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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Scientists Decry Plan To Sell Off Gallium

Twelve Nobel Prize-winning physicists from the United States and their Russian colleagues have strongly protested a Russian government plan to sell off seven tons of the rare metal known as gallium, a scientist said.

The scientists say the plan would be a major setback to a joint U.S.-Russian science project in the mountains of Southern Russia that has received millions of dollars in American funding.

But the cash-strapped Russian government says it needs to sell the gallium, which would raise an estimated $6 million, in order to pay off coal miners.

"This will be a huge step backward which will eventually ruin the experiment,'' said Leonid Bezrukov, deputy director of the Russian Nuclear Physics Institute, which runs the Baksan neutrino telescope in Southern Russia.

The research is being conducted under the auspices of the U.S.-Russia commission chaired by U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. The U.S. side has invested $10 million in the Baksan observatory since it was inaugurated in 1987.

"We warned our U.S. colleagues about the [Russian] government's plan, and they sent a letter to Mr. Chernomyrdin protesting against that,'' Bezrukov said Friday.

So far, there has been no reaction from Chernomyrdin's office, he said.

The U.S. Nobel Prize winners who signed the letter included James Cronin, Martin Perl, Sheldon Glashow, Jerome Friedman and Henry Kendall.

The Russian Fuel and Energy Ministry has told the Russian observatory to give up seven tons of its stock of 60 tons of gallium -- a rare soft metal used to study a stream of neutrinos, tiny subatomic particles coming from the sun.

The government believes that selling off seven tons will not damage the experiment. But Bezrukov said it's essential to preserve the current amount of gallium to continue with the research.

If the government has its way and sells the gallium, "that will be the last straw for us,'' he said. "The loss will be especially painful because we were pioneers in this research.''

There was no word on who might buy the gallium from Russia.

It can be used in making semiconductors and other high-tech electronic equipment.

Legally, the gallium belongs to the government, and it is free to sell it.

Two of Russia's leading newspapers highlighted the issue Friday with front-page accounts of the dispute.

"The whole controversy is boiling around the sum so small that it's insulting for Russia -- $6 million,'' said the influential daily Izvestia.

"The conflict shows the bureaucrats' opinion about the value of Russian science," the newspaper said.

The neutrino telescope is called SAGE, for the Soviet-American Gallium Experiment. Many of the Americans involved in the project are connected to the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The Russian observatory is located in the Baksan Gorge in Southern Russia, near Mount Elbrus.

The stock of gallium is located in a vault that is hidden deep under a mountain.

Neutrinos, one of the tiniest of nature's building blocks, are created by nuclear reactions, such as those that generate the sun's energy.

They are difficult to measure because they almost never react with other particles.

Physicists can't see neutrinos directly, but detect signs of their passage in different substances, such as gallium.