Why Neutrino Project is not Neutral? - P J James

20 April 2015

The key-note paper by comrade PJ James, Convener of the Save Western Ghats Movement, to be presented to the convention on the Neutrino Project at Bodinaickannur, Theni district, Tamilnadu, on 24th May with the participation of environmental activists and leaders of mass organizations from Tamil Nadu and Kerala- Red Star


India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO), the proposed particle physics research project to primarily study atmospheric neutrinos in a 1,300 meters (4,300 ft) deep cave under the Ino Peak in the Bodi West Hills reserved forest in the Theni district of Tamil Nadu adjacent to Kerala is now kept in abeyance following a stay order from the Madras High Court. Along with the deep tunnel required for the experiment, the project will be spread across 63 acres of land, just 2 km away from the people's settlement in the locality. If/when completed, the INO, as claimed by its protagonists, will be a world-class underground neutrino detector in the Bodi West Hills region of Theni district, about 110 km west of Madurai in Tamil Nadu and close to the Kerala border.

According to available information, the project will house the world's most massive magnet (the primary research instrument of INO will consist of a 50,000 ton magnetized iron particle physics calorimeter with glass Resistive Plate Chamber (RPC) technology as the sensor elements), four times larger than the 12,500-ton magnet in the Compact Muon Solenoid detector at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. The reason for the need of such a massive detector and deep drilling underground is that the neutrinos interact very weakly with the surroundings such that detecting them over other interactions is impossible. Therefore, a barrier of at least 1 km of earth to block out other radiation and particles, such as muons from cosmic rays is suggested. And scientists have to go underground and construct a tunnel which is 2 km by 7.5m by 7.5m at a depth of 1,300 metres below the peak leading to a chamber that will house the detector.

The INO project is a multi-institute collaboration and is projected as one of the biggest experimental particle physics projects undertaken in India. The Department of Atomic Energy had first proposed the INO project in 2009 at Singara in Nilgiris that is located within the buffer zone of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. However, on account of objections from the Tamil Nadu Forest Department and National Tiger Conservation Authority, Jairam Ramesh, the Minister of Environment in a Letter written on November 20, 2009 to the Department of Atomic Energy denied permission to the project. Among other things, the Letter said: "The proposed project site falls in the buffer zone of Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and is in close proximity to the core/critical tiger habitats of Bandipur and Mudumalai Tiger reserves. It is also an elephant corridor, facilitating elephant movement from the Western Ghats to the Eastern Ghats and vice versa. The area is already disturbed on account of severe biotic pressure due to human settlements and resorts and that the construction phase of the project would involve transport of building materials through the highways passing through the core area of the Bandipur and Mudmulai Tiger Reserves." As an alternative, a site near Suruliyar Falls, Theni District was taken up as the second option. But that also was turned down as the proposed site was in a reserved forest area which required large-scale cutting down of trees. Hence Thevaram which is about 20-30 km away from Suruliayar Falls was suggested as the new site. Later it was revealed that this site lacked water which will have to be piped over a distance of 30 km. Following this, several rounds of discussion took place among the Ministries of Atomic Energy, Environment and Forests and on October 18, 2010, governmental approval was given for setting up the observatory in the Bodi West Hills reserved forest in the Theni district of Tamil Nadu. Based on official-level consultations, the Ministry of Environment & Forests approved both environment and forest clearance without pursuing proper procedures or releasing any environmental and social impact assessment reports involving the local population. Though the project was expected to be completed in 2015 at an estimated cost of Rs.1,500 crores, as of now, it seems to be further postponed with a revised cost of Rs.1584 crores.

Earlier, a number of agencies in India like the Department of Atomic Energy (which is the main funding agency for the project) and research institutes from abroad such as the Fermi Lab in Chicago, USA have joined together to establish what is called a Neutrino Collaboration Group (NCG) to study the possibility of building up an India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) following the winding up of an erstwhile experiment in the Kolar gold fields in the 1990s. A memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed by the directors of the participating institutes on August 30, 2002 to enable a smooth functioning of the NCG for a prolonged period. The NCG has the goal of creating an underground neutrino laboratory with the long-term goal of conducting decisive experiments in neutrino physics as also "other" (?) experiments which require such a unique underground facility. Consequent on the allocation of land to the INO collaboration by the government of Tamil Nadu during February 2012, steps were initiated to establish road connectivity from Rasingapuram to Pottipuram village at the foot of Bodi Hills where INO is to be located.

It was only then that the local people, majority of whom are marginal peasants, manual workers and petty traders came to know of the project. Concerned people both in Tamil Nadu and Kerala came forward sharply expressing their anxiety and apprehensions over establishing a neutrino observatory on the Theni-Idukki border in between Tamil Nadu and Kerala, citing environmentally hazardous issues. Though the technocrats in the DEA and other research institutes through their websites are quick to denounce all apprehensions raised by concerned sections, at the outset, it must be stated that the entire process of conceptualization and implementation of the INO project from its very beginning lacked transparency. Of course, till the closing of the Kolar Gold Fields in the 1990s, India had been a site of experimental neutrino research, and Indian technocrats and experts connected with it and who were eagerly looking for an outlet have now started projecting the INO as an opportunity for reviving what they call the "lost advantage."

In this context, the super-imposition of the proposed INO on the people of Tamil Nadu-Kerala border in an arbitrary manner flouting even the existing environmental regulations as revealed from the "stay order'' from Madras High Court, has resulted in a panic situation as far as the common people are concerned. Among other things, following are the major issues raised by concerned scholars and people's activists.

1. First and foremost, the whole project is an arbitrary imposition on the people. As noted earlier, at least three sites earlier identified for the project had to be abandoned on environmental grounds. In spite of that, no environmental evaluation has been made with respect to Pottipuram village where INO is to be located. The impression created by the Department of Science & Technology and the Department of Atomic Energy of the Government of India until the Madras High Court stay order on March 26, 2015 directing the Modi government to stop work at the site was that the project had got all the necessary environmental clearances. In the court proceedings, however, it was revealed that those who are steamrolling the project have not at all done even the mandatory consultation with the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. Of course, the High Court has temporarily stopped the project only on this technical ground, and unless people's resistance is not built up, it will be a matter of time for vested interests to manipulate things in their favour effectively utilizing the bogey of science and development. In view of Modi government's insistence on going ahead with the notorious pro-corporate Land Acquisition Ordinance and the TSR Subrahmanian Committee Report on Environment which are more anti-people and anti-national compared with such colonial laws as the 1894 Land Acquisition Act, arbitrary imposition of the project on the people continues as a real threat unless effectively resisted by all concerned sections with a pro-people and pro-nature perspective on science and development. Meanwhile, the corporate-technocratic lobby associated with the DEA and DST backed by immense funds has already unleashed its counter propaganda using corporate media and through its own websites including the establishment of a high profile research program in Madurai Kamaraj University on High Energy Physics with attractive fellowships for students.

2. While the entire amount of Rs. 1584 crore required for the project is from Indian tax-payers' money, the involvement of DEA whose activities are not at all transparent and not even subject to any kind of people's scrutiny or verification by parliamentary committees, along with the collaboration of Fermi Lab like American research institutes which are notorious for building up such clandestine and opaque structures and information barriers that ultimately serve the political needs of US imperialism, etc., are all debatable questions. In the so called multi-institution Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment that is envisaged, while INO (India) will act as ' the detector" and "neutrino source" , instead of the CERN (Europe) the location of which scientists characterize is very close to the "magic baseline", it is the Fermi Lab (USA) which will be the "host laboratory." And there is no guarantee for India, the sole bearer of the whole cost of this multi-country initiative, getting the essential scientific details associated with the research program, especially from American Fermi Lab. In this context, the argument that Indian students will get a chance to work with cutting edge technology and build sophisticated instruments is only hypothetical. In fact, India which experiences acute scarcity of particle physicists has yet to develop the scientific and technological expertise needed for running the INO. In this regard, we cannot gloss over Modi government's growing dependence on American nuclear establishment.

3. Neutrinos are projected in the standard model of physics as neutral, passive or inactive particles having no positive or negative charges. However, though initially thought to be mass-less, according to new research, neutrinos are now believed to have a small mass. The INO experiment, it has been argued, will provide a unique, world-leading program for the exploration of key questions at the forefront of particle physics and astrophysics. Chief among its potential discoveries is that of matter-antimatter symmetry violation in neutrino flavor mixing — a step toward unraveling the mystery of matter generation in the early universe. While these issues may be left to the discretion of scientists, still we are bound to be concerned with the "other" underground experiments specifically mentioned in the MOU signed among the Neutrino Collaboration Group (NCG) monitoring the INO. Here it is highly pertinent to quote from a Report entitled "Radioactive leak shuts down neutrino study" published in www.nature.com dated June 4, 2014. According to the Report, a research facility with a detector housed deep below the New Mexico desert in a used mine built for studying neutrinos was alongside the United States' only deep geological repository for nuclear waste. Following a radioactive leak at the repository during February, 2014, researchers' access to the underground neutrino site has been totally cut off and authoritative information from those who are in charge of the project is not all forthcoming since then. Therefore, the apprehension by concerned sections that the underground site at INO and the secret operations thereof will be used for nuclear waste disposal and related activities cannot be ruled out.

4. The INO establishment also rules out the ecological impact from the construction process. According to estimates, about 8 hundred thousand tons of hard rock is to be removed for the underground construction and the authorities have not put forward a convincing method of its disposal. The argument that it can be used for building approach roads to the site, houses and flats for the staff, infrastructures, etc. is a very feeble one since only less than 10 percent of the rock will be needed for them. Nothing is there on the agenda as to how the pollution arising from dust and other wastes can be disposed. It is said that precautions will be taken at the time of blasting of the rocks. However, even controlled blasting will result in ground vibrations adversely affecting the stability of Idukki Dam which is at an aerial distance of just 36 km and Mullaperiyar Dam which is at an aerial distance of 49 km. With an array of 14 big and small dams and being situated in a seismic belt, the environmental impact in Idukki district and on the entire mountain range of such an underground blasting of hard rock digging out 800,000 tons of material will be of incalculable proportions.

In brief, while the people have several apprehensions such as radio-active contamination of land and water, ecological pollution arising from the use of explosives, depletion of ground water, loss of agricultural land and habitat, threats to dams in Kerala and flora and fauna in the region, the so called scientific community has only the usual stereo-typed answers to such genuine concerns. According to preliminary estimates, if the project materializes, at least 5 million people inhabiting six districts across Tamil Nadu and Kerala will have to bear a number of consequences. In the case of an industrial project, provisions may be there for employment of people suffering from displacement and loss of habitat. Since such provisions are not there in the case of a research project like INO, the affected people will not be getting any benefits like employment or rehabilitation. Instead of taking the people into confidence, sharing the details with them in a transparent manner and making an objective environment-social impact assessment study with people's participation, the same bureaucratic arrogance visible as usual in similar other projects is displayed in the case of INO also. Therefore, all progressive and democratic forces having a pro-people and pro-nature approach to science and development should join with the struggling people and concerned sections to resolve the grave questions arising from INO project by compelling the authorities to reconsider the whole issue from a people-centered perspective as against the usual bureaucratic/techno-centric attitude.

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