Scientific progress vs environmental costs: Experts speak out over TN Neutrino project

While Professor G Baskaran told TNM that the project is safe, activists are far from convinced.
Scientific progress vs environmental costs: Experts speak out over TN Neutrino project
Scientific progress vs environmental costs: Experts speak out over TN Neutrino project
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The India-based Neutrino Observatory(INO), a particle physics research project that aims to study atmospheric neutrinos, is once again the subject of debate thanks to fresh support it has received from the scientific community. 

Last week, a group of over 90 eminent scientists, including Nobel laureates, Padma and Bhatnagar awardees signed an appeal in favour of the project. In the appeal drafted by G Baskaran and TR Govindarajan of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai, they state, “It does not pose any danger to environment. It will not have any effect on the water table or dams which anyhow are far away. Technically speaking, it is a telescope, built under a hill, to detect billions of neutrinos, that are passing through us continuously without any effect.”

However, it is precisely this guarantee of safety that has been contended by activists given that the project will take place in a biological hotspot in the Western Ghats. It is worth mentioning that the appeal for support comes from physicists who belong to the Institute of Mathematical Science, the organisation that pushed for the project along with other communities of interest in its early stages. According to the INO Interim Project Report, "The Neutrino 2001 meeting was held in the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai during February 2001 with the explicit objective of bringing the experimentalists and theorists in this field together."

The scientists’ take

Speaking to TNM, Professor G Baskaran clarifies that the project is safer than the public has been given to believe.

"In this particular case of INO and neutrinos, what worries several of us and members of scientific community is presence of factually wrong statements and consequent misconceptions. Neutrino is the most harmless among elementary particle. As it reaches the earth it comes with many other elementary particles which are very aggressive. So we have to filter and put a detector under the hill. The hill helps stop aggressive particles and study neutrinos in isolation. You have to build 2 km long tunnel and keep the neutrino detector deep inside. Incidentally the neutrino detector are essentially massive pieces of iron blocks. Neutrinos are so ubiquitous that in a given second, billions of neutrinos and other cosmic ray particles pass through our body; they cause no harm to us," he says.

The physicist goes on to say, “The building site of INO is a barren land now. Things will go only greener in the area. Education will grow. Opportunities for higher education and opportunities to get into research will grow. Associated technologies will also grow. I don’t see this as a threat to the environment, economy and well-being of people.”

When asked about the potential dangers of the science behind the project, he says, “Unfortunately, the message that has gone to the people is that neutrino is a radioactive particle; this is not true. It is said that building of the tunnel will disrupt reservoirs miles away; this is also not true.”

However, in an earlier interview, Professor G Rajasekaran of the same institute and part of the Scientific Steering Committee for the project said that neutrinos could be used to detect atomic weapons. He said, "Neutrino cannot be weaponised. With the help of neutrino beams, we can detect where atomic bombs are kept...Neutrino can be used to destroy atomic weapons. There will be a small blast. It is radiation but the whole atomic weapon will not burst.”

This led to concerns over whether the Indian government was funding this project for defence reasons. Explaining the research funding, Professor Baskaran says, “When the Department of Atomic Energy in our country started decades ago, they decided to invest a fraction of their budget in basic science and started supporting basic science by funding institutes like the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research at Mumbai, The Institute of Mathematical Sciences at Chennai and several other Institutes across the country. In these DAE-aided institutes, people work on a spectrum of topics in basic sciences and mathematics,"

Once again, as per the INO Interim Project Report, "The first formal meeting of the collaboration was held in the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, during September 6 and 7, 2001 at which various subgroups were formed for studying the detector options and electronics, physics goals and simulations, and site survey."

Zero transparency

Speaking to TNM, G Sundarrajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal, an NGO that has been at the forefront of several environmental battles across the state, says that there has been little transparency with regard to the project since its inception.

Writing for TNM in March, he explained how the environmental clearance for the Neutrino project was treated with kitten gloves. “The INO proposal was considered by the Expert Appraisal Committee of the Ministry of Environment and Forests as a ‘special case’ in its appraisal meetings. Even the EAC has categorically stated that “the committee was given to understand that though the proposals are not within the scope of the EAC(Infra2), the Ministry would want the EAC (Infra-2) to consider this as a special case”.

Replies to RTI queries by the NGO reveal that no public hearing was conducted for the clearance, while Sundarrajan also wonders why Defence Research and Development Organisation officials were present at the meeting. Speaking to TNM, Sundarrajan says, "They term it as basic science but Einstein's E=mc² was also basic science and it gave birth to the atom bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If neutrino can be weaponized, is it not a weapon?"

Emphasising on the ecological cost of the project, he says, “The project involves blasting of rocks in an ecologically sensitive area. This cannot be appraised as a plain building construction project. The scientists have come out with a statement. We have no second opinion about the credibility of the scientists. Unfortunately, it looks more like a political statement rather than a scientific statement. Where is the environmental impact assessment for the project? Let them translate the report in a language that all people can understand.”

Sundarrajan also points out that the villagers in Theni where the project is set to take place consider the hill as a folk god. “To them, the hill is Ambarappar. The same government that awarded these scientists stopped construction of the Ram Sethu because of the religious aspect. Similarly, they worship the hillock. They have been fighting for drinking water for many years. In fact, the officials told them that their villages were on a higher elevation and so reaching water to them would be difficult. Today, the same officials are supplying over 3 lakh litres of water every day to a place that is in a higher elevation than where they stay. With all this in the background, how do you expect the people to be convinced of the merits of this project? They are not okay with that. Ownership is with them.”

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