The India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO), a particle physics research project that aims to study atmospheric neutrinos, has received the go ahead from the Centre even as it has been the subject of controversy in Tamil Nadu. In a written reply in the Rajya Sabha on Thursday, Union Minister of State Dr Jitendra Singh, who oversees the Department of Atomic Energy and Space, reiterated that the Centre had approved a project to build the neutrino observatory at Pottipuram in Theni.
“Briefly, the project aims to set up a 51,000-ton Iron Calorimeter (ICAL) detector to observe naturally occurring atmospheric neutrinos in a cavern at the end of an approximately 2 km long tunnel in a mountain. This will help to reduce the noise from cosmic rays that is ever present over-ground and which would outnumber the rare neutrino interactions even in a detector as large as ICAL (sic),” the Minister explained in his reply.
Environmental activists from the state have raised concerns regarding the project being located in the fragile ecosystem of the Western ghats. The mountain range of the western coast of India is considered one of the “hottest hotspots” of biological diversity in the world according to UNESCO, which has also conferred it a World Heritage Site status. Poovulagin Nanbargal is the environmental movement at the forefront of the protest against the construction of the project in the ecologically sensitive area. The group had earlier alleged that the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change was giving the project a go-ahead without either a public hearing or an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
With regard to the environmental concerns, the Minister’s reply in the Upper House notes, “The INO project does not disturb the ecosystem around the site and does not release any radiation, as it does not have any radioactive substance. It measures cosmic rays.” He added that this neutrino detector would be the first of its kind in India.
Speaking to TNM, G Sundarrajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal says that the Centre’s nod comes even as cases against the project are pending with stay in both the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, which has ordered that clearance be sought from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, and the Supreme Court, which has ordered that clearance be sought from the Animal Welfare Board of India.
"The impact of blasting five lakh to six lakh rocks has not been studied. The EIA says so too. The second phase of the project is of concern to us since it intends to manufacture neutrino beams. This is questionable in terms of radiation, functionality, usage, implications and application," G Sundarrajan says.