UW News

April 8, 2004

UW physicists propose underground lab in Washington

News and Information

Two UW physicists, responding to a new National Science Foundation plan, are preparing a proposal to place a Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory beneath the Cascade Mountains in Eastern Washington.

Wick Haxton and John F. Wilker-son, UW physics professors who originally supported a plan to place a laboratory in a closed South Dakota gold mine, will propose building a lab with horizontal access tunnels under Cashmere Mountain near Leavenworth, Wash.

“We think a horizontal-access site makes the most sense in terms of design and operating costs,” Haxton said.

The National Science Foundation last week set the framework for accepting proposals to begin building an underground lab in the United States by the end of the decade. The NSF is expected to formally call for proposals in May.

Haxton and Wilkerson hope to have a pre-proposal available for public scrutiny in about a month, if there are no objections from the NSF, and a final proposal would be made public and would be submitted to the NSF later this year.

“We hope the proposal process will result in good scientific and public discussion about building a deep underground laboratory,” Haxton said.

The UW physicists will refer to their proposal as Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory/Cascades, adding a Washington state reference to the NSF’s designated name for the project. The NSF has tentatively set 2008 to begin financing construction, if the agency decides that one of the half-dozen proposals expected to be submitted has strong enough scientific merit to proceed.

It has been nearly three years since a panel of 100 leading physicists proposed a lab at Homestake Mine in South Dakota, where gold mining since has ceased after 125 years. Access to the main lab there would be via elevators from the surface down to the 7,400-foot level.

The Cascades proposal would place the laboratory about 7,700 feet under the top of a massive granite mountain. Two tunnels, each three miles long, would start at an elevation of 2,100 feet and would angle downward to the main lab. That would allow people and equipment to be driven into the laboratory, and would greatly reduce operating costs over the laboratory’s minimum life of 40 years, Haxton said. Geological consultants have identified Cashmere Mountain, an 8,501-foot peak eight miles west of Leavenworth, as ideal for underground science, he said.

The science conducted in such a lab would include research involving subatomic particles called neutrinos, which physicists believe could be key to understanding the workings of the universe. Placing a neutrino detector in an underground lab shields it from the interference of cosmic rays that are commonplace at the surface. An underground lab also would be ideal for a variety of other scientific work, would foster education on all levels and would help train the nation’s future scientific work force.

The UW scientists have held meetings with the public and community leaders to listen to local comments and find answers for concerns about building and operating an underground laboratory in the Leavenworth area. Now they are completing their pre-proposal that will begin to provide details of their plans for the public and for other physicists and earth scientists.

Besides the Cascades and South Dakota, other proposals are likely to come for sites in Colorado, California, West Virginia and Minnesota.

Wilkerson, a key participant in acclaimed research at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in a mine near Sudbury, Ontario, noted that so far U.S. scientists who want to do research in protected environments underground have had to go to places such as Canada, Japan, Russia and Italy.

“Having a deep-underground laboratory is a high priority in the U.S. physics community,” he said. “There has been a long history of more than 30 years during which good ideas from the United States have been done at underground labs around the world, but not in the United States, because we don’t have a facility. There is a real compelling need based on the science, and there are a lot of potential benefits.”

On the Internet: http://mocha.phys.washington.edu/NUSEL/