Interview: Naba K. Mondal

Unfounded fears

Print edition : May 01, 2015

Naba K. Mondal (left), Project Director, India-based Neutrino Observatory, and Stephen Inbanathan (right) looking at the Resistive Placte Chambers that go into the making of the detector at INO, at the Inter-Institutional Centre for High Energy Physics at Vadapazhanji, Madurai. Photo: S. James

Interview with Professor Naba K. Mondal, Project Director, India-based Neutrino Observatory.

FOLLOWING the Frontline team’s visit to the proposed site for the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) in the Bodi West hills region in Theni district, Tamil Nadu, on April 1, and to nearby villages such as T. Pudukkottai, Ramakrishnapuram and Pottipuram, a questionnaire was sent to Professor Naba K. Mondal, Project Director, INO. It dealt with the fears expressed by the residents of the villages about the alleged “radiation” threat from the INO, the possibility of the tunnel and the cavern for the neutrino detector being used to store radioactive waste from nuclear power reactors, the INO’s possible threat to their livelihood and so on.

Mondal is leading the efforts to build a world-class underground observatory in the Bodi West hills region for doing research in the emerging field of neutrino physics. He is a Senior Professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, which is the host institute for the INO project. He got his PhD in 1982 from the TIFR for his dissertation on particle physics. The TIFR comes under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). The INO project is jointly supported by the DAE and the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

The 63-year-old Mondal was the leader of the Indian group for designing and building the Outer Hadron Calorimeter for the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) Experiment at CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research), which discovered the Higgs boson in 2012. He played an important role in the Kolar Gold Field (KGF) Proton Decay Experiment. He was involved in the DZERO experiment at Fermilab, United States, which discovered the top quark in 1995. The top quark is inside the proton. He is a J.C. Bose National Fellow and a recipient of the American Physical Society Esther Hoffman Beller Lectureship award.

Currently, Mondal is a member of the Programme Advisory Committee of Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory (LIGO), U.S., for detecting gravity waves. He is a member of the International Committee on Astroparticle Physics under the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) and a member of the International Committee for Future Accelerators (ICFA) Neutrino Panel.

The following are his replies to the questionnaire:

Women of T. Pudukkottai, Ramakrishnapuram and Pottipuram villages are worried that if the INO becomes a reality at the nearby site, women cannot conceive and even if they do, the exposure to radiation from the observatory may lead to miscarriage. Besides, they are worried that children will be born with deformities, and that their hair will fall off, and so on.

There is no radiation or radioactive material to be used in the INO lab or site. Hence there is no possibility of any of these apprehensions coming to pass.

One of the biggest concerns of the villagers is that when project engineers use explosives to excavate the tunnel for installing the neutrino detector in the Ambarappar hill, the shock waves will change the course of the aquifers. Since agriculture is the mainstay of the villages in the vicinity of the INO site, and farmers are dependent on well irrigation, they are afraid that once the aquifers shift the direction of their flow, they will lose their livelihood. How are you going to address this fear?

An aquifer is an underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock or unconsolidated materials (gravel, sand or silt) from which groundwater can be extracted, which means you cannot change the course of an aquifer. You can affect the sources of water to these aquifers or you can block the flow of water (catchment) to nearby waterbodies such as rivers.

INO will affect neither. In the first place, the tunnel will be dug in hard, not degraded, rock which has hardly any water-bearing capacity. Also, the tunnel to be constructed is horizontal and not vertical. Hence it cannot accumulate water, nor can it divert any water from the normal catchment of any waterbodies. Hence the construction of the INO lab will in no way affect the water sources in the locality.

The villagers are worried that 14 dams situated in Kerala and Tamil Nadu around the INO site, including the Idukki dam in Kerala, will be affected by the explosives to be used in tunnelling the cavern in the hill. They are also apprehensive that the blasts will damage their houses.

Tunnelling is a routine activity and many tens of kilometres of tunnels have been dug in Tamil Nadu itself. Tunnel construction is not an activity such as blasting that happens in quarries. The controlled blasting (which will occur two or maximum three times per day) will last only a few seconds. The peak ground vibration at about half a kilometre from the blast area is about 1 mm/sec and the nearest habitation is nearly two km away, so that vibration will hardly be perceptible in the villages. There will be no impact of this blasting on the dams which are tens of kilometres away.

Mrs Chandra Ponraj, president of Pottipuram panchayat, in which T. Pudukottai and Ramakrishnapuram fall, fears that radiation from the detector will cause cancer, breathing disorders, and that “the flying [neutrino] particles will not even allow grass to grow”. The villagers are worried about pastureland getting scorched by the “flying particles”.

Again, there is no radioactivity associated with this project. It is important to understand that neutrinos already exist and, in fact, the INO detector will simply observe the natural neutrinos from the earth’s atmosphere. If you include various sources of neutrinos such as the sun, our atmosphere, etc., about 10,000 crores of neutrinos pass through each square cm of our body per second! In fact, the human body itself produces about 20 crore neutrinos a day! Since neutrinos are so weakly interacting, they do not harm us in any way, so it does not matter that the universe is awash in neutrinos. In fact, this weak interaction of theirs is what makes them difficult to study.

Where are you going to dump the several lakh cubic metres of rock that you will be excavating from the Ambarappar hill? The residents of six villages in Pottipuram panchayat are under the impression that the DAE will dump the rock on the grazing land for their cattle.

INO has been given 26.825 hectares of land free of cost by the Tamil Nadu government. All of INO activity will be contained in this site and nothing outside will be used. So the entire muck dumpyard is inside the INO site. Since the rock that will be excavated is good quality granitic rock with more than 90 per cent in chunks, this is valuable material for construction purposes and will be disposed of.

Policemen are already preventing herdsmen from sending their cattle to graze at the foothills. Villagers fear that once the INO becomes a reality, they will not be allowed to graze their cattle at the foot of the hills. The INO will make them lose about 22 hectares of pastureland. Thus, one of their key livelihoods will be lost.

The only land belonging to INO is the 26.825 ha. INO has no interest in and no desire to block the grazing lands outside this area. In fact, these issues were discussed in great detail in a public meeting held in July 2010, clearly telling the local people [about] this. This is recorded in our [frequently asked questions] FAQ. This was also conveyed to them in Tamil.

When Theni Collector P. Muthuveeran conducted the public hearing in July 2010 at Pottipuram for setting up the INO, the entire T. Pudukkottai village, which is closest to the INO site, boycotted the hearing. The villagers told me they were opposed to the project from the beginning. How was approval given to the project in such a situation?

This is the first I have heard of this. The meeting was held in the school of Ramakrishnapuram and more than 1,000 people attended it.There was no protest against this meeting. You can check back with local officials and also check through some photos/videos of the meeting.

On another point, the formal approval for the project by MoEF [Ministry of Environment and Forests] was under Category 8a, under which no public hearing is mandated. The several meetings we held in the area (that culminated in this large meeting) were to clarify the project details in the minds of the people and try to build a rapport with the local people since we wished to become part of their community.

How are you going to tackle the propaganda that the tunnel/cavern you will be excavating for installing the neutrino detector will be used for storing the spent radioactive waste from the nuclear reactors at Kalpakkam and Kudankulam, both in Tamil Nadu?

The DAE has already issued a press statement in this regard. I do genuinely believe that this has allayed people’s concerns.

The impression that the tunnel at the Ambarappar hill will be used for storing the radioactive depleted fuel from the nuclear reactors has gained currency because the DAE had a proposal to establish a deep repository in the abandoned gold mines at Kolar in Karnataka for storing the radioactive waste.

As I mentioned above, the Department of Atomic Energy has already clarified through a press note, which has already appeared in the print media, that the INO tunnel will be used for basic research and no radioactive waste will be dumped there.

India had established a neutrino observatory in the mines at Kolar in the 1960s and it was there that the atmospheric neutrinos were first detected. You have gone on record as saying that this observatory at Kolar Gold Field was closed after the closure of the KGF in 2001. This seems to be a lame reason. Why did you close the neutrino observatory in the Kolar mines?

The answer lies in understanding the nature of KGF. Since it is such an old mine, it had hundreds of kilometres of interconnected tunnels at various depths. Groundwater keeps filling in these tunnels and it needs to be constantly pumped out.

This involves an enormous expense and can only be afforded if the mine is operational and profitable. KGF is wholly under water now.

The closure of KGF is itself a sound reason for you to continue the neutrino observatory there. Why did you not do so?

Please see the answer above.

It is clear that the TIFR/the DAE, the Department of Science and Technology and collaborating institutions such as the Madurai Kamaraj University, the Benares Hindu University and the Aligarh Muslim University have failed to conduct enough outreach programmes among the villagers to educate them that the INO will only be an observatory, that there will be no radioactive fallout from the neutrinos, etc. How did you fail on that score?

We did extensive outreach in Pottipuram panchayat in 2010. After that, since the local people seemed satisfied, we concentrated on outreach in local colleges. Our colleagues have systematically gone to many colleges in Uthampalayam, Theni, Dindigul, Madurai, Periyakulam (and also in Kerala) and talked to students and enthused them about INO. Unfortunately, we did not anticipate the huge gap between obtaining clearances and getting financial sanction for the project. Also please note that to speak with the local people, we have to depend on our colleagues from Tamil Nadu who speak Tamil. They have done extensive outreach programmes in the area. We would also like to highlight the fact that in the last two years Madurai Kamaraj University has begun an MSc programme in particle physics, which has been mainly taught (voluntarily) by INO scientists from Chennai. Perhaps we need to do more outreach for the local people. We will certainly concentrate on that again.

The villagers are full of praise for Vaiko for “enlightening” them about the “harmful effects” of the INO. The visit of Vaiko and Medha Patkar to these villages in March has made the people oppose the project with vigour. Until then, the protests were low key. TIFR scientists, DST personnel and the teachers of the collaborating institutions have failed where Vaiko has scored. Why do you think the villagers are prepared to trust Vaiko’s words and not TIFR scientists’ explanations?

This is difficult to decide. Perhaps the issue is too technical. It is easy to say that there will be radiation. For us to respond that there will be no radiation needs an explanation on the nature of neutrinos. Similarly, it is easy to say the dams will break. In order to refute this, we need to give evidence. Again the reasons are technical. Perhaps we have failed to effectively make the case in suitable layman’s language. However, there have been many meetings (both public and in colleges) where detailed dialogue was held with many people who opposed the project. This has been covered extensively in the local media. Many TV dialogues have been held as well and are aired again and again. One issue is that most of the INO scientists do not speak Tamil and hence we have tried to co-opt people who do. This may have led to a perception that there is no direct interest of the TIFR, etc., in doing outreach.

The police for the past two years have prevented the residents of T. Pudukkottai, Ramakrishnapuram, Pottipuram, Chinnapottipuram, Kuppan Asaaripatti, Thimmi Naickenpatti and Thimmi Naickenpatti Colony from celebrating the annual festival at the small Ambarappar shrine, despite it being more than one kilometre from the boundary fence of the INO site. This, even before the construction of the INO has begun, has led to a fear among the villagers that they will be permanently barred by the INO authorities from celebrating the temple festival.

This is simply unbelievable. I do not think it is true. We and our engineers have been to the site often and have been talking to the local people and have not heard of this. Also I have given a press statement that the INO site is completely accessible for anyone who would like to see what we are doing there.

Local government officials recently auctioned a big patch of scrub jungle having Acacia nilotica, neem and other trees, which was razed. The scrub jungle, in fact, acted as a shield from the dust storm that constantly hit these villages. This scrub jungle is situated about 1.5 km away but on the two sides of the road leading to the INO site. This move has also infuriated the villagers because they see a DAE design behind it. What was the government officials’ motive behind auctioning the jungle for clearance? Do they want to paint the DAE with a dark brush?

I am very surprised. What I know is that the Tamil Nadu Highways Department is making two kilometres of road which will connect the INO site to the nearby existing road. It may be just that the local government is just auctioning the trees that fall on this approach road. I do not believe that the local government will auction a big patch of jungle for that. If there is something else, we have no idea. But [it is] difficult to believe.

Propaganda is drummed up that the INO will be a secret, weapon-making facility. Is it true?

No. It is a bare-faced lie. In fact, whoever says such things must produce proof to substantiate their claim.

S. Karuppiah, an elderly resident of Pottipuram/Ramakrishnapuram village, said, “Ours is a small village. We are in panic. Let them go and do research somewhere.” What is your reply to him?

It is sad to hear this.... We would like to tell him that we come in good faith and that we would like to be part of their community. When we want to be part of it, how can we damage it in any way? Surely they can find room for us in their village and in their hearts. We will do the best we can to convince him (and others) of our sincerity. Science will benefit all.

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