Nuclear Science Advisory Committee Recommends Shutting Down RHIC
January 30, 2013

Could This Be The End Of The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider?

John P. Millis, Ph.D. for — Your Universe Online

For the last four years Congress and the White House have been unable to pass a federal budget, settling each time for continuing resolutions. However, such stopgaps keep funding levels flat, or even, accounting for inflation, in decline.

In 2007, a plan was laid out to maintain US leadership in the field of nuclear physics, with the continued support of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), a significant upgrade at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (CEBAF), and a brand new laboratory at Michigan State University — the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB).

However, with a stale budget, the 2007 projections have not been met. In light of this the Department of Energy (DOE) tasked the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee (NSAC) to reexamine the budget and make recommendations about how to proceed.

The panel concluded that if the available funding for the nuclear physics program remains flat, or merely takes into account an inflation adjustment, only two of the facilities could be sustained. Faced with this realization, the NSAC concluded that RHIC — the United States´ only hadron collider — might need to be shuttered.

According to Dr. Terence Tarnowsky, a research scientist at Michigan State University, the recommendation of the other two facilities over RHIC did not come lightly. “It sounded like science was a factor, but since all three facilities are complementary and provide opportunities for excellent research it makes a decision based on the science alone difficult (if not impossible) to make. Therefore it sounded like fiscal considerations also played a role.”

Since the DOE has already committed funds to an upgrade at CEBAF, closing that facility while the upgrade is in process would mean missing out on many potential discoveries. While the proposed FRIB facility will pave new frontiers in nuclear physics, and with funds committed by the state of Michigan, and other sources, to back out would mean a fiscal domino effect.

Robert Tribble, a nuclear physicist at Texas A&M University, College Station and chair of the NSAC subcommittee studying the budget scenarios, noted in an address at the DOE/NSF Nuclear Science Advisory Committee Meeting this week that closing RHIC “would be a disaster for U.S. nuclear science — a clear short term problem that would likely be the start of a longer term decline of the field as a whole.”

The subcommittee is therefore “unanimous in endorsing the modest growth budget scenario as the minimum level of support that is needed to maintain a viable long-term U.S. nuclear science program.” According to the same report, an increase as small as 1.6% to the budget could allow all three facilities to continue, though RHIC and CEBAF would be run at reduced capacities. However, the budget situation is tenuous at best, leading some to be skeptical as to the future of the facility.

When asked what the outcome would be if RHIC were shut down Dr. Tarnowsky noted, “some would make that change [to the LHC at CERN]. RHIC is the last operating hadron collider in the US. The Tevatron at Fermilab was shut down in 2011. There is a lot of accumulated knowledge in accelerator and magnet operations/design that could be greatly diminished if RHIC is also shutdown.”

But all involved are still waiting for a commitment from the DOE. It is still too early to tell what direction the funding will take, but the outlook does not look good without at least a modest budget increase. The next five years or so could see the end of one of the United States landmark research facilities.