SFGate: Big Science with tiny particles hits a snag/PG&E opposes UC proposal to study neutrinos at nuclear plant

From: Maury Goodman <maury.goodman@anl.gov>
Date: Fri Nov 12 2004 - 15:53:23 CST

 Newspaper article about Diablo Canyon
This article was sent to you by someone who found it on SFGate.
The original article can be found on SFGate.com here:
Monday, November 1, 2004 (SF Chronicle)
Big Science with tiny particles hits a snag/PG&E opposes UC proposal to study neutrinos at nuclear plant
Glen Martin, Chronicle Environment Writer

   Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and University of California physicists are
in a big spat over a proposed Big Science project at the utility's Diablo
Canyon nuclear power plant in San Luis Obispo County.
   UC Berkeley scientists say the plant is uniquely suited for ambitious
neutrino experiments that could yield information about the fundamental
fabric of the universe. It's the kind of bold project, say boosters, that
leads to Nobel Prizes and technological breakthroughs.
   The scientists want to use Diablo's nuclear reactor to measure the strange
way neutrinos -- subatomic particles emitted by stars and nuclear piles --
"oscillate" between different mass states.
   At one time, neutrinos were thought to be massless. It is now known they
do have mass, but not in the sense that a kilogram of shrimp weighs 2.2

   Because they are so infinitesimally small, neutrinos exist in the quantum
realm, where rules governing the macro-universe -- the known world of
Buicks and bread boxes -- break down. A neutrino's mass -- unlike the mass
of a larger object -- is not stable, but exists in a state of probability.
   "Say you had some in a box, and you pulled one out and weighed it and it
weighed m-1," said Stuart Freedman, a professor of physics at UC Berkeley
and a faculty senior adviser at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
   "Then you pulled out an identical one, and it weighed m-2," continued
Freedman. "It isn't a situation where a neutrino is m-1 or m-2 -- it's a
situation where the neutrino is 50 percent one mass and 50 percent
another. This seems surprising, but it's perfectly natural in quantum
   Neutrinos manifest three different "flavors," or states of indefinite mass
-- electron neutrinos, muon neutrinos and tau neutrinos. Scientists hope
the parameters that control the oscillation of neutrinos from one flavor
to another can explain a very big conundrum: Why is the universe that
expanded from the Big Bang mostly matter, rather than the 50 percent
matter and 50 percent antimatter that it should be under currently
accepted doctrine?
   If one of these parameters -- dubbed theta 13 -- has a value other than
zero, said Freedman, it would largely explain the matter/antimatter
   But how to evaluate theta 13? That's where Diablo Canyon comes in. The
site, in essence, consists of a big nuclear reactor next to some
mountains. Nuclear reactors produce large quantities of antielectron
neutrinos, a variety that is particularly easy to detect.
   In conjunction with researchers at California Polytechnic State University
San Luis Obispo, UC scientists want to dig a 20-foot wide, 1.5- to 2-mile
long tunnel through the mountains behind the reactor, lay some railroad
track inside the bore and install two detectors -- each a big vat filled
with 1,000 tons of mineral oil -- on the rails.
   The antielectron neutrinos will collide with protons in hydrogen atoms in
the oil, changing them to positrons and neutrons. That will result in
characteristic energy bursts that will be recorded by photo detectors. By
analyzing the flux of neutrinos between the two vats, researchers should
be able to calculate the value of theta 13.
   It is necessary to shield the detectors with the mountain, because cosmic
rays from outer space can botch the results. That's why the experiment
must be carried out at Diablo Canyon, say scientists -- no other reactor
in the United States has such a convenient topography.
   While this will be Big Science, it will also be slow science. Though a
reactor spews out mind-numbing quantities of harmless neutrinos,
collisions with protons are rare. In a similar experiment in Japan, the
average was about one hit every three days. The experiment, then, will
consist of the big vats of mineral oil sitting quietly under a mountain
for six or seven years while results are recorded and transmitted to
laboratories automatically.
   That makes for a benign project, said Freedman -- and one that will
produce huge payoffs with few, if any, downsides. PG&E seemed to agree
with the physicists when the idea was broached last year.
   "We were talking to them, working in partnership with Cal Poly, and things
seemed to be going pretty smoothly," said Freedman. "Then (in September),
they abruptly got negative."
   That has since led Freedman's group to initiate negotiations with the
managers of the Daya Bay nuclear complex in China, about 25 miles from
Hong Kong.
   "It's close to the mountains, so it's also suitable," Freedman said.
"They've also been much more responsive to the idea than PG&E."
   Still, said Freedman, "Diablo is an ideal site, and it'd be wonderful to
do this work in the United States. If we built this project here, the
entire international community (involved in neutrino work) would coalesce
around it."
   Jeff Lewis, a spokesman for PG&E, said the company did not dismiss the
proposal lightly.
   "A lot of the (staff) scientists at Diablo were very interested in this
project, would have liked to have seen it happen here," Lewis said. "But
several things are working against it -- timing being one of them."
   Lewis said the utility is now involved in two major projects at Diablo --
   creating a storage site for spent fuel rods and replacing the plant's
steam generator.
   "Those projects are going to occupy us for the rest of this decade, and
they're going to require movement and access through a very constricted
part of the property -- the same part where the neutrino experiment would
be located," Lewis said.
   Plant security is another concern, Lewis said.
   "Federal security requirements are changing by leaps and bounds," he said.
"We don't know what they're going to be one month from the next. So
there's the risk they could start (the experiment) but not finish it. Or
what happens if we go back to Orange Security Threat Level? Whenever that
happens, no one but plant employees could go back there."
   Some environmentalists also are chary of the proposal.
   "These mountains are a particularly beautiful part of the county, and a
lot of effort has already been expended by the Nature Conservancy and the
San Luis Obispo Land Conservancy to buy and conserve them," said Gordon
Hensley, the executive director of Environment in the Public Interest and
San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper.
   "The last thing we need is another major construction project on this part
of the coast," Hensley said. "There has been no discussion of
environmental impacts or alternatives."
   Hensley noted funding has not yet been secured for the project.
   "UC Berkeley really hasn't done a good job of selling this," he said. "The
real story is that a lot of people are competing to do this kind of
cutting-edge research. I know the University of Washington wants to do
something similar. This is about a race for grant money."
   But Anthony Buffa, a professor of physics at Cal Poly, said San Luis
Obispo would do well to win any such competition.
   "This is going to be the only big global physics experiment scheduled in
the next decade, and it will either be done here or in China," Buffa said.
"The prestige of the U.S. is on the line."
   The experiment also means a great deal locally, said Buffa.
   "It will enhance the reputation of Cal Poly, and it will bring $25 million
or more directly to the county in construction jobs," he said.
   Buffa scoffed at PG&E's objections.
   "First they said (the issues) were environmental, then security, and then
when they realized neither were valid, it was all about their upcoming
fuel rod and steam generator projects," Buffa said. "But we wouldn't be a
problem, and they know it. They're an elephant, we're an ant. When the
elephant moves, the ant waits and only continues when the elephant is out
of the way."
   E-mail Glen Martin at glenmartin@sfchronicle.com. ----------------------------------------------------------------------
Copyright 2004 SF Chronicle
Received on Fri Nov 12 15:53:53 2004

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