The last time physicists tried to unlock one of the universe’s best-kept secrets – the existence of the Higgs boson, or so-called ‘God particle’ – they provoked fears that the end of the world was nigh.
This time around, Japanese scientists are showing a little more nerve: by planning to locate their highly sensitive particle accelerator in the middle of an earthquake-prone area.
Japan is ploughing ahead with plans to host the International Linear Collider (ILC), a successor to the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) in Geneva, despite misgivings over its safety and cost.
Cern’s particle accelerator attracted widespread media coverage in 2008 after a group of scientists tried to prevent it from being switched on, claiming in a lawsuit lodged at the European Court of Human Rights that its activation could create either a mini-black hole that would swallow the earth or perhaps a catastrophic reaction in the fabric of space and time that would rip the entire universe apart.
In contrast, Japan’s ministry of science and technology has been prosaic in weighing up the pros and cons of its own machine – noting the considerable costs of the plan but saying the facility housing the accelerator could be constructed on a bedrock of granite to ensure it could withstand an earthquake.
Of course, there would be positives to hosting the world’s longest linear particle accelerator – at between 30km and 50km the ILC would be more than 10 times as long as its nearest rival (Cern’s LHC, which is 27km is built in a circular tunnel).
By colliding electrons with positrons, the ILC could provide scientists with a greater understanding of the Higgs boson, the existence of which was first proved by its predecessor, including information on its mass, spin, and interactions. It may also grant new insight into dark matter – a type of matter that is thought to make up 85 per cent of the universe, but which has never been proven to exist.
With the stakes high, the Yomiuri newspaper has waded into the debate, declaring that the Japanese bid to host the particle accelerator should be chosen ahead of other proposals, including from Germany, Russia, the United States and Britain, because, “Japan has achieved many accomplishments in the field of particle physics.”
The proposed site of the ILC in the Kitakami Highlands is less than 80km from the port town of Kesennuma, which was devastated by the 2011 tsunami disaster. And although there is no likelihood of a tsunami hitting the planned site, the region is undeniably prone to earthquakes.
That has, understandably, led to fears among those who point at that before March 2011 there were plenty of experts claiming to be certain the sea defences around the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant would protect it in the event of an earthquake or tsunami.
“I do not believe that Japan is the right place for nuclear reactors and although I do not know all the precautions that they are planning to take with the collider, I’m not sure that this is a good idea either,” said Kevin Short, a professor of cultural anthropology at Tokyo University of Information Sciences.
“One of the biggest problems is the organisational culture at work here, which is not always totally honest and lacks the checks and balances that are required for a project like this,” he said.
The fear was that government officials and those tasked with ensuring safety would approve a project even if it fell short of the required standards, he said, referencing a recent scandal in which safety tests on skyscrapers’ earthquake defences were falsified.
For its part, the ministry seems most concerned about the costs of constructing the project, which are estimated at up to Ұ803 billion (HK$55.41 billion), though the final figure may be as much as 25 per cent higher. Annual operating costs for the 20-year project are put at Ұ40 billion.
As host nation, Japan would be expected to cover half the total construction costs and a similar amount of the annual operational expenditures – a significant figure in a nation with a national debt already 200 per cent of gross domestic product.
“Clearly, cutting-edge research and advances in the sciences are going to be expensive – but those figures are a lot of money,” said Makoto Watanabe, an associate professor of media and communications at Hokkaido Bunkyo University.
“Even if Japan is only expected to pay half the total, I can imagine there are going to be a lot of people here who will argue that money would be far better spent on health care, education, infrastructure or in other areas that could potentially improve the quality of lives of millions of people,” he said.
“Especially when you consider that a lot of what they are planning to research is theoretical and there are no clear ideas of how it might be applied,” he said. “Those applications might be in the very distant future and have no meaning to people who need assistance today.”
And, even assuming any cosmic catastrophe is avoided, critics have another environmental concern of considerable proportions – the impact excavating a 50km tunnel would have on the local environment.