The neutrino opportunity

India’s wait to join the elite club of countries undertaking neutrino research suffered a procedural delay in March this year when the National Green Tribunal (NGT) suspended the environmental clearance (EC) granted to the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO), and ordered it to file a fresh application for clearance.

The proposed INO project primarily aims to study atmospheric neutrinos in a 1,300-m deep cavern in the Bodi West Hills in Theni district, Tamil Nadu. If completed, the INO would house the largest magnet in the world, four times more massive than the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN’s Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector’s magnet. Neutrinos are tiny particles, almost massless, that travel at near light speeds. Born from violent astrophysical events such as exploding stars and gamma ray bursts, they are abundant in the universe, and can move as easily through matter as we move through air. They are notoriously difficult to track down. If you hold your hand towards the sunlight for one second, about a billion neutrinos from the sun will pass through it; this is because they are the by-products of nuclear fusion in the sun. These little wisps hold the blueprint of nature, which the INO project aims to use to understand some of the unsolved mysteries of the universe.

While the suspension of INO’s environmental clearance is a setback, the scientific community hopes these procedural lapses will be addressed in an earnest and time-bound manner. The NGT’s March 2017 order further delays the start of the project. Now the earliest conceivable completion date is projected as 2022. The INO will fall further behind other facilities including China’s Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory (JUNO), expected to open in 2019.

What it involves

The INO project also has its critics. Many argue, among other things, that the explosives used in construction are a threat to the highly sensitive ecology of the Western Ghats, and that the relevant radiation safety studies for carrying out the long baseline neutrino experiment in the second phase of INO have not been done. The proposed excavation is planned to be carried out by a controlled blast, limiting the impact of vibrations with the help of computer simulations. Additionally, building the INO involves constructing an underground lab accessed by a 2 km-long horizontal access tunnel, resembling a road tunnel. Such tunnels have been built extensively in India and the relevant studies show that the environmental impact (mainly dust and noise in the initial phase) have been managed. In the second phase, the INO project initially had planned to be set up as a far detector for the Neutrino Factory, which is a proposed particle accelerator. This may not be necessary because of the discoveries already being made in the field. Even if you build it, the radiation from the neutrino beam alone on an average would be one in 100 millionth of the natural radiation, which is negligible.

The procedural lapses and assumptions about the project’s agenda have made a project of this scale hard to bear fruit in India. Further, allegations such as neutrinos being radioactive particles and that the INO will double up the storage of nuclear waste have damaged the collaboration’s many years of outreach efforts. Any further delays could defeat the purpose of the project because similar projects elsewhere could undermine India’s efforts. For those who argue that Rs. 1,500 crore is a waste of money, it might be instructive to look back at the enormous achievements 20th century has brought in on the pillars of relativity and quantum mechanics.

Long history of research

Neutrino research has a long history in India. In the 1960s and 1970s, a group of scientists led by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research detected some unusual experimental observations, the so-called Kolar events in the Kolar Gold Fields (KGF) in Karnataka. Half a century later, however, these events remain as science fiction, yet to be explained and unravelled. From the 1980s, neutrino enthusiasts discussed the possibility of a neutrino observatory located in India. In 2002, a document was presented to the Department of Atomic Energy which laid out an ambitious plan to establish the INO. Since then, fast-paced developments have taken place in neutrino physics. Consider this: more than half the Nobel Prizes in physics in the past 50 years have been awarded to basic research in particle physics; this includes the 2015 Prize for the discovery of neutrino oscillations. On January 5, 2015, the Union cabinet gave its approval to establish the INO at an estimated cost of Rs. 1,500 crore, the most expensive basic science project in India.

While public apprehensions in such projects are understandable, they also demonstrate that communication between the scientific community and the public needs to be more basic and democratic. For a country of young minds, we should generate sufficient public support for such high technology and science projects.

Jaiby Joseph, Assistant Professor, Department of Physics, K.E. College, Mannanam, Kerala, is a

collaborator of the INO project. E-mail: jjoseph4@kent.edu. M.P. Ram Mohan, an Associate Professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, works on nuclear risk regulation and governance. E-mail: mprmohan@iima.ac.in

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