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World’s largest laser lab rocked by slew of disputes

Delays and disagreements plague final stages of the world-leading, €875-million Extreme Light Infrastructure being built across Eastern Europe.

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A researcher adjusts equipment at the research centre ELI Beamlines in the Czech Republic.

The Extreme Light Infrastructure in Romania, Hungary and Czech Republic will be the world’s most sophisticated laser science facility.Credit: Vit Simanek/CTK Photo/Alamy

When the European Union approved an ambitious €875-million project to build the world’s largest scientific laser facility, it was conducting its own pioneering experiment. Three former Communist countries would host the lasers, in a bid to boost science in the region. And, in an economic first, the research facility would be paid for with EU structural funds, which are typically used to build roads and power lines in poorer EU member states.

A decade after it was approved, the Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) — a network of high-powered laser laboratories in Hungary, Romania and Czech Republic — is now nearly ready to open to researchers around the world. But Nature has learnt that disputes in two of the host countries are rocking the project in its final stages, and threatening its reputation. The Romanian laboratory, designed to push the boundaries of nuclear physics, is locked in a legal tussle that is preventing the completion of its gamma source — a beam of high-intensity gamma rays that would allow the study of nuclear structure at unprecedented resolution. And a separate dispute at the Hungarian site has led to the resignation of three members of the lab’s science advisory committee.

Documents seen by Nature reveal that high-level efforts by the European Commission to cool tensions in Romania and keep the project on track have so far failed and that the dispute is raising doubts about Romania’s continued involvement in the project. Letters of concern written by nations involved in ELI’s development show that several countries hoping to join ELI, which will eventually be governed by an international CERN-like body, are reconsidering whether they will sign up.

“We hope that Romania will be able to catch up quickly and complete its facility in full, as it was originally proposed,” says Michael Prouza, head of the Czech laboratory.

On the frontier

ELI is designed as a system of powerful lasers and particle beams that would allow researchers to do frontier research in fundamental physics, astrophysics, materials science, biomedicine and even archaeology. Each facility hosts a different kind of laser. ELI-Beamlines near Prague focuses on short-pulse beams, which are useful in materials science and plasma physics while the ELI Attosecond Light Pulse Source (ELI-ALPS) in Szeged, Hungary, makes rapidly repeating, ultrashort pulses that could illuminate the structures of an atom’s nuclei and electrons (see ‘Guiding lights’).

The ELI Nuclear Physics (ELI-NP) facility near Bucharest has two main components. Its high-powered laser is ready for operation and can deliver the world’s most intense beams. But a stand-off between the lab’s leaders and developers of its gamma source has stalled its completion.

The dispute has led to Romania being shut out from ELI’s next crucial phase — the creation of the legal entity that will oversee all three sites, and have responsibility for raising the €75 million a year needed to run ELI, most of which will come from membership fees paid by ELI-participating countries. The Czech and Hungarian partners, whose facilities are close to completion, want to push forwards with the creation of the governing body — without Romania — so that they can open their doors to the scientific community next year. But that poses a problem, because such an organization requires at least three nations.

Italy — which alongside France, Germany and the United Kingdom is involved in coordinating ELI’s development — says that it will step in to enable the creation of the organization, known as a European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC), this year. “We are strongly convinced about the value of the frontier research that can be done with ELI, and in Italy we have a richly diverse scientific community that would like to exploit it,” says Massimo Inguscio, president of the Italian Research Council CNR.

Allen Weeks, ELI’s director-general, says, “We believe our Romanian colleagues will be able to resolve the issues and they will have the possibility to join the ERIC at that time.”

Source: European Commission/ELI

High-energy dispute

But Italy’s involvement does not solve the Romanian site’s gamma-source problem. In 2014, an international consortium called EuroGammaS won the contract to build the system. At issue is the building that will house the gamma source, which was purpose-built at the National Institute for Physics and Nuclear Engineering Horia Hulubei (IFIN-HH) in Bucharest. According to a project status report seen by Nature, tensions have plagued this part of the project for at least 18 months, and in November 2018, the Romanian facility’s director, Nicolae-Victor Zamfir, cancelled the contract.

EuroGammaS says that the building needs to be altered to meet workers’ safety regulations and the requirements of the sensitive machine, but that IFIN-HH has not authorized them to make the changes despite EuroGammaS offering to pay for them.

But Zamfir, who is also head of IFIN-HH, says that there are no problems with the building. “The building was designed appropriately and has all the necessary authorizations,” he told Nature. He says that the contract that EuroGammaS won included a description of the building in which the gamma source should be installed, and deviation from this description is legally difficult. Zamfir has asked EuroGammaS to take back the components it has delivered to IFIN-HH, and says he will create a new tender for the contract to replace EuroGammaS and install a source in the IFIN building.

EuroGammaS took IFIN-HH to court in Romania last October, hoping to force the institute to allow the source’s installation. It also sought to win back the €1.8 million that it had paid the Romanian institute in penalties accrued because of delays caused by the building issue. When Zamfir cancelled the contract, EuroGammaS asked the court to rule against the termination.

Mediation attempt

The escalating dispute prompted the European Commission to try to mediate earlier this year — but so far without success. In January, the EU’s regional policy commissioner Corina Creţu and research commissioner Carlos Moedas reached an agreement with Romanian, French and Italian representatives. A document summarizing this meeting shows that these parties agreed that the contract termination should be reversed, that the IFIN-HH should change the building as required, and that EuroGammaS should suspend all legal activities until mediation is complete.

But Romania has not yet signed the agreement. And although the European Commission and the French and Italian research ministers wrote in April to the Romanian research minister Nicolae Hurduc calling on him to respond, they say their letters have gone unanswered. (Hurduc did not respond to Nature’s request for comment.)

The situation has alarmed the other countries involved in ELI. A November letter from the Czech education minister to Hurduc says that at ELI’s general assembly in October France, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom expressed “serious concerns” about the dispute, and that the stand-off has prompted these nations to reconsider whether they will join the ELI-ERIC in the near future.

Atlas 100 lasers inside the ELI-NP facility near Bucharest, Romania

Laser equiptment at the ELI-NP facility near Bucharest, Romania.Credit: Octav Ganea/Inquam Photos via Reuters

The French and Italian research ministers also wrote in their April letter that “in the given circumstances, it remains difficult for our research teams and institutions to carry on with collaboration with ELI-NP”.

Zamfir says that Romania should not be excluded from the ERIC launch, despite the fact its gamma source is not yet ready, given that its laser is operational. “We can also offer a user facility,” he says. But Prouza says ELI was intended “not to break world records in laser power, but also to have beamlines and experimental areas”.

Hungarian site

In Hungary, a tussle between by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government and ELI-ALPS’s international science advisory committee prompted three scientists to resign from the panel in March. Physicists Reinhard Kienberger and Gerhard Paulus in Germany and Gyula Faigel in Hungary quit in protest against a government decree to invest 18.5 billion forint (US$63 million) in two national science projects that will “take advantage of the ELI-ALPS laser research center”.

The scientists complain that the science ministry failed to consult them on the plans, and that the process to approve the projects — which they say will take up substantial resources at ELI-ALPS — did not conform with accepted standards for review. They say that the two leading laser physicists coordinating the projects — Ferenc Krausz, at the Ludwig Maximillian University in Munich, and Gerard Mourou at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris — also advised the research ministry on their approval, which in their view poses a conflict of interest. In their resignation letter, seen by Nature, the scientists say the evaluation process poses “immediate risks to the facility and its reputation”.

Hungarian research minister László Palkovics told Nature that the ministry didn’t need to consult the ELI-APS committee because the projects are separate national initiatives that aren’t part of ELI.

Mourou, who won last year’s Nobel physics prize, told Nature that he had not been involved in the decision-making processes for the 570-million-forint project he is coordinating, which will try to treat nuclear waste with lasers. He says he considers the ELI-ALPS laser perfectly suited to testing his theory.

Krausz — who is involved in a 17.9-billion-forint project to develop laser-based techniques to detect cancer — also says that he was not involved in the decision-making process. He says that because he proposed the project, that would not have been in line with international standards.

Nature 569, 607-608 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01607-7

Updates & Corrections

  • Update 28 May 2019: This story has been updated with comments from Ferenc Krausz.

  • Correction 28 May 2019: An earlier version of this story included inaccurate figures for the cost of the ELI project and its constituent parts. These have been updated. It also stated that the Romanian site was the most expensive part of the project. In fact, the Czech site is the most expensive.

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