By John Fleck, Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer
The federal government's on-again, off-again efforts to rehabilitate an aging Los Alamos particle accelerator are off, leaving some scientists scratching their heads and leaving New Mexico's political leadership gearing up for a fight.
The Obama administration characterizes the $180 million upgrade to the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center as unneeded, a program kept alive by Congress against the wishes of the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration, the two federal agencies responsible for Los Alamos.
The decision comes as a new facility with similar capabilities, located at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, comes on line.
After the administration announced plans to kill the upgrade — essentially a slow death sentence for the nearly three-decade-old accelerator — the state's congressional delegation went on the attack.
"LANSCE is a critical tool not only for the stockpile stewardship program but for other nonclassified science applications, such as isotope production, nuclear forensics and nuclear fuels analysis, among many uses," said a May 13 letter from the five members of the state's congressional delegation to Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag.
Laboratory officials declined to comment, saying they had been barred from speaking on the record about the proposal by federal managers at the National Nuclear Security Administration. But in an internal e-mail message published on LANL: The Rest of the Story, a blog popular with lab workers, a top Los Alamos official said management was working to reverse the decision.
"Rest assured that our Laboratory senior management strongly support LANSCE and the (refurbishment) project and are working hard to fix this problem," wrote Kurt Schoenberg, LANSCE's director.
A National Nuclear Security Administration spokesman declined to comment beyond the brief statement issued earlier this month announcing the proposed cut.
The medical community will feel the loss if LANSCE's life is not extended, said Jeffrey Norenberg, a University of New Mexico professor and associate director of the New Mexico Center for Isotopes in Medicine. The center is a UNM-Los Alamos partnership that uses LANSCE to create radioactive medicines used in medical treatment and research.
"It's making a major difference right now," Norenberg said of LANSCE's medical contributions.
Located on a narrow mesa west of Los Alamos National Laboratory's main research area, LANSCE contains a particle accelerator that began operation in 1972. Particle accelerators are the workhorses of physics, creating high-energy beams of subatomic particles that are used to address fundamental scientific questions.
The quarter-mile-long machine creates a stream of high-energy protons, one of the fundamental building blocks of all matter.
The protons are used for a wide variety of research, from creating X-ray-like movies of detonating nuclear weapon components to making radioactive materials used in medical research and disease treatment.