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India-based Neutrino Observatory

Context:  The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has upheld the environmental clearance granted to the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO).

What is neutrino?

  • A neutrino is a sub atomic particle with no electric charge. They are considered to be the second most abundant particle in the universe, after photons, or light particles.
  • Neutrinos were initially thought to be massless particles but recent experiments suggest that they indeed have a very small mass

Basic Facts

  • History: Predicted in 1931, neutrinos were detected for the first time in 1959 by Clyde Cowan and Fred Reines
  • Types: Currently, three types of neutrinos, called flavors are known:
  1. Electron Neutrino
  2. Muon Neutrino
  3. Tauon Neutrino

  • Difference between neutrino and others: The main difference between neutrinos and their “relatives” is that the electron, muon and the tau are all negatively charged particles but all the neutrinos are chargless (neutral) and are almost massless.
  • Neutrinos can change from one flavor to another as they travel. This process is called neutrino oscillation

  • Source: The Sun, and all other stars, produce neutrinos copiously due to nuclear fusion and decay processes within their core. There are many other natural sources of neutrinos including exploding stars (supernovae), relic neutrinos (from the birth of the universe), natural radioactivity, and cosmic ray interactions in the atmosphere of the Earth.
  • Neutrinos are very difficult to detect because of their extreme inertness. They have an extremely low tendency to interact with other objects, and pass seamlessly through any object that comes in their way
  • The neutrino density of the universe is 330 per cubic centimetre

India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO)

  • The India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) is a proposed Pure-Science underground laboratory. Its primary goal is to study the properties and interactions of neutrinos.
  • INO project is jointly supported by Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and Department of Science & Technology (DST) with DAE acting as the nodal agency. Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai is the host institute for INO project

India-based Neutrino Observatory- A Timeline

  • 2001: INO collaboration formed at the Neutrino 2001 meeting held in Chennai
  • 2002: a document was presented to the Department of Atomic Energy, (DAE) which laid out the goal of establishing an India-based Neutrino Observatory.  The Neutrino Collaboration Group (NCG) was established
  • 2009: The initial plan to set up the laboratory in Singara (near Ooty), in the Nilgiris was declined by the Environment Ministry as it falls in the buffer zone of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR).
  • 2010: Ministry of Environment & Forests approved both environment and forest clearance for setting up the observatory in the Bodi West Hills
  • 2015: Union Cabinet approved to set up the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO)
  • 2017:  The NGT suspended the environmental clearance granted to INO
  • 2018: The Expert Appraisal Committee (Infra 2) of the MoEFCC overturned the NGT verdict and granted environmental clearance for the project.

Components of the INO Project

  • Construction of an underground laboratory (with a rock cover of approx.1200 m) and associated surface facilities at Pottipuram in Bodi West hills of Theni District of Tamil Nadu
  • construction of an Iron Calorimeter (ICAL) detector for studying neutrino
  • Setting up of National Centre for High Energy Physics at Madurai, for the operation and maintenance of the underground laboratory, human resource development and detector R&D along with its applications.  

Objectives of INO

  • Seeks to study neutrinos produced from cosmic rays in Earth’s atmosphere to make precision measurements of the parameters related to neutrino oscillations.
  • Study mass ordering of three types of neutrino by using ICAL

Applications of Neutrino Science

  1. Information on the evolution of Universe: Neutrinos hold the key to several important and fundamental questions on the origin of the Universe and the energy production in stars. As neutrinos can travel long distances and remain uninterrupted over time, they can provide knowledge about the origin of the universe and the early stages of the infant universe, soon after the Big Bang.
  2. Composition of universe: If the properties of neutrinos can be studied better, they can be used in astronomy to discover what the universe is made up of.
  3. Properties of the sun: The visible light that reaches us from the sun is emitted from the surface of the sun. Solar neutrinos produced in the core of the sun can give us information about the interior of the sun.
  4. Neutrino science and INO laboratory greatly aid the development of detector technology and its varied applications. For example: in the areas of medical imaging.

Concerns associated with INO:

  1. Proximity to Dams: There are 15 dams storing over 3 billion m3 of water within radii of 5 to 70 km from the proposed site. Construction of underground observatory with deep tunnel in close proximity to dams raises concerns over reservoir triggered seismicity, change in hydro-geology and possible floods
  2. Blast-induced earthquakes: A massif made up of hard and brittle charnockyte rock will be blasted during the construction process which may lead to stress related problems like rock bursts. The potential damages to buildings and dams near the site of the project from rock bursts is a serious concern
  3. Aquifer impacts: The impact on the aquifers and underground springs is a major concern. For example: the disruption of the aquifer during the tunnelling at the time of construction of Italy’s Gran Sasso National Laboratories (LNGS) resulted in death of several workers and a massive flood in the plains. Further, the chronic impacts on the groundwater level were more massive and irreversible
  4. Impact on ecology and Wildlife: Environmentalist have raised concerns over the possible impact on ecology and wildlife due to INO’s close proximity to Mathikettan Shola National Park in Kerala’s Western Ghats
  5. Concerns over radioactive emissions: Many have raised concerns about the possibility of nuclear or radioactive emissions. However, the government has said the concern is not true and INO has been involving in mass awareness exercises regarding the same.

Conclusion:

Once completed INO will be the largest basic sciences project in India and will have an impact on the emerging high energy physics scenario in the country. People trained at INO will have the expertise to contribute to other high energy and nuclear physics projects around the world. Research and development in neutrino science holds immense potential for India and urgent efforts are needed to implement the project without any further delays. However, while implementing such a mega science project risk assessments and environmental impact assessments should be done to avoid any major threats to the ecology and environment.

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