Radiation exposure, electromagnetic fields, 100,000 computers, 2,500 scientists – oh, and a piece of equipment that some think might destroy the world. Katie Puckett travels to Geneva to meet the boffins and the insurers behind the Cern laboratory and its Large Hadron Collider

“This is where science and science fiction meet,” announces James Gillies, head of communications at Cern, the laboratory that is home to the Large Hadron Collider – or if you’re feeling alarmist, the “doomsday machine”.

The world became obsessed with Cern last autumn when the Large Hadron Collider was switched on. It sought to unravel the secrets of the universe by recreating conditions just after the Big Bang – in a 27km circular tube buried under the Swiss-French border. What most excited the public imagination, however, was the possibility that the experiment would produce a black hole and – maybe, just maybe – destroy us all. But in the acres of press and television coverage that accompanied the launch, one question was curiously absent: if the collider does create a black hole that sucks in the planet and all life on it, what kind of insurance cover do they have? And who would collect the pay-out?

Finally, Insurance Times has a chance to find out. In recent months, Gillies has welcomed many visitors to Cern’s sprawling Geneva campus, including the underwriters and brokers who must work out how much risk the Large Hadron Collider really poses. We’re here courtesy of Zurich, which has provided property and third-party liability cover for Cern since 1997.

The machine’s not working at the moment – it broke down rather anticlimactically just nine days after it was switched on and won’t be up and running until March.

The European Centre for Nuclear Research, as its name translates, is a unique challenge for the insurance industry – across the site there is CHF7m (£4.2m) worth of asset risk, involving radiation and electromagnetic fields. Not to mention 2,500 of the finest scientific minds from all over the world working away in what’s dubbed “the world’s largest particle physics laboratory”.

Pacing the floor in Cern’s visitor centre – a disconcertingly lo-fi structure, a little like a wooden Sizewell B – Gillies says its fundamental purpose is to push back the frontiers of knowledge. Today he is certainly stretching the boundaries of confusion. Perhaps it’s because he’s delivered this speech hundreds of times already, but it’s hard to shake the sense that Gillies finds words a frustratingly slow way of expressing the equations whirring through his brain.

He says even the boffins at Cern know very little about the universe. “Matter” accounts for just 4% of everything; about 70% is something called dark energy. “We know absolutely nothing about it, all we know is that it’s there.” Actuaries of a nervous disposition should look away now.

Gillies has a knack of simplifying the concepts so you think you have grasped them, only to soar off into the realms of incomprehension again a second later. “One of the hugest mysteries in physics is that I can do this.” He jumps up and down. “Why is gravity so inordinately weak compared to other forces? Perhaps because there’s more than three dimensions in space – gravity might work in four dimensions. It’s impossible for us to visualise. Think of it like a hosepipe at the bottom of your garden. To you, it’s a straight line but if you’re an ant there’s another dimension around the side that you can explore.”

The Large Hadron Collider could shed some light on these other dimensions: “We could find something that some physicist – I don’t know who but I will strangle them if I ever find out – called a ‘microscopic black hole’.”

Gillies is keen to dismiss the black hole scare stories, which obviously rankle. But the question remains for insurers – how on earth can you underwrite an organisation that is experimenting with forces so far beyond your ken?

“With an organisation like Cern, it’s difficult to fully understand the activity of the insured,” agrees Dominique Lequet, head of Zurich’s Swiss global corporate business, with masterly understatement.

Cern has a number of features that set off alarm bells for insurers and reinsurers. The Large Hadron Collider uses extremely powerful electromagnetic fields to channel beams of particles, radioactivity is a daily part of life and the data produced by these experiments are analysed by harnessing the power of a giant “grid” of 100,000 computers across the world.

“It is very difficult to define and quantify the actual risk,” says Lequet. “Even Cern would find it difficult to explain where all the computers are located or what exactly people are doing with them. This is basically the same as someone coming to you and saying ‘I would like to insure the world wide web’.” At the moment, Zurich offers only standard computer cover to Cern.

The electromagnetic fields are excluded from cover, but radioactivity is covered as long as the damage is sudden and accidental.

When it comes to working out the liabilities, Zurich has regular meetings with Cern’s risk managers and safety commissioners. Lequet says Zurich has its own physicist-cum-risk engineer, but that it comes down to trusting the client. “We have confidence in the people we are working with. We ask a question and we know we can rely on the answer.”

The client in this case is Lorenz Stampfli, who has been Cern’s insurance manager since 1993, and he says he has never seen a comparable facility. Perhaps fortunately, he comes from an insurance rather than a physics background, and understands Cern can be difficult for insurers to classify. He says the laboratory’s use of radiation is comparable to institutions such as hospitals. “It’s not applied research. It can’t be compared to an industrial facility because we don’t have the pressures of production and there is no way we could be compared to a nuclear plant. Large quantities of radioactive waste do not exist at Cern. We do not have the same problems or risks.”

Stampfli says the most important quality in a broker or insurer is that they make an effort to understand Cern’s operations. He only started to use brokers in 2007 “to help us to have better communications with the insurance industry”. Now he works with Aon and Marsh.

Cern’s risk management has grown in sophistication since it was founded in 1954, when it relied entirely on insurance to manage the risks to its operations and the surrounding population. “As things moved on, we recognised that it didn’t make sense, it wasn’t an efficient or cost effective way of managing risk. Now we ask, what is worth protecting?”

In the case of the Large Hadron Collider, only the sensitive detectors and the internal parts are insured against fire, flooding or electrical defects. Cern is not insured for general machinery breakdown or business interruption – so there will be no payout for the current problem. “If we have a breakdown, the person who’s conducting the experiment will repair the equipment. Most of our facilities are of prototype character and could never be protected by insurance. Insurers hate prototypes – they don’t have loss statistics or experience to draw on.”

The machine is incredibly fragile. Visitors to Cern don’t get to see the Large Hadron Collider itself – the 35,000-tonne tube is sealed 100m underground. But we do get a whistlestop tour of replicas of the equipment, cut away in many different ways to show the complex workings within. Our guide says the sensors are so accurate they detect tiny contractions in the diameter of the ring linked to the phases of the moon.

When it broke down last September, the failure was traced back to a single electromagnet among more than 9,000, no bigger than a cigarette packet. Even a sample of the superconducting titanium wires packed into the magnets has to be kept in a jar of liquid – if they were exposed, a single static spark could cause them to ignite instantly and burn at a temperature of 6,000C. That’s just one of the many risks for the scientists operating the collider. It is cooled to –271C, just above absolute zero, which makes it the coldest place in the universe, and flooded with liquid helium. If there’s a leak, as there was last year, the hilarity of talking in high-pitched Mickey Mouse voices would be shortlived before suffocation kicks in.

What isn’t at risk – all are adamant – is the destruction of the universe. James Gillies says every possible consequence has been carefully considered. The concept of the collider was first mooted back in 1965 and the experiment has been subject to peer review for a decade. In fact, Stampfli says Cern makes a major claim no more than every 10 years, and by far the greatest source of minor claims is its fleet of motor vehicles. He may not entirely understand what the scientists are up to, but he’s not concerned. “A black hole is not an operational risk at Cern,” he says. “It is also not a risk that could be of any significance to the outside world. It is not in the realm of operational risks. As such, that explains everything for insurance purposes.”