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Soviet particle accelerator is one time forgot

A Soviet particle accelerator is a largely deserted project now, one that costs Russia about $2.7 million a year to keep it pumped dry of ground water.
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Last September, work began on a new particle accelerator in the small Russian town of Dubna, just outside of Moscow, slated for completion in 2016. Dubbed NIKA, it is intended to complement Switzerland's Large Hadron Collider — which aims to discover more subatomic particles, most notably the Higgs boson — to investigate the process by which such particles first appeared by recreating the conditions of the Big Bang.

With so many eyes on the LHC these days, most news outlets missed that announcement. Even less well-known is the fact that that back in the late 1980s, the USSR started building what would have been the largest particle accelerator in the world in a town called Protvino.

The proton accelerator was known by its Russian acronym, UNK, and was the brainchild of scientists at Russia's Institute for High Energy Physics.

While some progress had been made by 1996, the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent economic difficulties put the kibosh on the collider, thanks to funding cuts.

Today, the site is largely deserted, and it costs Russia roughly 80 million rubles ($2.7 million) a year to keep it pumped dry of ground water. It has also become something of a "tourist spot" for self-proclaimed urban explorers. That's where this impressive collection of photographs were taken, a striking testament to what might have been.

Not much information is readily available about this half-finished accelerator. But there is a lengthy account of an expedition by one such urban explorer, who goes by the handle "siologen," over at the 28dayslater forum.

The access point remains secret, but the explorers got down into the main tunnel via a caged ladder system, since the old lift shafts were rusted out and ruined. Despite the pumping, they found themselves shin-deep in water in some places. Abandoned tools litter the flooring.

There are three tunnels, each the length of the average Moscow subway line, and that's not a coincidence: that's the equipment the builders had at their disposal, so that's what they used. The unfinished outer tunnel was intended to house a train system, with the inner tunnel — now welded shut and completely flooded — had been meant to house the power supply.

The forum poster estimates that it would take days to walk the entire length of the facility — points of which have been barricaded — since it's over 50 kilometers long. At least the main tunnel has tracks for small locomotives to transport workers and supplies from one end of the tunnel to the other.

The United States has its own particle physics ghost site: the remains of the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) near Waxahachie, Texas, sometimes dubbed the "Desertron." This was a flagship project of the Department of Energy in the late 1980s, and construction officially began in 1991. But the costs soared far beyond the original budget estimate, and in 1993 Congress voted to suspend the project —a very unpopular decision among physicists, needless to say. By then, workers had dug roughly 14 miles of tunnel and sunk 17 shafts, at a cost of $2 billion.

The SSC site has since been sold to an investment group, but as of October 2010, it's still abandoned. Who knows what they'll end up using it for? At least it inspired a novel by the great Herman Wouk, "A Hole in Texas."