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Wanted: €1 billion for troubled German nuclear physics facility

The Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research, under construction in Germany, is €1 billion overbudget, an independent review has discovered.

D. Fehrenz/GSI/FAIR

By Edwin Cartlidge

When complete, a vast nuclear physics complex being built near Darmstadt, Germany, should enable scientists to study why the universe is made of matter and not antimatter, and to test ion beams that might be used to treat cancer. First, however, countries funding the Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research (FAIR) must cough up an extra €1 billion to complete the project, now estimated to cost €2.3 billion.

At a FAIR council meeting this month, officials said the German government is likely to pay its share of the extra money—about €700 million—but other member states could take longer. Some experts also worry the huge cash injection could mean that big science projects in Germany and elsewhere will suffer. “They will have to find the money somewhere,” says Lyn Evans, a particle physicist at the CERN particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland. “It is going to have an impact.”

FAIR is an ambitious extension of the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research being developed by a collaboration of eight European countries plus Russia and India. Originally due to cost €675 million and switch on in 2009, the project has since suffered from a series of price rises and delays. In response, partner countries agreed in 2015 to impose a cost cap, in 2005 prices, of just under €1.3 billion.

So it came as a shock when, in April, an independent review panel released a report concluding that the price had shot up again by about €1 billion. “We went through the project with a fine toothcomb,” says Evans, the panel chair. “The last thing we wanted were any more big surprises.” Evans says construction costs in an overheated German market were the biggest part of the budget overrun, but poor management was also to blame. For example, he says, FAIR managers overlooked roughly €50 million in cabling costs.

In its report, the panel concludes that FAIR’s capabilities “will remain unsurpassed” for many years, but cautions that the project is unlikely to be completed by the end of 2025 as it is now envisaged—even if the extra funding is forthcoming. Nevertheless, the experts reckon that world-leading research could begin by that date if FAIR officials prioritize the Superconducting Fragment Separator—a device that will produce rare nuclei all the way up to uranium, the heaviest element in nature, providing insight into supernova explosions and merging neutron stars.

To compensate, the panel says, FAIR’s centerpiece, a 1100-meter-circumference accelerator ring to be built inside a circular tunnel, could wait. “After all these years the biggest priority is to get some science coming out of the project,” Evans says.

The panel’s report was discussed at a meeting of FAIR’s council on 5 and 6 December, where member state representatives said they would try to supply the additional funds as soon as possible, according to one person present at the meeting who asked not to be named. In particular, the source says, German delegates reported that their government had agreed in principle to provide its share of the extra money—about 70%, in line with the existing agreement—which it should confirm in January 2020.

Carsten Welsch, a physicist at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom, which is an associate partner of FAIR, is upbeat about the project’s future. He says he has “great confidence” that the panel’s costs are reliable, and that experiments will start up in the mid-2020s.

Source: Science Mag