Science

The Marsh of Failures That the India-Based Neutrino Observatory Is Stranded In

Scientific facts have failed to quell misinformation, an assertion of democratic rights has failed to inspire trust and the EIA has failed as an instrument of legitimisation.

At a meeting organised by the INO collaboration with villagers from Pottipuram, Theni. Credit: INO

At a meeting organised by the INO collaboration with villagers from Pottipuram, Theni. Credit: INO

An article authored by G. Sundarrajan and Muthuraj Vetriselvan in The News Minute (dated April 25, 2017) argues why the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO), a high-energy physics experiment planned to be set up in Theni, Tamil Nadu, should not be allowed to. The INO is supposed to have been under construction by now but various issues with it – ranging from the scientific to religious to environmental – have stalled its progress. For a discussion of its raison d’être and a comprehensive backstory, please read The Wire‘s investigation from 2016. Anyway, in their article Sundarrajan and Vetriselvan conclude thus:

The project is being touted as a basic science project that will open new frontiers in applications. The theory of relativity is also a basic science intervention, how much ever good it has brought to man-kind. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Fukushima, Chernobyl and many other disasters are children of this theory of relativity. The person who developed Nuclear Bombs was not a politician like Roosevelt, it was a scientist called Oppenheimer who developed them.

These lines contrast the authors’ denial of being anti-science at the beginning. Yes, nuclear reactions are grounded partially in (the special theory of) relativity, but they are also described in terms of other subatomic theories because relativity is spectacularly overwhelmed by the other forces of nature when it comes to protons and neutrons. But if the authors wish to pick on scientists for nuclear disasters: they should reconsider. As an astute reader pointed out via email, scientists wish to understand nature and apply that understanding – but it was a political decision to use the bombs.

Moreover, the collateral advantages arising from the study and exploration of fundamental theories include everything from the web to medical diagnostics to advanced materials to better diapers. The number of human-years rescued from death by these inventions easily surpasses the number of humans they have sent to their deaths. This does not justify the construction of nuclear reactors – but it does suggest a foolishness in overlooking the use of knowledge over its misuse.

This isn’t Sundarrajan’s first salvo against the INO; he’s been at it for at least six years. He is an environmental activist and chief of the group Poovulagin Nanbargal. As The Wire‘s investigation unearthed, the anti-INO resistance has multiple fronts grounded in many issues and Sundarrajan is a part of many of them. But to his credit, Sundarrajan’s repeated complaints have prompted a careful and sometimes necessary scrutiny of how the project was cleared at various times by different branches of the government.

In their article in The News Minute, his and Vetriselvan’s objections can be classified as scientific, environmental and procedural. Going through each one of them (except no. 3, a minor technicality) throws up a story of mixed emotions, bad science and a climax made all the more tragic for it.

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Nos. 1 and 9 – The answer lies in a notification issued by the environment ministry in September 2006, concerning environment impact assessments (EIA). According to it, Category ‘B’ projects, called so because they’ll have to be cleared by state-level EIA authorities, will have to be auto-considered Category ‘A’, necessitating national-level clearance, if they’re within 10 km of certain sensitive areas. In Sundarrajan’s appeal filed to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) against the environmental clearance granted to the INO in June 2011, he claims that the Mathikettan Shola National Park is less than 5 km away from the planned site. The site is also within 10 km of the border shared by Tamil Nadu and Kerala. As a result, the INO collaboration has had to reapply for environmental clearance as a Category ‘A’ project.

This much is fine. What is not is that the NGT saw fit to admit Sundarrajan’s appeal far outside of the 30-day window granted for it. Additionally, the June 2011 clearance was awarded by the environment ministry and not by the Tamil Nadu State EIA Authority (TNSEIAA), to which the collaboration had originally applied.

No. 2 – The EIA overseen by the environment ministry had established that the blasts to hollow out the mountain wouldn’t be felt very far at all. According to D. Indumathi, a physicist at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (Matscience), Chennai, vibrations due to the explosions would disturb the ground to the extent of less than 1 mm/s beyond a few hundred metres from the site. However, other mistakes on the parts of the ministry as well as the TNSEIAA rendered all of its decisions – including this one – suspect.

No. 4 – The INO collaboration, one member of which is Matscience, had been aware that only certain agencies were qualified by law to perform an environmental impact assessment. The one that Matscience ultimately employed – the Salim Ali Centre for Natural History and Ornithology (SACON) – was not one of them. However, Indumathi had contended that since SACON had only prepared the report and she had been the one to present it to the EIA committee, the restriction wouldn’t apply to them. It seems she had interpreted the rules wrong. This flaw formed part of the basis of Sundarrajan’s plea to the NGT apart from being a major reason the start of the INO’s construction has been delayed.

No. 5 – Indumathi objected vehemently, telling The Wire that she was one of the first people on the ground conducting an awareness campaign in December 2009. Subsequently, according to her, the physics department of the American College, Madurai, organised a door-to-door drive and meetings of their own. And finally, “We also met some local leaders, including from the farming and political community as well as panchayat president and members,” she said. “The meetings went on over a period of six months, culminating in a major meeting organised by the district collector.”

At this meeting, Indumathi said an estimated 1,200 people and about 40 members of the press were present. “Also present were local MLAs, the deputy superintendent of police, panchayat members, the district revenue officer, block development officers, about a dozen INO members, engineers from [the state electricity board] who wrote the detailed project report for the INO and American College faculty.” The venue was a school located about 2 km from the project site. “At this meeting, the collector announced that with the consent of the local people, the INO would come up in the Bodi West hills.”

By this time, the INO collaboration had also applied for an environmental clearance from the TNSEIAA.

No. 6 – This is where Sundarrajan’s opposition to the project becomes difficult. In 2012, the INO had to face down some pseudoscientific claims made by the activist and writer V.T. Padmanabhan. Specifically, he’d alleged that a particle (specifically, muon) collider that might be built in the US in the future might have an adverse impact on the population of Theni, the Tamil Nadu district in which the INO was to come up.

The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, a part of the INO collaboration, responded to Padmanabhan’s claims with a note that sought to mitigate the damage done. Padmanabhan had alleged that the muon collider in the West could beam harmful radiation towards Theni, to be studied by the INO. This was absurd: the radiation hazards posed by such a collider were limited to its immediate neighbourhood, not a site over 10,000 km away. Moreover, Padmanabhan also sought to (incorrectly) imply that neutrinos were radioactive particles that could harm humans.

Sundarrajan inherited some of these fears and insisted that there was a difference between naturally produced neutrinos and “artificial” neutrinos – a claim that led to a new round of headaches for the INO’s outreach team. It soon became clear that Sundarrajan’s “artificial” neutrinos was a reference to those produced by machines called neutrino factories and by nuclear reactors. The science on the other hand is clear: natural and “artificial” neutrinos are completely identical.

No. 7 – If the writ petition filed by Tamil politician Vaiko in the Madurai bench of the Madras high court in January 2015 is anything to go by, hollowing out the mountain is a dangerous proposition. The petition claims that the area under the planned project site is seismologically sensitive. On the other hand, official records say it’s one of the most stable zones in the entire region. There are also no geological faults, according to Kusala Rajendran, an earth scientist at the Centre for Earth Sciences, the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, contravening a claim Sundarrajan has made in the past, that a fault-line ran through the area and which was susceptible to being disturbed by explosions. But no faults, ergo no quakes. This issue also depends on the strength of the explosions (see no. 2).

No. 8 – It’s unclear why Sundarrajan and Vetriselvan have asked for an EIA to account for a possible disturbance of underground aquifers and chemical leaching during construction – and then offered the Gran Sasso research facility in Italy as precedent. There are two key differences. First: Gran Sasso is underground; INO was going to be under-mountain. Second: the rock under Gran Sasso is limestone while that under INO is the harder charnockite. And charnockite can’t harbour aquifers. According to an August 2012 paper published in Current Science, “Charnockites are massive, hard, compact, fine-to-medium grained and black-coloured, and do not have the capacity to transmit and store water.”

The paragraph beginning “When India does not have any plan…” – This is moot. After a discovery made by Chinese scientists in 2012, the INO collaboration killed plans to receive neutrino beams from distant sources by 2015 because its scientific premise had been eliminated.

“While Dr. Kalam had said that…” – Sundarrajan and Vetriselvan refer to a 2013 paper by a physicist at Fermilab describing a tactical weapon composed of a beam of neutrinos and another of anti-neutrinos – together capable of remotely detonating nuclear weapons. However, the paper details numerous engineering problems in constructing such a weapon, none of which have been solved to this day. For a clearer illustration of what’s required: a 2003 paper that explored the construction of a similar weapon said the beams would have to produced by a muon-storage ring that “would need to be 1,000 kilometres wide, … need 50 GW of power to operate – the same as used by the entire UK – and would cost an estimated $100 billion to construct.” If such a thing is going to be in the works, we’ll see it coming from at least a decade away.

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Ultimately: It is unreasonable to repeatedly contest facts or for courts to admit petitions hinged on faulty data. It is similarly unreasonable to push through a project on good faith, without the necessary and proper clearances, even if it’s well-known that the system obligates some projects to jump through a variety of hoops.

For example, muddling the waters in the INO’s case is its source of funds: the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). The DAE is notorious for its opacity as well as ham-fisted handling of the Jadugoda and Kudankulam issues. The assessment process hasn’t inspired confidence either. At one point, the INO was misclassified as a nuclear project – thought to be the result of a clerical error – presumably because there was no category for scientific projects. But while the mistake was quickly corrected, the damage was also quickly done. Rumours emerged that the INO’s cavern would be used by the DAE to bury radioactive waste.

All this prompts the question: does refuting some claims with facts suffice to throw off the entirety of the opposition that has arisen against the INO? There is popular support for the project from within the particle physics community – although there are a few pockets of disagreement here as well – but many scientists this author has corresponded with from other fields are ambivalent. The Wire‘s 2016 investigation heard from some experts that the collaboration was naïve in not having anticipated the scale of protests against its endeavour – including politically motivated ones. Finally, even others have their doubts about the attitudes of stakeholders themselves, although Indumathi asserted they were careful to not seem patronising and that they ran as honest an awareness campaign as they could.

But in the end, the picture that emerges from between the relentless salvos against the project and the repeated efforts to see the INO through is a mosaic of failures. Scientism has failed to quell the misinformation in the air. An assertion of democratic rights has failed to establish trust. And the EIA has failed to be an instrument of legitimisation, as it had been originally envisaged. The result is that the INO has been left in a limbo. Even if it receives a fresh environmental clearance, as well as the approval of the National Board of Wildlife, it’s not clear if construction will be allowed to begin at the site by, say, 2020. And when it is completed five years down the line, it’s not clear if it will still possess the same advantages it was once said to have, of being the first of its kind in the world.

With inputs from Nithyanand Rao.