CHENNAI: In a major development, the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) project, which has suffered multiple delays and remained a non-starter for the past one decade, is finally set to take off. The Expert Appraisal Committee (Infra-2) of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has taken up the request for grant of environment clearance as a special case, considering its national importance.
At its 27th meeting held in New Delhi on January 25, the EAC acknowledged that INO project was one of the largest basic science projects in the country and testified it as a collaborative spirit of the scientific community. However, the committee, headed by Prof T Haque, has deferred the decision to grant environment clearance, saying the project involved construction, mining, tunnelling, cavern and scientific research and experts from relevant fields should deliberate all these aspects during appraisal.
As per the minutes of the meeting, uploaded in the ministry’s website, the EAC has asked the project proponent, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, to submit the detailed geo technical investigation report on the study carried out for locating underground laboratory of the INO on the Pottipuram Site, detailed status of court cases pending/disposed of and the details of public meeting held on July 8, 2010 by the Theni Collector along with action plan.
Sources in the Environment Ministry told Express that India has to execute this project at the earliest to remain relevant globally. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in favour of an early implementation of the neutrino project. However, the ministry will assess all ecological implications before giving the clearance. The project proponent and the accredited consultant M/s MITCON Consultancy and Engineering Services Ltd has already given a detailed presentation. “In fact, one of the earliest laboratories created to detect neutrinos underground in the world was located at the Kolar Gold Field (KGF) mines in Karnataka. The first atmospheric neutrinos were detected at this laboratory in 1965,” the senior official isaid.
Even at the State-level, there seems to be a sudden shift in mindset. Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam, who also represents the Bodinayakanur constituency and in the past opposed the project, said on Wednesday that the project would come up if the studies showed it was safe.
In fact, when the proposal came up before the State Expert Appraisal Committee/State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEAC/SEIAA) on November 27, it noted that this proposal cannot be appraised by the State since it involved many technical features such as tunnelling and excavation of six lakh cubic metres of Charnockite rock from the mountain. “This project should be appropriately handled by the Government of India,” SEIAA concluded.
At the same time, the SEIAA reminded the Union Environment Ministry that the proposed site — Bodi west hills in Pottipuram — forms part of catchment of various streams that contribute to the Vaigai watershed which forms life support and livelihood of the dependent communities by providing water for drinking and agricultural needs in five districts in Tamil Nadu. Also, the site falls within five km of the Mathikettan Shola National Park in Idukki district in Kerala and the environmental safeguards proposed by the project proponent will have to be scrutinised.
The idea of building an underground laboratory in India began with the signing of an MoU by the directors of six institutes of the Department of Atomic Energy in 2002. Later, 25 national labs and universities started collaborating in the INO project.
As per the detailed project report, in the first phase of the INO operation, a magnetised iron calorimeter detector, weighing about 50,000 tonnes, will be used for studying neutrinos produced from cosmic rays in earth’s atmosphere. The aim is to make precision measurements of the parameters related to neutrino oscillations. In the long term, the INO is expected to develop into a world-class underground science laboratory straddling many ‘fields’ such as physics, biology, geology and allied engineering fields.
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G Sundararajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal, which petitioned the NGT, told Express that looking at the EAC minutes of the meeting, there is no clarity over the grounds on which the proposal was considered. “We understand it was being seen as category ‘A’ project, in which case the EAC should have asked for environmental impact assessment to be conducted, but it didn’t. If it was considered as category ‘B’ project, the State should grant environment clearance. The NGT, in its order in March, 2017, clearly said it was a category ‘A’ project. We have already sent legal notice to the EAC and will challenge the environment clearance, if granted,” he said
Why Bodi Hills?
The INO caverns are to be located more than 1000m underground so that there is at least 1000m cover all round. Hence the choice of site is primarily dictated by the rock quality in order to have a stable and safe environment for long-term scientific activity.
Geologically, mountains in southern parts of India are compact and dense rocks, mostly gneiss, whereas the Himalayan region predominantly consists of metamorphic sedimentary rocks with pockets of gneiss.
A considerable area of peninsular India, the Indian shield, consists of Archean gneisses and schists, which are the oldest rocks found. While the Karnataka region has more schist-type rocks, the Tamil Nadu region has mainly Charnockite, which is the hardest rock known.
Hence the mountains of Tamil Nadu are the most attractive one, offering stable dense rocks with maximum safety for locating a cavern.
Earlier, Singara site in Nilgris was chosen but was shelved as the project site falls within the buffer zone of the Mudumalai tiger reserve and the approach road lies within the Elephant Corridor
Suruliyar site in Theni was not considered as the project site lies within the newly declared Megamalai wildlife sanctuary, an ecological sensitive area.
In respect of Kottagudi site there is no forest and environmental issue such as in Singara & Suruliyar sites, but the terrain is hilly involving transport problems.
In the case of the Pottipuram site, it is away from the forest boundary and the terrain is flat and there will not be any problem in transport of materials and disposal of excavated muck.
The reserved forest is of open scrub variety and most of the mountain face is bald with patches of scrub forest. Good rock quality is available for cavern formation.
One of the advantages of Pottipuram site is the steepness of the mountain which provides possibilities for locating the portal depending on the overburden chosen.