A particle accelerator in Indianapolis: Indiana's 1965 quest for an 'atom smasher'

INDIANAPOLIS -- The 1960s, one of the greatest periods of American scientific achievement, was a defining period for Indiana. During that time, state officials tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to be on the forefront of those achievements by getting a multimillion dollar project to Indiana that would've changed the way people see the area today.

In 1965, Indiana officials tried very hard to get a special scientific project built in the state. 

On June 15, 1965, Indiana Gov. Roger D. Branigin submitted a bid to the United States Atomic Energy Commission to get a “atom smasher,” now known as a particle accelerator.  

The particle accelerator site was to be in Pike Township, west of I-465 and between I-74 and I-465. Today, it would encompass half of Eagle Creek Park, the Indianapolis Colts’ complex, many housing subdivisions, Eagle Creek Airport and a shopping area.

What is a particle accelerator?

A particle accelerator takes particles, such as electrons or protons, and propels them around a large circular track. Once they reach a certain speed or energy strength, something is placed in the path of the particle, which crashes into the new object. The insides of particle accelerators are vacuums, meaning they aren’t affected by dust or any outside forces.

Particle accelerators have contributed to scientific discoveries such as new computer chips, advancements in plastics and radiation therapy in the medical field, according to the U.S. Energy Department. 


Image Courtesy: Energy.gov.

The largest particle accelerator is located at the CERN facility in Switzerland. It has a circumference of 18 miles. 

What was Indiana's pitch to get the particle accelerator?

Indiana officials really, really wanted the particle accelerator. 

In Gov. Branigin’s letter to the AEC, he offered up 3,150 acres for the particle accelerator, free of charge. 

“As a result of legislation enacted by a special session of the General Assembly of Indiana, the Eagle Creek Site – consisting of 3,150 acres located at the northwest edge of Indianapolis – can be made available to the Federal Government without cost and without delay for the purpose of the 200-BeV Particle Accelerator National Laboratory,” the letter reads.

In that special session mentioned by Branigin, the General Assembly said land allocated for the particle accelerator may be acquired by the state (and later the federal government) by means of eminent domain. 

“… [a]uthorizing you to offer to transfer and to transfer land without consideration, to the United States of America for its use for such a project or facility whenever you determine such a transfer is necessary,” Attorney General John Dillon wrote to Branigin. “Land which may be transferred by you includes land now owned by the State of Indiana and land hereafter acquired by any lawful means, including acquisition by eminent domain whenever you deem it necessary or desirable…”

The General Assembly allocated $10 million to Branigin to be used to acquire land to give to the federal government for the site. The $10 million would be about $78 million in 2017 dollars.

Branigin, after consulting with IPL, offered to sell electric power to the AEC for the accelerator at about .85 cents per kilowatt hour. In 2017 money, the state’s offering rate was about 5 cents per kilowatt hour. Today’s common IPL rate is about 17 cents per kilowatt hour. 

Branigin's letter to the AEC was also trying to convince government officials how great Indianapolis is. It had 12 different sections of how great the area is, like the close proximity to schools and shopping, how great the airport is, the culture of the city, recreation opportunities and sources of water and power for the project.

Eagle Creek Reservoir wasn’t built at the time, but was planned by Indiana officials and was a major part of the bid. 

What happened to the bid?

Two weeks after submitting the bid, Branigin tried again to get the AEC’s attention. He sent another letter to the commission, cutting the price of electricity in half, to .4 cents per kilowatt hour. He also tried again to sell what Indiana had to offer.

“Indiana is no cultural desert,” he wrote.

Six months later, Branigin sent a third letter, offering even more pieces of land, which would be west of Eagle Creek Reservoir to the Hendricks County line. 

Obviously, there is no particle accelerator in Indianapolis. In March 1966, the AEC narrowed the list of potential sites to six, none of which included Indiana.

Branigin was frustrated with the news that Indiana was out, sending Dr. Richard Grosh, the head of the Purdue Research Foundation, to Washington to get the AEC to change its mind. 

“We will investigate,” Branigin said in 1966. “We still think we have the best site. In my opinion the AEC has the power to add to the list of six submitted by the National Academy of Science.”

The particle accelerator ended up being built near Batavia, Illinois, about an hour away from Chicago. The particle accelerator, called Tevatron, was the second most powerful of its kind until it shut down in 2011. The Illinois site, known as Fermilab, is still used in researching particle physics. 

The AEC was abolished in 1975. Part of it merged with other agencies to become the U.S. Department of Energy.

Branigin never got the particle accelerator to Indianapolis, but the city soon saw many other major projects, like the reservoir, the establishment of IUPUI and the founding of the Indiana Repertory Theatre.

“But we would dearly love to have the atom-smasher,” he said.

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