Exchanges between scientists building the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) in southern India's Western Ghats and critics of the project have revived controversy regarding selection of the site — a seismic zone that is also among the world's eight 'hottest hotspots' of biological diversity.
Last month (April), a group of 22 scientists published in Current Science, published by the Indian Academy of Science, a response to an opinion piece that had appeared in the same journal two months earlier (February) suggesting that tunnelling for the project could trigger quakes in the UNESCO world heritage site.
'Tunnelling is a routine activity in mountains, under the rivers and seas, and even under mega cities for metro rail transportation, ' the scientists, drawn from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, and other top institutions, said in their response. 'It is hard to believe that such an activity can cause major or even minor earthquakes.'
The scientists also refuted charges levelled by the authors of the opinion piece, V.T. Padmanabhan and Joseph Makkolil, that no geotechnical study had been carried out at the site chosen for the INO project.
When complete, the INO will be the biggest underground particle physics laboratory in the world, dwarfing the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy. The INO will house a 50,000 tonne magnetised-iron neutrino detector.
Neutrinos are subatomic particles that hold no electrical charge, travel at the speed of light and have a small amount of mass, the determination of which is an important open problem in physics.
According to Padmanabhan, a member of the European Commission on Radiation Risk, it is noteworthy that the area around the INO site is prone to hydro-seismicity and has several dams constructed close by.
'Removal of 800,000 tonnes of dense rock for mountain-tunnelling, using an estimated 100,000 kilograms of gelatin may induce earthquakes,' Padmanabhan told SciDev.Net.
Makkolil, scientist at the Inter-University Centre for Nano Materials and Devices, Cochin University of Science and Technology, said the construction of Gran Sasso, three decades ago, has been linked to floods, damage to an aquifer, tremors and a major earthquake in 2009.
The opinion piece centred around the experience of mountain-tunnelling, aquifers and tectonics at the Gran Sasso lab and its implications for the INO.
A. M. Vinodkumar, physics professor at Calicut University, project associate and signatory to the response, told SciDev.Net that the project posed no danger to the Western Ghats, but would immensely help India build capacity in studying neutrinos and particle physics.