Battle for isotope
prize pits Illinois vs. Michigan
December 20, 2004
BY MICHAEL KRAUSS
Gov. Rod Blagojevich
held a rally for the state's top politicians, academics, business
and labor leaders last week kicking off a bipartisan effort to
bring the Department of Energy's $1 billion Rare Isotope Accelerator
project to Illinois.
would boost the Illinois economy. The 300-meter accelerator and
related infrastructure would bring an estimated 16,000 construction
jobs over an eight-year period. Once operational, the facility
would be a global locus for science research and technology innovation.
The accelerator could
fuel the creation of entrepreneurial startups, bringing a cascade
of economic growth. It would assure Illinois stays at the forefront
of physics research, a position held for more than 60 years. RIA
is the newest device that accelerates particles to near light
speed. Experiments enabled by RIA will help create cancer cures
and explain the fundamental nature of matter.
The main obstacle to
landing RIA is a determined team from Michigan that wants RIA
at Michigan State in East Lansing.
Blagojevich has introduced
an All-Star squad that has what it takes to win this contest.
Mirroring the holidays, the mood on the 56th floor of the BankOne
building was festive. Democrats praised Republicans. Republicans
praised Democrats. Labor leaders sat near corporate chieftains,
and university presidents and nuclear physicists were seen as
The meeting created
optimism. Maybe, just maybe, we can land one of the biggest technology
prizes to come along in years. With Blagojevich's appointment
of former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley and former Gov. Jim
Thompson to lead the "RIA for Illinois Task Force,"
Sen. Dick Durbin recalled
the 1960s competition to build Fermi Lab. "The thing that
struck me then was the total commitment at every level in the
State of Illinois," said Durbin. "It resulted in the
largest public works project to date in American history coming
to Illinois. It was a total bipartisan effort."
Can we do it again?
With Durbin as Senate Democratic whip and Rep. Dennis Hastert
as Speaker of the House, Illinois has the political power. Add
freshman Sen. Barack Obama and Rep. Judy Biggert, chair of the
Energy sub-committee of the House Science committee, and you get
a good feeling.
Our state's leaders
believe Argonne will be competitive. Still, they worry about a
close decision. In a tie-breaker, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham
(a former Michigan senator) might lean toward his home state,
but that worry evaporated when President Bush nominated Sam Bodman
to replace Abraham. "I received a call from Secretary of
Energy-designate Bodman," Durbin said. "He was calling
from the White House to let me know he was born in Illinois."
Now a close decision might go to Illinois.
winning RIA is a top priority. He compared Thompson and Daley
to having Mark Prior and Kerry Wood on the mound for Illinois.
"I've asked them to pitch for us in Washington," Blagojevich
"On the merits,
Argonne ought to receive this project," said Thompson. "There's
a singular focus on this type of activity at Argonne and the University
of Chicago, and over 50 years of experience. We have to make the
case in Washington at the Department of Energy, in Congress and
at the White House."
He urged the business
community to help.
"The one thing
we've learned is the importance of science to the future of this
nation," said Daley. "This is an opportunity for Illinois
to take the lead worldwide."
Daley sees RIA as a
potent tool to keep Illinois and the nation competitive.
skeptic no more
Until the rally, I
was skeptical. Did we have our act together? With budget fights
in Springfield, debates about airports, and the uncertainty over
casinos, I feared a mega federal project like RIA would slip.
Not true. The Governor and Illinois Department of Commerce and
Economic Opportunity Director Jack Lavin have their eye on the
The first hint came
in mid-November, when Blagojevich gained a bipartisan resolution
in the Illinois General Assembly supporting RIA. Since resolutions
lack teeth, I remained skeptical. I'm skeptical no more. Our best
players are on the field.
Let's hope the spirit
of bi-partisanship lasts beyond the holidays and into the spring
when RIA's location is decided.
That would be a real
Krauss is a Chicago-based tech writer and consultant.