Neutron Source Moves Toward Reality

Big Oak Ridge Project in Midst of Transition

Construction of the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) here at Oak Ridge National Laboratory is moving from the design phase to execution in the construction of the first new U.S. Neutron-scattering facility in decades, according to the project's director.

The $1.4-billion project is a collaboration among Oak Ridge and five other Department of Energy (DOE) national labs, with each lab responsible for specific aspects of the project's completion.

The SNS will sit atop Chestnut Ridge. Its accelerator will run nearly west to east, with the Smokey Mountains to the south and the Cumberland Mountains to the north. The main Oak Ridge campus lies about two miles away.

Scheduled to come on line in 2006, scientists will use the SNS to study the structure and dynamics of materials by bombarding them with neutrons and the measuring the results. The new facility will return the U.S. to a lead in neutron science that it had lost to the Europeans, SNS chief Thom Mason told NTW during a recent walking tour of the SNS site.

The SNS will allow for research that will yield stronger, lighter, and cheaper materials and ultimately make important contributions in such industries as telecommunications, transportation, and information technology, where new materials will be important, he said.

Work on the SNS began in December 1999, when site clearing began after a groundbreaking. The project will be essentially finished with the design phase by end of the current fiscal year in September, Mason said.

"The character of the project changes as you go from design to reality and the challenges change," Mason said. "Obviously, the big challenge doesn't change, which is: We've got to finish this thing on time and on budget. But the pace of work is definitely racheted up, now that we're getting into some serious activity."

For instance, since December Los Alamos National Laboratory has awarded more than $40 million for the radio frequency systems for the SNS accelerator, "which is a significant chunk of that part of the project," Mason said.

"This is true across the project," he added. At "Jefferson Lab, they've been awarding a lot of big procurements on the refrigeration systems for the superconducting [linear accelerator]. At Brookhaven, they're getting power supplies and magnet materials for the [accumulator] ring."

The SNS appropriation for the current fiscal year is $278 million.

"That's the big infusion of funding that's allowed us to really initiate significant site construction [and] award a lot of big procurements on the technical components," Mason explained.

The request to Congress for FY 2002 is $291 million, which is the project's funding peak after which planned funding begins to drop off.

That the SNS is such a tightly coupled partnership is novel for the DOE national labs, said Mason, who took over the top SNS job earlier this year after the departure of former director David Moncton.

"There has not previously been a project that, to this extent, was distributed across the complex," he said.

The SNS has both "strengths and weaknesses," Mason said.

The partnership, which also includes Argonne and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories in addition to Oak Ridge, Brookhaven, Los Alamos, and the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator labs, played an important role in getting the SNS's over what Mason called the project's "rough start."

Acknowledging a past controversy that caused heat on Capitol Hill, Mason noted that in its first year in fiscal 1999, the SNS was able to commit only about half of the funds Congress appropriated for it. However, the project went from spending about $65 million in fiscal 2000, he said.

"That's a very dramatic increase, going up by more than a factor of three," Mason said. "The only way it was possible was by drawing on the capacity of the labs in terms of their human capacity-the engineering and design capability that they had to really get things moving quickly. In a standalone thing, where you had to go out and hire people fresh, there is no way you could make that kind of jump."

But the geographically dispersed nature of the partnership adds additional complications, Mason admitted.

"We're distributed across the country, and we have to coordinate a pretty complicated technical system and make sure that [for instance,] when the beam from the linac goes into the high-energy beam transport, the hand-off from Los Alamos and Jefferson Lab to Brookhaven happens with a flange that mates at the appropriate position, with the appropriate diameter...

"That's a challenge even if you're all in one place. And that means we have to work hard on it when we're spread out and use videoconferencing and a fair amount of travel to make sure we stay well coordinated," he added.

Although the SNS started out facing some political storms, today it is on schedule and on course and enjoys broad support, Mason advised.

"We've just had another [DOE] Office of Science review that went very well-no major technical issues," he said. "That makes all the difference, right? If we were in trouble for whatever reason, we would be in trouble for all reasons. As long as we can stay on top of stuff, I think we're in pretty good shape.

"The project has very good support within the scientific community, and that helps as well," he added.