More Than Secrets Leaking at CERN

Providing an anticlimactic fizzle to its controversial launch, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider has proven dangerous only to itself. Operations have twice been interrupted by mechnical problems, and the latest will take months to repair. 

The world’s largest particle collider  malfunctioned within hours of its launch, but the media was led to believe there had been a successful startup and CERN did not admit the truth until September 18, after the Associated Press called asking about rumors of trouble.

In a statement Thursday, the European Organization for Nuclear Research reported for the first time that a 30-ton transformer that cools part of the collider broke, forcing physicists to stop using the atom smasher just a day after starting it up last week.

Then the day after that revelation, September 19, the LHC administered itself the coup de grace, suffering a major failure. The CERN press release explains:

During commissioning (without beam) of the final LHC sector (sector 34) at high current for operation at 5 TeV, an incident occurred at mid-day on Friday 19 September resulting in a large helium leak into the tunnel. Preliminary investigations indicate that the most likely cause of the problem was a faulty electrical connection between two magnets, which probably melted at high current leading to mechanical failure. CERN’s strict safety regulations ensured that at no time was there any risk to people.

A full investigation is underway, but it is already clear that the sector will have to be warmed up for repairs to take place. This implies a minimum of two months down time for LHC operation. For the same fault, not uncommon in a normally conducting machine, the repair time would be a matter of days.

Follow LHC’s cooldown status at the official site.

Update 9/23/2008: CNN reports that repairs to the LHC will keep it inactive until next spring.