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Updated: October 8, 2012 08:55 IST

A controversy we can do without

R. Ramachandran
Comment (17)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

Politicians are doing a great disservice to scientific advance in India by whipping up unfounded fears about the neutrino project

A national project to study fundamental particles called neutrinos has suddenly been drawn into an unwarranted controversy by V. S. Achuthanandan, the former CPI (M) Chief Minister of Kerala and leader of the Opposition in the Kerala Assembly, in association with an environmental activist, V.T. Padmanabhan.

The project involves the construction of an underground laboratory, called the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO), to be located in a cavern under a rocky mountain in the Bodi West Hills region of the Theni district, about 110 km west of Madurai in Tamil Nadu.

What are neutrinos? After photons, they are the most abundant particles in the universe. Among the known fundamental particles, they are also perhaps the strangest. They interact very feebly with other particles. Therefore, all forms of matter, including the earth, are nearly transparent to them. About 100 trillion neutrinos from the sun and other cosmic sources pass through our bodies every second without causing any harm.

Rare interaction

As they interact very rarely, they are not easily detected and, therefore, not well studied. The large background flux of other particles in the cosmic rays presents an additional complication in their detection. Neutrino detectors are, therefore, usually placed deep underground, typically a kilometre or deeper. The large overburden of rock or earth above the detectors reduces the background particles by a million times or more. While almost all neutrinos pass through freely, a few interact in the detectors and can be detected. Many neutrino detection experiments are on in different parts of the world and, with growing interest in neutrino physics, many others are being proposed and built. The INO is one such that has evinced worldwide interest.

It is now known that neutrinos come in three types (electron-neutrino, muon-neutrino and tau-neutrino). Once thought to be massless, they are now known to have very tiny masses. But their individual masses remain unknown. Of the three neutrino flavours, the heaviest has at least one 10 millionth the electron’s mass. Which flavour is the heaviest? The ordering of neutrino masses too is unknown. This is called the ‘mass hierarchy’ question, which the INO is well suited to investigate.

The strange particles also have the ability to morph from one type to another as they pass through space, people, matter and the Earth itself, rarely interacting with anything in their path. This is called neutrino oscillation. While the details of two oscillations are known fairly well, the third — the switching of tau-neutrino to electron-neutrino — is not well characterised and forms one of the main objectives of the INO.

The idea for a neutrino observatory in India was first mooted in 2000 at an international conference in Chennai. The proposal was further refined and consolidated at the 2001 Neutrino meeting in Chennai, when the INO consortium of collaborating Indian institutions was formed. In 2002, a formal proposal was submitted to the Department of Atomic Energy, which has since been the nodal agency for the project.

The project has now been identified as one of the mega science projects in the XII Plan with an investment of Rs. 1,350 crore by the DAE and the Department of Science and Technology (DST). At present, 26 Indian institutions — which include Calicut University — and about 100 scientists are involved, with the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, as the nodal institute.

It is therefore bizarre that Mr. Achuthanandan and Mr. Padmanabhan should allege that the INO is a project of Fermilab, USA, initiated along with the controversial Indo-U.S. nuclear deal. It is a totally indigenous project, conceived jointly by scientists from many Indian research institutions and initiated long before negotiations for the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal began in 2005. Nor was Fermilab, USA, anywhere in the picture then. The project is a basic science experiment that has nothing to do with radioactivity or any other hazardous nuclear activity. Nor does it have any defence or strategic implications.

A site within the complex of the hydroelectric project PUSHEP of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board at Singara, near Mudumalai Sanctuary in the Nilgiri Hills, was identified in 2002 as the best option for the project from the geological, environmental and infrastructure points of view. The TNEB prepared the detailed project report in 2007. But, after prolonged delays, the Tamil Nadu Forest Department rejected the proposal in 2010, despite the project being located entirely on the TNEB land.

The reason — the site fell in the buffer zone of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and the elephant corridor connecting the Eastern and the Western Ghats. Interestingly, the notification declaring the area as a tiger reserve was issued only in 2008, six years after the INO project was proposed and two years after the DAE applied to the Tamil Nadu Forest Department for approval. More pertinently, a report by Dr. R. Sukumar, an expert on the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, had clearly stated that the project would not be detrimental to the wildlife and environment of the region. It may be pointed out that, at the same time, there is no serious effort to stop the ever-increasing tourist and vehicular traffic and mushrooming resorts in the region.

The location in Bodi West Hills was chosen as the next best site. The main INO laboratory will be located in a cavern 1.3 km below a mountain peak. There, an entirely indigenously built magnetised iron calorimeter detector, weighing about 50 kilotons, will be used to detect both natural and man-made neutrinos. The cavern will be linked to the outside world by a 1.9 km long main tunnel.

In Phase I, however, INO will study only neutrinos produced by cosmic rays in the Earth’s atmosphere. In Phase II, it could be used as a far detector for using beams from future accelerator-based ‘neutrino factories’ in Japan, Europe and the U.S. The INO is expected to become operational in 2017 when the first module of the detector will start taking data.

Contrary to Mr. Achuthanandan and Mr. Padmanabhan’s accusations of secrecy and lack of transparency, all the details about the project are available on its website www.ino.tifr.res.in. Among other issues they have raised is that, because of the project site’s proximity to the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border, permission from the Kerala government should have been sought. In their view, during the rock-blasting for construction, the project could seismically impact the Mullaperiyar dam that is about 100 km away. It is also alleged that neutrino beams from Fermilab would adversely affect the biodiversity of the region.

According to M.V.N. Murthy of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai — another key institution involved in the project — a proper geotechnical analysis has indeed been done. The measures adopted to minimise the project’s environmental impact have been detailed in the Environmental Impact Assessment report and also briefly described in the FAQ, both of which are available on the INO website. This includes controlled blasting that will be adopted in the initial reaches to dampen noise and vibration. Even this is expected to last only for the initial few months when the first few hundred metres of the tunnel are built.

Minimal vibrations

Blasting for the excavation of the cavern and associated laboratory infrastructure is expected to cause only minimal vibrations. The INO, says the FAQ, will undertake ground vibration monitoring and other rock mechanics studies during the actual blasting. Appropriate blasting pattern and modern blasting techniques based on the actual site geology will be followed so that the vibration is minimised. But, more pertinently, there are hundreds of granite quarries in the Theni-Idukki region where constant rock blasting goes on throughout the year, which are not known to have had any impact on the dam.

As regards the INO possibly receiving neutrinos beamed from Fermilab, which may happen 10-15 years hence, that has to do with physics and not some ulterior U.S. strategic motive as is being imagined. Also, since neutrinos rarely interact with matter, just as the atmospheric neutrinos, these neutrinos too will pass through without disturbing anything along their path, in particular the biodiversity as is being apprehended.

As it is, the inability to proceed with the project at the original Nilgiris site has set back the project by at least six-seven years. Consequently, China has upstaged INO in one of its main science goals. Only in 2004 — two years after the INO proposal — did China propose an experiment to use neutrinos from a nuclear reactor at Daya Bay and a detector located in an underground tunnel under a nearby hill. That experiment started taking data last year and, in March 2012, measured a key unknown parameter relating to oscillation between tau-neutrino and electron-neutrino. This was subsequently verified in April by a similar Korean experiment, RENO, initiated in 2006. It also began operation last year.

The already much-delayed and important physics project can do without another needless controversy at this point of time.

More In: Lead | Opinion

Dear Mr. Shankar (Oct 8th 10:47 IST comment) and Mr. Anand Nair (Oct 8th 15:20 comment), All your questions, and indeed Mr. VS's, have been well addressed and answered in the due diligence that has been going on for years now on this project. And the article above also outlines this. Hence this project has gone through all the tests and questions needed already, and passed the same. Just because Mr. VS, and the two of you, woke up late and are not bothered to read the reports on the due diligence studies done, does not mean that the project is flawed.
I join millions of Indians in hoping that this project goes through fast and to the glory of Science and India, while acknowledging that you have your right to question, but not to obstruct once due process has been respected.

from:  Rajeev Iyer
Posted on: Oct 9, 2012 at 10:22 IST

Amusing it is that we are talking about bio-diversity being affected by
neutrino particles, when we hamper it with huge daily doses on CO and
CO2 pollution from factories and vehicle emissions!!!

Why did no politician raises a hue and cry so much when they have to
set-up a Reliance industry's refinery or why no one questions the
leather-tanneries in Kanpur polluting the river nearby everyday?

from:  Nalin
Posted on: Oct 8, 2012 at 23:17 IST

@ Anand Nair: None where fully aware of the implications of the
theory of relativity or the Quantum theory of radiation when they
originated and they themselves were based on making many observations.
Hence, it is too early to say what benefits would accrue when at a
time we don't even understand the full nature of the particle.
However, everyone would agree that the study of neutrinos would
enlarge our knowledge of our universe and may very-well form an
important step towards understanding dark-energy and dark-matter. The
only reason, underground facilities were required is due to the non-
interaction of neutrinos with other particles. Hence, adverse side-
effects due to them is already ruled out. Regarding other aspects, all
is required is to enforce strict construction procedures that don't
affect the environment...Informed debate should be conducted but we
cannot debate forever or we would end up last in race...!

from:  Bharat
Posted on: Oct 8, 2012 at 21:33 IST

We don't even have scientists who have a Ph.D in nuclear physics in the first place,
Just some IIT passed engineers, so what neutrino study will this government
undertake? All the kids are busy with IT related studies and there is a dire shortage
of teachers, reliable doctors, etc etc. I never get any response from kids when I ask
them what they want to study that relates even remotely to science. So let's spend
our hard earned tax monies first of helping the lot of the millions without home and
food and water and then worry about neutrinos.

from:  angela alvares
Posted on: Oct 8, 2012 at 19:22 IST

Magnum Opus by R.Ramachandran. Every useful act in India beckons controversies now-a-days. Kudankulam Nuclear Plant, FDI in Retail are the standing examples for this. It's time for the people of the nation to realize. This can be achieved only through proper awareness. Unfortunately, Members of Parliament or State Assembly who are in opposition to ruling party, simply pick these issues to wake up controversies and mislead the citizens. Youth of the nation...Awake..!!

from:  Bhagiradh Sista
Posted on: Oct 8, 2012 at 18:02 IST

May be, the neutrino project is environmentally benign. It is quite
possible that Achuthanandan is wrong in questioning this -- as he was
when computerization was opposed several decades back.

But THAT circumstance (and the real possibility that all is well) does
not in any way diminish the importance of raising such issues and
initiating a public debate. If it turns out that this project is really
harmless (or that significant benefits more than justify the minor
costs), then that would be a befitting rebuttal of the fears now being
expressed in some quarters. The fact is that due diligence is desirable,
even when it may turn out that fears were exaggerated -- and even when
that means a certain loss or cost by way of delays.

As Achuthanandan demanded (in the News Conference), "The Centre should
let us know what the benefit of this experiment is. The scientific
community and the people should discuss it". Why not?

from:  Anand Nair
Posted on: Oct 8, 2012 at 15:20 IST

Lot of science and technology including technical education developed in our country as a result of good and respect and admiration that Nehru had for Bhabha. It is said that Dr. K. S. Krishnan when he was the Director of NPL and Prime Minister Nehru used to meet often and discuss matrers relating to the development of the country.It will be good if the present day scientists and political leaders are able to build such relations. Is anything like that happening at any level in our country? Politicians will only be too happy to be part of everything that happens around them if they are associated with it to take some credit out of it. Scientists should give them that opportunity. It is also important taht the scientists and politicians build a mututal good will between.

from:  V. Srinivasan
Posted on: Oct 8, 2012 at 14:31 IST

It is correct, that any scientific advancement sought to be achieved by the scientific community for the progress of country's scientific and technological movement with due considering concerns of environment and people,should not be mixed with political dynamisms.

from:  aneel.sb
Posted on: Oct 8, 2012 at 14:04 IST

India has been front runner in mathematics, philosophy, science,
medicine etc. Thanks to the foreign invasions, most of the knowledge in
the form of books(on leafs) has been destroyed. And now Indian (elites)
are studying in foreign countries. This project may become the re-
founding stone for the quest of knowledge. Its not a CERN Lab scale
project but it can inspire future generation to go beyond that scale. I
would request politicians not to interrupt in this project, for future
generation's sake.

from:  Santosh Anand
Posted on: Oct 8, 2012 at 13:57 IST

This article could be an eye-opener for taking an objective view on the
project and fast-tracking it. With so many authorities and approvals
involved, it is no surprise that numerous problems like these arise in a
country like ours. But the need of the hour is open communication
between authorities and a concerted effort to address the concerns.
Let's not make this the 'Kudankulam' of the future.

from:  Ramnath R
Posted on: Oct 8, 2012 at 12:55 IST

Necessity-Demand-Curiosity-Sustain - the spirit of Cosmology
Studies.This helps to create Knowledge base. The Cosmic Function of
the universe is not understood by present day Big-Bang-God particle
groups .Science needs to understand nature's philosophy and Plasma
regulated Electromagnetic phenomena in Magnetic field Environment.So
until and unless we pursue the studies on the cosmic matter,one cannot
find the secret of nature.

from:  Viswateja
Posted on: Oct 8, 2012 at 12:48 IST

It's fine for The Hindu to have a lead article on this issue. That
said, the question remains why The Hindu (in its regional 'Kerala'
pages) gave prominence to Mr. Achuthanandan's allegations and claims,
about which, given his level of knowledge and intellect, he hadn't an
iota of idea what he was talking about! Reports on his opinions
appeared at least twice in those pages and I wondered why The Hindu
didn't restrain itself the second time. If at all reporting was
inevitable, reporters and subs, themselves, should have ensured
balance and veracity by being knowledgeable and not write such things
as '1 kilometre WIDE walls' having to be built ringing the cavern. The
existing rock itself can meet that need, can't it?

from:  Devraj Sambasivan
Posted on: Oct 8, 2012 at 12:14 IST

Why is it only on India that somebody has to oppose everything ranging
between a trivial movie release to a great science experiment? Now, if
the ground work suggests that the project in fact does not impact
anything as we know it, why is it that the pleas of this kind
continually encouraged? If the criticizing party is so concerned, why
don't they deploy their own team and find evidence of threats with
substantial proof?
A lot of questions. But a simple way to answer them if only our system
worked that way.

from:  Pavithran
Posted on: Oct 8, 2012 at 12:10 IST

Thanks to R Ramachandran for presenting excellent article giving clear
insight to the INO project. This project gives enormous opportunities
for students and researchers to learn particle physics. It is sad to see
noted scientists like VT Padmanabhan and organisations like Kerala
Shastra Sahitya Parishad are propagating falsehoods against country's
scientific endeavors.

from:  VINAY VISHNU
Posted on: Oct 8, 2012 at 11:38 IST

Nehru wanted India to become modern. He earnestly started on the road to make India modern by introducing scientific thinking and spread of science. But somewhere we are lost. Now we are more concerned about religious feelings than scientific thinking. As far as opposition from Mr. Achuthanandan is concerned , it is only because you said something like US or America ? Is it? Please allow this project to go ahead and encourage science in our country.

from:  Anil P.
Posted on: Oct 8, 2012 at 11:16 IST

"A controversy we can do without" ???

It is well established that anything we humans do in forested or eco-sensitive areas will lead to finite damages to the environment. Hence it is necessary to discuss the very need for INO in such areas.
Is INO essential? Can it be avoided? Who are its beneficiaries?
Can it be located anywhere else with minimum damages to the flora and fauna?
Has any 'costs and benefits analysis' w.r.t the society from this project been undertaken objectively?
Why the impacted communities and interested parties cannot be consulted effectively? A densely populated and resources constrained society such as our has to take extreme precautions in all such projects.The fast deteriorating social and environmental fabric of our society is largely due to the exclusion of Civil Society on such important national level decisions. One should not forget the fact that there are many more experts retired/serving in all areas of our economy than in the government.

from:  Shankar
Posted on: Oct 8, 2012 at 10:47 IST

Neutrino observatory in Singara was rightly shelved because close to 100,000 truck loads of
excavated materials had to removed through pristine forests,infringing on precious wildlife
corridor. The selection of Bodi hills is the current site is aippropriate. Wish the project good
luck. If they can bring indigenous green cover back it would be another bonus.

from:  Anand
Posted on: Oct 8, 2012 at 06:11 IST
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