Neutrino Observatory Project Facing Issues In India – OpEd

The neutrino project involving investment of more than Rs. 15,000 million was sanctioned by the Government of India under the XIth plan and the scientists originally hoped to start construction of the facility by 2011. Around 25 research institutions are associated with the project, with Tata Institute of Fundamental Research acting as the nodal institution.

The proposed massive neutrino detector will be built in a cavern set in massive charnockite rock (group of igneous rocks found in South India with those in Tamil Nadu known to be the hardest).

The cavern will be excavated by drilling a tunnel of 1.9 to 2 km in length, so that there is a vertical overburden of about 1,300 meters.

For a good neutrino detection facility, a vertical cover of at least 1,000 meters is required, so that the observed neutrino events are not contaminated by unwanted particles that will be absorbed by the overburden.

The India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) will be a major underground experimental facility to study the elusive and nearly mass-less fundamental particles of nature called neutrinos.

Environmental issues

After initially denying permission to the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to locate the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) at Singara in Nilgris district in Tamil Nadu, the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF), Government of India both accorded environmental and forest clearance for locating the project in the Bodi West Hills (BWH) in the Theni district in Tamil Nadu.

However, the Southern Bench of the National Green Tribunal has recently suspended the environmental clearance granted to the neutrino observatory by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF), due to some objections such as the proposed location being just about 4.9 kilometres from the Madhikettan Shola National Park in Idukki district of Kerala. The Southern Bench of National Green Tribunal has asked the project promoters to submit fresh application with more details.

The project has also been objected to by local people on safety considerations.

The project is suffering prolonged delay.

Apprehension of the protestors

There have been several doubts raised by protestors, such as possible radiation from the project and the apprehension that the mountain where the tunnel would be drilled would become unstable.

There are also fears that hazardous chemicals and gases could be used at the facility.

What do scientists say on environmental concerns?

Of course, the scientists promoting the project have said that such apprehensions of the protestors are unjustified.

Scientists say that there will be no radiation emitting from the lab, as the lab is deep in the earth to keep out radiation.

It is further said that the lab will not affect the structural stability of the mountain. While making the tunnel, technological advancements will ensure that the environment is left untouched; at the most, the rock blasting will cause flutters, but that won’t last long and normal conditions “will be restored in quick time.”

To ensure safety of the experiment and the people, the gases will be recycled many times and only then released in controlled amounts. The equipment and the gases used for the experiment will be hermetically sealed, so that there would be no chance of any pollution and or contamination.

What do scientists say on the need for the project?

According to the scientists, this India-based neutrino observatory is a particle physics research project, proposed to be implemented to primarily study atmospheric neutrinos. The project is anticipated to provide a precise measurement of neutrino mixing parameters.

The field of neutrino physics has attracted worldwide attention and there is a need to understand many questions put forth by the phenomena of neutrino oscillations.

The Super Kamiokande neutrino observatory in Japan, Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in Canada, Gran Sasso Lab in Italy, IceCube Neutrino Observatory in the South Pole are some of the existing neutrino laboratories in the world.

As far as India is concerned, this is a Mega Science Project, that would enable India to join the group of elite countries that are conducting research on such advanced field, so that India will not be left behind in the global scientific pursuits.

Obviously, the scientists are thrilled about this project, since it would place India in the league of advanced nations that carry out such research projects, with China particularly considering such research project as thrust areas for long term scientific pursuits.

What the scientists have failed to say?

Critics seem to be of view that such an advanced science and technology oriented Rs.1500 crore project is only of academic research at this stage, with the end results of the investment and efforts not being clearly known or defined or explained.

Critics wonder whether India should initiate a research activity for the sake of research, while there is lack of clarity on the outcome.

Common men in the country and the taxpayers expect to be told in precise and quantitative terms about the long term targets, objectives and envisaged benefits of this program. They seem to think that they have received vague explanations, which only adds to confusion about the need for such project, even among those who are favorably inclined towards research pursuits.

Scientists simply say that the project will benefit the country by enhancing India’s scientific manpower. They claim that the use of state of the art technologies in the design and development of the project would build a technologically stronger nation. Beyond that, any tangible explanation involving facts to explain the commercial worthiness of the investments have not been advanced to satisfy the anxious queries from the common men of India.

While the activists and local people seem to be concerned more about the safety issues at this stage, the fact is that the commercial and technical justification for the project in simple style that can be communicated to the common man has been conspicuous by its absence. This makes it difficult to difficult to study the cost-benefit analysis of the project.

It is true that, sometimes, the objective of scientific pursuits in a particular direction are more based on expectations and hopes and the discovery of unknown factors that may be of great significance. Even in such case, this should be explained to the people in a straight forward manner. If this investment in the neutrino project is a calculated risk from the point of view of commercial terms, let it be told to people.

Many concerned people may support the project even if there is a calculated risk considering the overall possible benefits.

Lack of communication is the problem

This appears to be a repeated problem in India that the government and the scientific community do not adequately communicate with citizens in a transparent style with regard to the objectives of their activities and the risk factors, if any, that are involved.

The lack of transparency and communication is the real cause for delay and the controversies in the case of several projects.

The neutrino project is one more example of such an approach of the scientific community and the government with regard to the conceived projects for implementation.


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N. S. Venkataraman

N. S. Venkataraman

N. S. Venkataraman is a trustee with the "Nandini Voice for the Deprived," a not-for-profit organization that aims to highlight the problems of downtrodden and deprived people and support their cause. To promote probity and ethical values in private and public life and to deliberate on socio-economic issues in a dispassionate and objective manner.

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