Scientists looking for underground lab site

Saturday, February 17, 2001

CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) - Scientists interested in building an underground laboratory to "listen to nature's secrets" are considering locating the lab at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

Earth's surface is a noisy place for scientists trying to study some of the universe's quietest phenomena, and backers say the underground nuclear waste dump would be ideal.

Cosmic rays banging down from space create a cacophony of unwanted noise in scientists' instruments, scientist Roger Nelson said.

The answer is to locate instruments deep underground. The thick Earth blocks out the cosmic noise, while the things scientists are interested in pass through the planet as if it was not there.

The laboratory could be used to detect neutrinos - the tiniest bits of matter - from the sun or help in the search for the universe's mysterious missing "dark matter."

Underground physics experiments have long been done in mines, but no major laboratory in the United States is capable of supporting the work, said Todd Haines, a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Haines said he has had to travel to Japan to work on a research project that needs the quiet of an underground laboratory.

The Carlsbad facility is one of three sites being studied by a scientific committee for the underground laboratory.

The Homestack gold mine in South Dakota is in the running, and a group from California is pushing the idea of digging a tunnel into the side of Mount San Jacinto east of Los Angeles.

New Mexico advocates say the dump's existing heavy elevators, modern mine safety equipment and advanced power and communication systems make it an ideal location.

Nelson said radiation from the plutonium-contaminated waste stored their would not be a problem since it would be more than a half mile away and shielded by containers and the thick salt beds.