Policymakers in Bucharest are renewing efforts to get all components of the laser research facility up and running before EU fines for delays kick in
Romania made mistakes over the management of the contract for the construction of a gamma beam at the state-of-the-art EU research infrastructure, ELI-Nuclear Physics, and must now move things forward, the country’s recently appointed science minister, Sebastian Burduja has said.
Burduja, who took up the post in May this year, told Science|Business it would be “a shame not to finish a project that has huge potential” to advance science in Romania and Europe.
The construction of the gamma beam, a secondary piece of equipment to the main high intensity laser system at the Extreme Light Infrastructure – Nuclear Physics (ELI-NP) facility, has been bogged down in complications since 2015.
EuroGammaS, a consortium of European research institutions and companies, was awarded the contract to build the gamma beam, but a dispute about the specifications of the building to house it led to the contract being cancelled by Romania’s institute of Physics and Nuclear Engineering (IFIN-HH).
Following this, EuroGammaS and IFIN-HH have been involved in court cases over the cancellation since 2018. Now government officials say it is time to put the past to bed and move on with the project.
“We're really trying to be very constructive and not ask whose fault it is. We've certainly made mistakes – that's the reality of it,” said Burduja.
The shift in attitude is driven by the recognition it is in the government’s interest to complete the installation of the beam. “We see it as an essential part of Romanian infrastructure, but also an essential part of European knowledge and access to knowledge,” Burduja said. “It's a project that's never been done in the world, it has huge potential, it would be a huge shame not to finish it according to the parameters that were set in the beginning.”
The complications, though, do not end here because after the contract with EuroGammaS was cancelled, a US company Lyncean Technologies was handed a €42 million deal to take over and complete construction on the gamma beam. But in March this year the journal Science reported rumours that the company was facing bankruptcy.
Burduja said the Romanian government has not received any definitive communication from the company on this matter. “We're evaluating to see their capacity to carry the project all the way to the end and essentially finalise the gamma source,” he said.
According to Burduja, Lyncean had some financial trouble in the past couple of years, but he is not yet aware of the company declaring bankruptcy. “I think it's public information that they've had some challenges during the pandemic but to my knowledge they have made no formal notification [about the bankruptcy issue] at this point,” he said.
Science|Business did not receive any response from Lyncean to emails asking about its capacity to complete the project.
Burduja said that if the company is unable to complete the project they would look at alternative options, including going back to the EuroGammaS consortium.
Deadlines, penalties and litigation
The ELI-NP project has already gone through two phases of EU funding, and cannot be “phased” again. It means that the facility needs to be completed by the end of 2023 to maintain its EU funding. There is a two-year buffer in which, if the project is not fully completed, the Romanian government can step in and fund it with its own resources.
If it is not completed after that buffer, which means by the end of 2025, then Romania risks a heavy penalty from the European Commission, something Burduja says it wants to avoid. The facility is being built at a total cost of €300 million, most of which is from EU structural funds, with only a small portion being covered by the Romanian government.
The project remains in limbo and cannot move forward because of the ongoing court cases over the cancellation of the first contract with EuroGammaS. This is eating into the time left to complete it, but Burduja said there is the possibility of an amicable settlement.
One possibility is that an agreement is reached about the terms of the first contract. For example, the completion of stage one of the construction of the gamma beam – there were three planned stages – could be deemed satisfactory in terms of meeting the contract requirements.
The equipment delivered to the facility as part of that first stage could also eventually be used to build a radioactive beam infrastructure that could be a tool for nuclear research.
Pierluigi Campana, a member of the executive board of the Italian Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN), one of the main partners in the EuroGammaS consortium, has been following the events at ELI-NP for several years and says the situation is “very complex”.
According to Campana, things are now better, although INFN still needs some political action from the Romanian government. “We cannot hope to build the full [gamma beam] machine by 2025 because we have wasted so much time,” he said, admitting that the terms of the EuroGammaS contract could be amended so only phase one needs to be completed.
Campana said he feels the situation is moving forward positively and that recently steps have been taken by the Romanian government to resolve the issues. He spoke to Burduja at the end of July to lay out the situation and said the conclusion was that “the best path is to conclude the legal issues.”
Burduja has also held talks with the Italian and French ambassadors to Romania, both of whose countries had stakes in EuroGammaS, to try to smooth out relations, as the contract dispute has had an impact on Romania’s international reputation.
“The very horrible way of treating international partners was not without consequences. The whole scientific community of Romania is suffering,” Campana said. “On the other hand, our institutions have suffered because they put a lot of resources into a project that was blocked for years and this was devastating.”
Science|Business also contacted another EuroGammaS partner, France’s national research centre CNRS, but it declined to comment on the situation.
Campana said that despite the history, EuroGammaS would still work with Romania.
At the end of September there will be a technical meeting in Rome with representatives of Romania and the consortium to discuss how best to use the ELI-NP facility, an indication the research and science element is moving forward in spite of the politics. The general opinion of those directly or indirectly involved with ELI-NP is that science, research and the pursuit of knowledge is more important than what is going on in Bucharest courts.
Another indicator of this is ELI-NP’s growing involvement in the European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC). ELI-NP was built as part of a triumvirate of laser research facilities in central and eastern Europe.
In Hungary there is the ELI Alps institute and in Czech Republic there is ELI Beamlines. These two other facilities have come together to form the ELI European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC), which ELI-NP was left out of, due in part to the bad relations that came about after the cancellation of the EuroGammaS contract.
ELI-ERIC recently put out a call for users at the three laser institutions, with the deadline on September 9. The first projects are due to start in October and last until March. A second call for users will be put out in January 2023.
Allen Weeks, director general of ELI ERIC, said he is very pleased that the call went out with the involvement of IFIN-HH and ELI-NP. “This demonstrates that all the facilities are working closely together, on a scientific level, to deliver the best and most advanced portfolio of laser sources in the world to the global science community,” he said.
Weeks said he could not put a timeframe on ELI-NP fully joining ERIC, but is optimistic it will happen as the facility nears completion.
ELI-NP director Călin Ur agreed with this assessment, saying, “Even if we are not part of ERIC, we are participating in the process of defining the rules that will govern the consortium in such a way that when we join, we will be prepared to do so immediately and to be effective.” ELI-NP has received a high number of requests as part of ELI ERIC’s call for users.
Nicolae Marginean, director general of the IFIN-HH, stressed the need to talk about the potential of the ELI-NP facility rather than the contract disputes over the gamma beam.
The facility has huge potential, particularly the high intensity laser system which is equipped with two 10-petawatt lasers. This unique capability will allow scientists to carry out research on improving X-ray imaging, fine tuning the use of radiotherapy in cancer treatment, investigating how materials will react to radiation in space and more.
Testing on the laser system is ongoing but successful trials of it at 100 terawatts and one petawatt have already been conducted. Ur said that the team of international experts brought in to run the trials described the facility as “one of the best in the world” in terms of the characteristics and quality of the beam.
If the issues with the gamma beam can be resolved and ELI-NP gets fully up and running, then there is little doubt that Romania will have a world-class facility capable of attracting the best and brightest talent from around the world. Marginean said it will be, “A cluster of excellence in nuclear science.”
For Ur, it is vital that the project is a success. “We have to demonstrate that we are capable of handling large research projects,” he said.
The Bucharest facility will help Romania stop the brain drain and attract research talent from around the world. “Most are going abroad to do research because the offer here in terms of research equipment is limited […] was limited,” he said. “Now, by having these possibilities, we can bring back people who left Romania and we can bring researchers from around the world to work here.”
Editor's note: This article was updated 16 September 2022. ELI-NP has not assumed the position of Founding Observer of ELI-ERIC yet.