Neutrino facility has miles to go

Neutrino facility has miles to go

National Green Tribunal upholds environmental clearance, but there are other hurdles in the way. Why is this project important for India, and what remains to be done before construction can finally begin?

Neutrino facility has miles to go
At the Bodi West hills in Theni district, the site for the neutrino observatory.

A week ago, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) upheld the environmental clearance granted to the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO), a major research facility proposed in Theni district of Tamil Nadu. While this removes all current legal hurdles in building the facility, there are still other obstacles to be overcome before work can begin on this project, which has been in planning since 2001.

What it will do

The INO promises to be a one-of-its-kind facility to detect and study neutrinos. These are extremely tiny elementary particles that are omnipresent in universe but very difficult to detect because they pass seamlessly through all kinds of matter.

Neutrinos carry no electric charge. Predicted in 1931, neutrinos were detected for the first time in 1959, and are now considered to be the second most abundant particle in the universe — after the photon, or light particle. Groups in many countries are carrying out research on neutrinos, believed to hold important clues to some of the basic questions on the universe. Research on neutrinos has led to award of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2002 and 2015, and before that, in 1988 and 1995.

Once built, INO would be the biggest research facility in India. The Indian Express has reported earlier that the underground laboratory will be located nearly 1.5 km below the Earth’s surface, where a giant neutrino detector is to be placed. The laboratory will consist of a cavern of size 132 m × 26 m × 20 m and with several small rooms, and will be accessed by a tunnel nearly 2 km long and 7.5 m wide.

Series of holdups


The project has been mired in all kinds of trouble — litigation, public protests, opposition from NGOs and political parties, besides government apathy. It has had to move locations once, because the nearby Mudhumalai National Park had been declared a tiger reserve during the same time. Environmental clearance granted in 2011 for the second site, too, was put in abeyance by the NGT because the project was within 5 km of the Mathikettan Shola National Park in Idukki, and no application had been moved for the approval from the National Board of Wildlife.

Click on image to enlarge.

Fresh environmental clearance was given last March by the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forest. This was challenged in the NGT again, which has now thrown out the challenge.

The result of all these obstacles has been that work, originally scheduled to start in 2012, is yet to take off. The original timeline had envisaged experimental work starting from 2017, later advanced to 2020. It is now unlikely to begin before 2025, even if construction starts next year. Construction of the underground facility would take at least five years.

The project cost, too, likely to escalate. The Union government had, in 2015, approved a budget of Rs 1,583 crore for the project. That budget was based on cost assessments done in 2012. It is estimated the project would now cost at least 25% more than that amount.

More challenges ahead

Bigger uncertainties in terms of government approvals, meanwhile, are still to come. The project applied for clearance from the National Board of Wildlife only in January this year. That approval is still awaited.

Last year, the INO was told it would also need building approval from relevant state government agencies. That building plan is being prepared and an application is likely to be moved later this month. It is unclear how much time it will take to get that approval.

The Tamil Nadu government, which has handed over, free, 26.5 hectares of land in the Bodi West Hills near Pottipuram village in Theni district, has taken its time deciding on approvals for the project. It took two years for the state government to grant approval to a change in land use, from residential to residential-cum-educational, to the project’s control facility in Madurai, and that too after it became evident that the matter was to come up for discussion at the Pragati meeting that Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes with state governments to expedite stalled projects. Again, for three years, the state’s Pollution Control Board did not take any action on the application for the final go-ahead after environmental clearance had been obtained in 2011.

Then there is a pending case in the Madurai bench of Madras High Court, filed in 2015 by MDMK leader Vaiko, who has been opposing the project. The court has passed interim orders asking the INO not to begin any “research work” until final clearance is obtained from the state Pollution Control Board. It is being understood, as of now, that once final clearance is obtained, this interim order will lose its meaning.