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Doomsday lawsuit dismissed

CERN
A hardhat worker is dwarfed by the Large Hadron Collider's ATLAS detector
during construction. Click on the image for a larger version.

A federal judge in Hawaii today dismissed a lawsuit raising fears about Europe's Large Hadron Collider, on the grounds that she had no jurisdiction over the multibillion-dollar project.

In a 26-page ruling, District Judge Helen Gillmor said that the world's largest particle-smasher was not subject to U.S. environmental regulations because the federal government didn't contribute enough money or play enough of a role in controlling the experiment.

After years of construction, the LHC was started up at low energy on Sept. 10, sending beams of protons around a 17-mile-round (27-kilometer-round) ring of tunnels beneath the French-Swiss border. On the day after the startup, however, the machine suffered a magnet malfunction, and more serious problems cropped up a week later.

This week, Europe's CERN particle-physics organization announced that the LHC would be shut down until next spring, due to the time needed for repairs as well as the experiment's previously planned winter break.

The LHC, which is arguably the world's biggest and most expensive science experiment, is expected to extend the frontiers of physics over the next decade. It could help scientists solve puzzles about the origins of the universe, the nature of mass and dark matter and the potential existence of extra unseen dimensions.

But the plaintiffs in the federal civil case - retired nuclear safety officer Walter Wagner and Spanish science writer Luis Sancho - voiced fears that the machine could create black holes or bits of exotic matter capable of destroying the earth. Experts have ruled out such scenarios in a series of safety reports. Nevertheless, the plaintiffs filed suit in March, seeking a suspension of operations at the collider until still more safety reviews could be conducted.

Among the defendants were the Europe's CERN particle-physics organization as well as the U.S. Energy Department and the National Science Foundation. Federal attorneys argued that the court had no jurisdiction over the LHC - and ultimately, Gillmor agreed.

She did not directly address the scientific issues raised by the plaintiffs, but said that federal court was the wrong place to consider the legal matter.

Gillmor noted that the federal government's $531 million contribution to the LHC's construction budget was less than 10 percent of the total cost, which has been estimated at between $5.8 billion and $10 billion. She also noted that the federal government did not play a part in managing operations at the collider. For those reasons, the U.S. role in the project did not constitute a "major federal action" under the terms of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, she said.

The judge said that Wagner and Sancho didn't provide any evidence sufficient to show that the court had the power to rule. "Plaintiffs appear to believe they invoked federal jurisdiction by simply filing suit in a federal court," she wrote. "They have not met their burden of establishing that jurisdiction exists."

Because of that lack of jurisdiction, Gillmor said she would not address the other claims and counterclaims contained in the hundreds of pages of documents filed over the past six months.

"It is clear that plaintiffs' action reflects disagreement among scientists about the possible ramifications of the operation of the Large Hadron Collider," she wrote. "This extremely complex debate is of concern to more than just the physicists. The United States Congress provided more than $500 million toward the construction of the Large Hadron Collider. But Congress did not enact NEPA for the purpose of allowing this debate to proceed in federal court."

Gillmor's dismissal of the federal civil lawsuit does not affect a separate, though similar, legal action currently under consideration by the European Court of Human Rights.

Do you want to read the full decision? Click here to download the PDF file. This report was last updated at 2:05 a.m. ET Sept. 27.

Past chapters in the doomsday saga: