COVID-19, chronicle, comments: VBLHEP

Interview, 12 May 2020

Yuri Potrebenikov, VBLHEP Deputy Director for research:

“First of all, the Veksler and Baldin Laboratory of High Energy Physics have already acquired experience in the organization of discussions in the video-conference format before the quarantine. And this was very useful. We were able to immediately organize small meetings using the Vidyo system, licence for which was purchased by the Laboratory in a limited number. The system has been used by CERN for several years now. The server of the system installed in the Laboratory has significantly decreased the load on the computer network and replaced the meetings organized on the CERN remote platform. Using this system, a meeting of the coordination committee “Complex NICA” was successfully held.

Services for holding large-scale meetings in video-format are being quickly mastered and used. Using video-services CISCO WebEx, a meeting of the STC VBLHEP took place; a video-conference of the BM@N collaboration was held. Both free and chargeable versions of the ZOOM system are used. Local meetings have been already held using it, and on 23 – 24 April, a large-scale meeting of the MPD collaboration took place on its platform.

A researcher I. P. Slepov and a senior researcher S. P. Mertz, who quickly developed simple instructions and calendars for their use, played a great role in the effective organization of such video-conferences and in solving problems inevitably occurring at the first stages of using video services.

It is more complicated to organize the remote operation of the Laboratory services. First of all, it is not easy to provide access to closed local JINR databases from remote home computers. In this regard, shifts of representatives of main services were introduced, namely the administrative, financial, HR, repair and construction, clock-house, supply divisions that also deal with paper documents. Proposals for improving and expanding the system of automated document management system have been developed and submitted to the JINR Directorate. The role of the system is significantly increased in the current conditions.

Most importantly: despite the restrictions imposed on the number of the staff admitted to the VBLHEP site, the computing infrastructure of the Laboratory and the NICA complex, maintained by only a half of the staff in the current situation, operates steadily. Without it, the remote working regime of almost all the employees of the Laboratory would be impossible.”

Alexey Trubnikov, VBLHEP Deputy Director for capital construction:

“As it is known from regularly published reports of the JINR Operational Headquarters for preventing the spread of the coronavirus infection, all construction works at the Institute’s objects, except for the most important work at the NICA complex, a part of the “Nauka” national project, are suspended up to the end of April. Heads of the “Strabag” company provided coronavirus testing of the staff engaged in the construction. No cases of infection have been found. Nowadays, concrete is being poured at the beam transportation channel. Roofing work is being continued; the facade of the NICA building under construction is being built. We hold a competition to choose the company that will be responsible for the beautification of the entire complex.

In the frames of the national project, the creation of the cryogenic complex is being continued: JSC “SK Stroytechinvest” is installing metal structures, pours foundations for equipment. Today, we may say that the construction is in full swing; people work in a coordinated and professional manner.”

Preparation for cryogenic tests of the 1st serially produced quadrupole magnet of the NICA collider From left to right: Dmitry Morozov, a metal worker in charge of mechanical assembly operations; Maxim Ilyin, a lab technician; Alexey Svidetelev, Sergey Korovkin, heads of the groups.

Andrey Butenko, Head of the VBLHEP Accelerator Department:

If we compare peculiarities of work in the current regime with that it was before, then the major difference is that more time is spent to solve various current issues related to design, design documentation and many others. Today, in this situation, we cannot, as before, solve this or that technical issue just in two hours at a working meeting, when all specialists competent in the problems of accelerator physics, are in one place simultaneously. As a result, the final decision is delayed for several days or even weeks… For example, the design features of the so-called pickup stations for decreasing their impedance is being decided on, and this is essential for improving the beam dynamics, intensity increase, and, as a result, achieving the design luminosity. However, it requires some changes in the design documentation that has been put into production in Germany. And we are immersed in correspondence and search for the best ways to solve the problem. At In-person meetings, some issues could have been resolved just in a couple of hours while the exchange of letters takes 2-3 days plus holding necessary clarifying calculations. And then another 2-3 days, and so on… Even such a simple task as connection a new high-vacuum chamber with an old flange of a non-standard construction took more than a month of correspondence due to constant clarification, elimination of misunderstandings, sorting out ideas and searching for the optimal solution. But the issue could be solved in a week if there was an opportunity to meet designers on the spot a couple of times.

Recently, we have started to get used to a new style of communication via teleconferences and have learned to solve some working issues more effectively. But it took time. I should note that after the start of the “global self-isolation”, a number of emails have increased many times and I receive more than 100 letters daily. And I should not leave any of them without attention. This is also one of today’s realities…

Moreover, we have faced the psychological problem these days, especially characteristic of large “young” teams in which people actively communicate with each other: the larger the team, the more various negative rumours are spread strongly influencing the working mood. Rumours are passed by word of mouth, multiplied, and then they cause strong unreasonable worries, especially among young employees who have very close ties with parents and grandparents. Another point is related to the fact that we have to distribute work to different places and time. Employees of the factory of superconducting magnets temporarily work reduced shifts of 4-5 hours. So, to solve some urgent issues, it is sometimes difficult to bring all the necessary specialists together at one time. The situation is similar at the assembling and testing site of the booster ring: cooperation of only two people is admitted at this site, so the real labour efficiency does not exceed 25-30 per cent. We have got used to bringing together a team of 4 or 5 people in case we face any current technical or controversial issues and quickly find a collective decision. However, now this has become difficult.

Those employees who have already worked shifts earlier find the current daily routine ordinary. But those who work in the tunnel while their colleagues work remotely or are on forced leave, sometimes subconsciously perceive their working days as a top-sanctioned working Sunday. And this is a slightly different feeling and working mood. The absence of other colleagues also facilitates such a perception. It is always more fun to work in a team.

However, despite the peculiarities of the situation, all major tasks of the Laboratory are going non-stop (except for short breaks in the operation of the factory of superconducting magnets due to objective reasons), and I am sure that we will tackle these challenges without much loss. And I wish this to all my colleagues.”

Sergey Kostromin, Head of the Department of Superconducting Magnets and Technologies:

“Work on assembling and testing of structural elements of the NICA collider is underway. Several modules with dipole magnets are fully assembled and are now being prepared for transportation to storage until their installation in the tunnel. This week (27 – 30 April, ed.), serial cryogenic tests of the module with the quadrupole magnet of the collider will start.

All magnets of the NICA booster have been already assembled, tested and transported to the tunnel for installation at the end of 2019. However, the accelerator as a superconducting facility includes additional complex elements in addition to structural magnets. These elements are supposed to be assembled and tested before the final assembling of the entire ring. Such tests have been prepared and will be held at the stand this week. We should thank all the VBLHEP services providing the continuous operation of the Laboratory.

Assembling of the NICA booster in the tunnel in VBLHEP building 1 was carried out with almost no breaks. Now, nitrogen and helium communications are being assembled and tested, as well as preparation to the assembling of accelerator’s beam chamber is underway. In order not to stop tests in the conditions of self-isolation, we had to additionally distribute people in shifts and work in the smallest possible groups of 2-3 people at each site. It is a pleasure that in such conditions people showed their enthusiasm and loyalty to their work! All employees are ready to work in spite of the current situation. We had to literally persuade the older generation to stay at home and not to come to work.”

Artem Galimov, Deputy Head of the Department of Superconducting Magnets and Technologies:

“The COVID-2019 pandemic caught the Laboratory at the peak of work on the NICA project. 2020 should be decisive. The launch of the booster and the start of the collider assembling are significant milestones on the project’s path. Many tasks are being performed continuously and their suspension for a long time will cause the need in the restart. And this may cause large time losses.

But even if we take these unpleasant consequences into account, there is no way the staff, especially older employees, will be put at any unnecessary risks. That is why according to the orders of the Institute’s Director, the VBLHEP Directorate, having promptly assessed the situation, took all the safety measures to protect the health of the staff while performing work.

Many employees were transferred to the remote working regime and continued performing their tasks at home showing considerable self-control and willpower. After taking all necessary measures, we managed to continue work in some of the key fields that cannot be suspended for a long time: work at the factory producing superconducting magnets and organization of the technological run of the booster.

It should be noted that most of the Laboratory services also continue to work in this challenging period ensuring the continuous operation of vital engineering, financial and administration systems of the Laboratory and the project.”

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