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Underground search for the ghost particle hits wildlife clearance wall

NGT has slowed down the hunt for one of the universe’s fundamental particles in a giant cavern deep inside the Earth. What are neutrinos, why is the search for them so exciting, why does the observatory — India’s most ambitious scientific research facility yet — appear jinxed?

Written by Amitabh Sinha
Updated: March 28, 2017 9:57:52 am
NGT, neutrinos, What are neutrinos, neutrinos search, neutrinos earth, national green tribunal, environmental clearance, India-based Neutrino Observatory, INO, wildlife, neutrinos wildlife, indian express news, indian express explained The site of the observatory at Bodi West Hills, Theni district, Tamil Nadu. Source: INO

The order of the National Green Tribunal last week suspending the environmental clearance for the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO), a major scientific research facility, is just the latest in a long line of troubles that the project has faced after being conceived in the first few years of this century. The order of the NGT’s Chennai Bench has forced the INO to seek fresh environmental clearance, and approval of the National Board for Wildlife — a process that could take between a year-and-a-half and two years, adding to the delay that the project already faces.

In the worst case scenario, the INO, which involves construction of an underground laboratory in Theni district of Tamil Nadu, might even be forced to look for an alternative site, something that it has already had to do once earlier because of similar environmental concerns.

The Problem

The latest problem has been triggered by the NGT’s assessment that the INO site lies at a distance of 4.9 km from a national park in Kerala’s Idduki district, at least 100 m inside the 5 km radius beyond which projects do not need NBWL approval. The INO project had received environment and forest clearance in 2011, but hadn’t applied for wildlife clearance because of its own assessment that it lay outside the 5 km zone.

“We will make a fresh application for all the necessary clearances. We have been faulted on some counts and we would like to clear our name. There is nothing for us to hide. Our assessment, when we had sought clearances, was that we did not need to obtain wildlife clearance. But after the court order, we will go back and seek all the approvals. I don’t think we will appeal this order,” Vivek Datar, project director of INO, told The Indian Express.

The INO Project

The neutrino observatory is the most ambitious scientific research facility that India is trying to build. To be located 1.5 km below the Earth’s surface, this observatory would be used to detect and study neutrinos, one of the fundamental particles of the universe, but one which is also among the least understood. The underground laboratory would consist of a cavern of dimensions 132 m x 26 m x 20 m and several small rooms, and will be accessed by a nearly 2 km long and 7.5 m wide tunnel.

Neutrinos — not to be confused with neutrons, which along with protons make up the nucleus of an atom — are tiny particles, very similar to electrons, but without any electric charge. The study of neutrinos is among the most exciting and alive areas of global research in particle physics. Several groups in different countries are carrying out parallel research on neutrinos, which are believed to hold very important clues to some of the basic questions on the universe. In recent years, neutrino research has led to the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2002 and 2015.

Detected for the first time in 1959 — though their existence was predicted almost three decades earlier, in 1931 — neutrinos were later found to be omnipresent. They are the second most abundant particles in the world, after photons, or the light particle. They are so numerous that about a billion of them pass through a cubic centimetre of space every second. These high-energy particles are produced in natural radioactive decays and all sorts of nuclear reactions happening in nuclear power reactors, particle accelerators or nuclear bombs. But the most common source of neutrinos are celestial phenomena — the birth and death of stars, collisions and explosions happening in space. The core of the Sun is an important source of neutrinos. Every fusion reaction in the Sun, in which two hydrogen atoms fuse into one helium atom, releases two neutrinos. And there are billions of these fusions happening every minute.

A large number of the neutrinos present in the universe are supposed to have been produced at the time of the Big Bang, making them good candidates to extract more information from about the origins of the universe. But because they are electrically neutral and almost massless, these neutrinos have an extremely low tendency to interact with other objects. They pass seamlessly through most objects that come in their way, including human beings, machines or the Earth’s surface, without being noticed. That is the reason why scientists have to go deep underground to set up special detectors in a bid to catch the faint signals of neutrinos in an environment that is relatively free from ‘noise’ and disturbance.

INO’s woes

The state-of-the-art laboratory might inspire pride amongst the scientific community, but it has had a very troubled history. Mistaken by a section of the public and some activists for many things that it is not, the Rs 1,500-crore INO project has faced several objections and protests. There have been fears that the facility was meant to store nuclear waste from the country’s nuclear power plants, or that the experiments underground would lead to the release of radioactive substances.

A major part of the INO project so far has been to carry out an outreach and educational exercise to dispel such misconceptions. At several public meetings, scientists have had to clarify that what they were building was not a nuclear arms factory, and that it would not emit harmful radiation, affect soil or water, or damage forests.

Even environmental trouble of the kind it faces now is not new to the INO. The original site selected for the project was located in Singara, near Ooty, in the Nilgiris that had a hard, rocky surface. The site was suggested by the Geological Survey of India based on the requirements of having a large underground facility. Two hydel power stations, one functional, the other abandoned, in the vicinity had ensured that some infrastructure, including a series of tunnels, was already present. The INO team was all set to move in at that location. But the nearby Mudhumalai National Park was declared a tiger reserve during the same time, and environmental clearance to the project was denied for this reason.

A search for an alternative site led the INO team to the present location of the project in Theni district.

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