeit one for nuclear energy R&D. Called the Versatile Fast Test Reactor, the facility would provide a capacity for fast-neutron irradiation experiments that currently exists only in Russia.
The reactor is likely to cost multiple billions of dollars and has not yet undergone a formal review. Some scientists and engineers question its value, but lawmakers from both parties believe it will help keep the US nuclear industry competitive. Accordingly, funding for it is increasing alongside DOE’s other major facility projects.
For more on the APS Report “Neutrons for the Nation” visit the APS News Update.
The author is a science policy analyst with FYI at the American Institute of Physics.
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