DOE studies F-RIB environmental impact


Mid-Michigan residents had an opportunity to comment on a major scientific research project last night.

Michigan State University and the U.S. Department of Energy hosted a public hearing on the planned Facility for Rare Isotope Beams.

"F-RIB," as it's called, promises to be a massive undertaking. The construction phase alone could take up to six years and officials are trying to determine how the project may affect the environment.

WKAR's Kevin Lavery reports.

AUDIO: For nearly a year, mid-Michigan has been buzzing with talk of the economic promise the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams holds for the region. The $550,000,000 project is expected to yield twice as much in economic activity and create 180 permanent jobs. For local leaders, F-RIB has been the shining dream that's somehow softened the economy's dizzying blow.

But there's some heavy lifting to do now before the earth movers arrive. The Department of Energy - the funder - and MSU, the builder - are studying the project's potential environmental impact.

Peter Siebach works for the DOE. He's the agency's NEPA compliance officer. That's shorthand for the National Environmental Policy Act. Siebach says he's not worried about radiation.

"Michigan State has had a permit with the NRC, or a permit, with NRC since 1977," Siebach says. "They've been successfully managing small amounts of nuclear materials or radioactive materials for 50 years."

Siebach's main concern is the construction itself. The project's centerpiece is a 1,000 foot underground tunnel. It's called the Linear Accelerator. It's the giant racetrack scientists will use to smash heavy ions together to create stable isotopes. Siebach wants to head off the dangers that come with digging a five-story trench.

"You know, you've got a trench that's up to 50 feet deep," Siebach explains, "and you have to worry about the safety of the construction workers and the safety of the students."

Siebach says there's bound to be some noise pollution. He's also expecting an increased demand for electricity from the campus power plant. Air and water emissions could be a factor too and Siebach says regulators will keep a close eye throughout the process. And then there's the inevitable road closures that may re-route traffic.

Last night's hearing drew about 50 people. A handful of placards laden with diagrams and data welcomed those who came to learn more.

MSU student Andrew Lemarbe admits he doesn't quite grasp the nuance of nuclear physics.

"I don't know anything about science," Lemarbe said.

But he does understand the financial bottom line.

"And Michigan's really hurting," he continued. "So it's clear that the economy is the huge driver here. It seems relatively safe that was my big concern. So why not do something like that as long as you're still maintaining safety."

MSU professor Ken Frank says he hopes officials are taking the necessary precautions. He was in Europe a year ago when scientists there tested the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest high-energy particle accelerator.

"I didn't think there were huge environmental concerns in Europe," Frank says. "I mean, people were saying well, it could theoretically create a black hole and this and that but actually, they went and sputtered and splurted and didn't do a whole lot. I guess I worry about other things that we do that will have bigger environmental impacts."

Scientists will use F-RIB to probe the very nature of matter. In studying the stuff of stars, researchers hope to also advance more practical applications, such as treating tumors and detecting explosives. Conrad Gelbke directs the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory on campus. He knows those things will take care of themselves. For him, the thrill is entering uncharted scientific terrain.

"It's like Columbus," Gelbke says. "They could have said, what was your excitement, and he'd have said, oh I want to make a spice trade with India but he did find something entirely different which I think at the end was much more important. So I sort of feel we're going on a major discovery mission, and that's the exciting thing for me."

The Department of Energy is taking public comments on the environmental effects until December 11. Then, the agency will create a draft environmental assessment by next spring. Construction is set to begin in 2013.