Bringing Science to the Desert

THE SUPERCONDUCTING SUPER COLLIDER

The history of human activity in Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert suggests that it is a place where the biggest of human ideas can take root. During the 1980’s this tendency took the shape of a detailed proposal to turn a section of Great Basin desert into the world’s most cutting edge science and research destination.

Diagram of how the SSC would operate (series 83904).
Diagram of how the SSC would operate (series 83904).

The story begins in 1987 when the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced plans to undertake a site-selection process that would find a home for the world’s largest superconducting super collider (SSC). The design of a super collider called for two proton beams to be aimed at one another. In a super collider, particles moving at near the speed of light smash into one another and are broken down to their most basic subatomic particle units. In this way conditions that appeared moments after the Big Bang are replicated and scientists are able to learn more about the most basic forces that govern our universe.

UTAH’S BID

For Utah leaders the SSC appeared to have the more tangible benefits of potentially spurring massive social and economic growth along the Wasatch Front. With Governor Norman Bangerter acting as Utah’s principle agent, state planners determined that Utah would make a formal proposal to the DOE for construction of the SSC in Utah’s Great Basin Desert. Early estimates pegged the project’s construction cost at $600 million per year over a six or seven year period. This included an influx of approximately 4,000 construction jobs and an annual operating budget for the SSC upon completion that would have totaled $270 million per year.

Photograph of Utah's SSC Task Force (series 83904).
Photograph of Utah’s SSC Task Force (series 83904).

The consulting firm of Dames and Moore was hired by the state to conduct a site review and help draft the formal proposal that fit the site specific qualification criteria demanded by the DOE. Dames and Moore was assisted in the process by the Ralph M. Parsons Company, Roger Foott Associates, Inc., Bear West Consulting, the Wasatch Front Regional Council, and the Data Resources Section of the Utah Office of Planning and Budget.

The qualification criteria for the SSC that was issued by the DOE reveal the massive energy and resource needs of the project. The design of the SSC called for a tube 10 feet in diameter to be buried 20 feet below the ground surface, in order to shield above ground monitoring areas from radiation. This tube would have run 52 miles in an oval raceway measuring 17.4 miles by 14.6 miles. The above ground monitoring and campus facilities were to be connected to the underground testing areas. The DOE estimated that 4,000 acres was needed for above ground operations, with additional rights to another 4,000 to 5,000 acres for future tunneling. The power and water demands for the SSC and its off-site support facilities would have been equivalent to a town of 30,000 people.

SSC RECORDS

Two initial reports were created by Dames and Moore in February and March of 1987 that laid out the specifications of the SSC, as well as an initial assessment of areas in Utah that could prove feasible for construction. Based on these reports, two areas in Utah’s west desert were chosen for a more thorough assessment and review.

Ultimately two separate multi-volume proposals were created for the sites in question. The first, entitled the “Cedar Mountains Siting Proposal” focused on a region 52 miles west of Salt Lake City, near Skull Valley. The second proposal, entitled the “Ripple Valley Siting Proposal” focused on an area 69 miles west of Salt Lake City, near the Knolls exit on Interstate 80. The reports generated for each site proposal focused on geology, local environment, public land availability, regional conditions, and available utilities and infrastructure. They also laid out concessions the state of Utah was willing to make to the DOE to ensure site selection. The formal siting reports were submitted to the DOE for review on September 02, 1987.

SSC siting proposal for the Cedar Mountains area near Skull Valley (series 83904).
SSC siting proposal for the Cedar Mountains area near Skull Valley (series 83904).

Due to the immensity of the SSC proposal, multiple government agencies were involved in its planning. The records created from this process are now held by the Utah State Archives. They include SSC proposal records from the Utah Energy Office, SSC Task Force records from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, special project files from the Utah Department of Natural Resources Geological Survey, economic development records from the office of Governor Norman Bangerter, and SSC records from the Utah Office of Economic Business and Research.

Letter on DOE's decision to not select Utah for the SSC (series 10263).
Letter on DOE’s decision to not select Utah for the SSC (series 10263).

FATE OF THE SSC

In December 1987, the National Academy of Science, and the National Academy of Engineering made a recommendation to the U.S. Department of Energy that Utah not be included on the shortlist of sites for the SSC. Instead, the project was ultimately awarded to Texas in November 1988. Construction on the SSC (now nicknamed “Desertron”) began in 1991 near the central-Texas town of Waxahachie.

During construction seventeen shafts were sunk and 14.6 miles of tunnel were bored (out of an estimated 54.1 miles needed) before claims of government mismanagement, sky-rocketing costs, an oncoming recession, and shifts in federal political power combined to end construction on the project for good in 1993. By the time construction was halted the federal government had spent $2 billion dollars on the SSC (with an estimated price tag of an additional $12 billion needed to successfully finish it).

Some of the massive costs associated with the project can be pinned on the extreme difficulties workers encountered with tunneling through bedrock and creating the needed infrastructure deep underground. Had the SSC project been completed, its two 20 TeV per proton energy beams would have made it the largest super collider on Earth (even larger than the Large Hadron Collider that was built near Geneva, Switzerland that became operational in 2009).

The DOE ultimately deeded the SSC site in Waxahachie to Ellis County, Texas after construction was halted. In 2006 the site was sold to a private company which began marketing it as a data center. The site was sold again in 2012 to chemical company, Magnablend.

In retrospect, it is interesting to consider the fate of the SSC had the site selection process landed on Utah, making this one of the better “what if” stories in recent Utah history!


SOURCES

Utah State Archives and Records Service, Utah Energy Office, Superconducting Super Collider Proposal, Series 353.

Utah State Archives and Records Service, Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, Superconducting Super Collider Task Force Records, Series 10263.

Utah State Archives and Records Service, Department of Natural Resources Geological Survey, Special Report Files, Series 25708.

Utah State Archives and Records Service, Economic Business Research, Superconducting Super Collider Records, Series 83904.

Kevles, Daniel J. “Good-bye to the SSC: On the Life and Death of the Superconducting Super Collider.” Engineering and Science Winter, Vol. 2  (1995): 15-26. Web. 17 Nov. 2014.