In FocusConstruction of neutron microscope in Lund accelerates after approval from environmental court

After decades of preparation, ground was broken in September 2014 for the construction of one of the world’s most advanced neutron microscopes, the European Spallation Source (ESS). When the facility outside of the city of Lund in southern Sweden is finally up and running in 2023, it is expected to attract thousands of researchers annually from all over the world who are seeking answers to complex questions about the structure of materials. “It may involve, for example, why a specific type of adhesively bonded joint on an aircraft wing fails, or how a protein interacts with a drug,” says Patrik Carlsson, Associate Director of Operations at ESS.

It took only a few days after ESS received an environmental permit from the land and environmental court in Växjö in June before the ground-breaking at the facility. The urgency is understandable – the materials research facility has been discussed, prepared for and planned since the mid-1990s.

ESS, which can be compared to a gigantic microscope, is slated to become one of the world’s premier facilities where neutrons, rather than light, are used to examine various materials down to the most minute atomic level. Using neutrons, which are split off from the nucleus of an atom, scientists can examine a variety of materials to understand their structure and how they function. The materials could be anything from polymers and pharmaceuticals to membranes and molecules. Hopefully, this will lead to new breakthroughs in a number of research areas. The neutron source will be the most powerful in the world – much more powerful than the current world leaders, that is, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the USA and J-PARC in Japan.

“The benefit of using neutrons for structural studies is that you get a different and more detailed type of information than you would, for example, with a light microscope,” says Patrik Carlsson. “The difference between the existing neutron sources and ESS is much like the difference between taking a picture in the glow of an incandescent lamp or with a flash. We hope to gain a better understanding of how materials function in order to do things such as save energy and develop cleaner manufacturing processes.”

A European initiative in Lund

Sweden is in good company with this major European initiative, in which several countries competed to build and operate the facility. At least 17 European countries will work together to design, finance, build and operate the facility. The formal owners, however, are the Swedish and Danish states through a joint-stock company, ESS AB.

The initiative started as a German project in the mid-1980s. About ten years later, the Germans realised that the project was so large that it was better managed in a larger European context. Around the turn of the millennium, Swedish researchers entered the scene, and in 2002 a consortium was formed that suggested the facility be located outside Lund. But the Swedes were far from the only ones who wanted to host the prestigious facility. Their main rivals were Germany and England, which were eventually beaten by Lund and Sweden. Some have even likened the competition to the Olympic Games of materials research.

“There are many reasons why Lund is an ideal location,” explains Carlsson. “Partly because of the abundance of scientific knowledge due to the universities and science parks, and partly because of good infrastructure and proximity to Kastrup Airport. There are also good geotechnical conditions – with compact clay – appropriate for building this kind of facility.

ESS is expected to contribute to significant breakthroughs in materials research, which promotes industry, society and humanity

The estimated construction cost is approximately EUR 1.8 billion with annual operating costs of around EUR 140 million. Since the facility is built on Swedish soil, Sweden will cover around 35 per cent of the investment. Denmark is also a major financier, since the data centre that will process information from the microscope will be located in Copenhagen. EES will employ around 400-500 full-time staff and is expected to draw thousands of leading researchers from around the world every year.

“ESS is expected to contribute to significant breakthroughs in materials research, which promotes industry, society and humanity,” adds Carlsson. “Sweden and Denmark both see this as an excellent opportunity to become central players in the scientific world and enjoy everything that comes with it in terms of prestige, attention and even revenue.”

The decision to appoint Sweden the winner in the battle for the microscope came in 2009 – but it would take another five years before construction could begin. A major factor for this was that the comprehensive development of the plant’s design also required an assessment of the environmental impacts of building and operating the facility.

“Our goal is to create the first sustainable large-scale research facility. This means that we have taken extra care to keep down energy consumption, among other things. The plant will be operated exclusively by energy from renewable sources and any surplus will be recovered,” Patrick Carlsson.

Court rules in favour of ESS

The court in Växjö reviewed ESS’ case and ruled that the facility was in the public interest, both nationally and internationally. The verdict was announced on 12 June 2014. Four days later, the first ground was broken. Six months later, construction crews started the piling work and casting the base slab for the accelerator component. The building, which is one of the largest research infrastructure projects in Europe, is expected to be completed in 2019 and the first neutrons are to be produced in the same year. By 2023, the facility should open for business and be fully built out by 2030.

“It is important for Europe to prove that we have the skills and knowledge to implement such a complex project,” remarks Carlsson. “But the facility is also essential for Europe’s future ability to assert itself and to compete internationally in research. We expect the facility to have a lifespan of 40 years. Then it will need to be upgraded.”

Ionisation radiation

Since EES is such a unique, large-scale project, there are a number of complex environmental factors that must be taken into account. From a legal standpoint, the issue of ionisation radiation – which is produced in the spallation process – is particularly interesting since it falls under the jurisdiction of several different legal frameworks.

According to the Swedish Environmental Code, ionising radiation poses an environmental hazard, which was the issue before the land and environmental court in Växjö. In addition, the court was to assess a number of other issues including noise, pollution, impact on the landscape, geology, water and effects on local communities.

“The biggest environmental impact will be from the applications of research findings from ESS, but we must also minimise the negative impact as much as possible,” notes Carlsson. “A complex facility such as ESS is a major venture that has never before been undertaken in Sweden. This is not a road construction project.”

Mannheimer Swartling advises on cases such as ESS, SKB and Slussen

Mannheimer Swartling’s environmental specialists advised ESS on the environmental process. The group offers legal advice in all areas of environmental law. Its clients include representatives of industry, private equity firms, the energy sector, municipalities and national agencies.

In commercial transactions, the group conducts legal environmental risk assessments. In carrying out assignments such as major infrastructure projects for the public sector, the environmental team works together with the firm’s specialists in construction law, procurement and financing. The specialists also continuously monitor updates to EU legislation, in order to offer clients an informed insight into proposals and decisions and their potential consequences.

Other high-profile cases the group has worked on include the redevelopment of the Slussen canal locks, which the land and environmental court ruled on in January 2015 in favour of Stockholm, giving the city the environmental permit required for construction. The firm’s environmental specialists also represent the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company (SKB) in the environmental assessment of the world’s first repository for spent nuclear fuel. SKB is petitioning the environmental court for a permit under the Swedish Environmental Code to build and operate a repository for spent nuclear fuel about 500 meters into the bedrock at Forsmark (Östhammar municipality), as well as to store and encapsulate the fuel in Oskarshamn.