The Energy Department may have found a way to defray part of the $8 billion cost of the controversial super-conducting supercollider: enlist foreign partners.
Deputy Energy Secretary W. Henson Moore, who has been in Asia trying to sell the idea to Japan and South Korea, said yesterday that "we accomplished what we set out to do," though neither country has formally agreed to participate.
Moore and South Korean Science Minister Kunmo Chung yesterday signed a "record of discussion" in which President Bush invited the Koreans to participate in "this new, vital and exciting scientific venture" and South Korea expressed an interest in doing so.
In a telephone interview from Seoul, Moore said the Koreans were "very anxious to participate and want to consider this seriously," but could not go further at that moment because President Roh Tae Woo was in the United States where he met with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
"I have a feeling the government of Korea may be moving faster than Japan," Moore said. "We probably won't get an answer from Japan for a year." But he said the Japanese, often criticized for buying technology and shortchanging research, "have made a conscious decision that they are ready to start funding basic research. This project comes to them at a time when they are ready to do that."
An infusion of foreign capital would help the Energy Department defuse criticism of the mammoth project, which opponents say would soak up funding needed by many smaller-scale scientific endeavors. In March, after Moore met at the White House with Office of Management and Budget Director Richard G. Darman, Chief of Staff John H. Sununu and science adviser D. Allan Bromley, the Energy Department announced it would proceed "full speed ahead" with the SSC, one of the most costly and ambitious science projects ever attempted.
The supercollider is aimed at probing the nature of the universe by observing the behavior of subatomic particles fired toward each other at great speed. The accelerator would hurl beams of protons through a 54-mile-long tunnel at energy levels up to 20 times higher than achievable with any existing accelerator. The project, to be built near Dallas, is not intended to produce practical results such as new products.
Moore said Japanese and Korean officials made clear they were not interested in participating only as investors. "They want the opportunity to become a partner in design, construction and operation" and in deciding what types of experiments to run, he said.
For South Korea, he said, participation would be an opportunity to "play with the big boys of science." The Japanese, he said, "realize they can't rely on imported technology forever. They have to belly up to the bar." How much a foreign partner would be expected to invest will depend on how many countries sign up, he said. Some European nations are interested, he said, but "they want to wait and see if this thing is really going to happen." The Energy Department hopes to begin land acquisition later this year.