London, September 23 (ANI): Reports indicate that India's environment minister Jairam Ramesh is all set to visit the site of a proposed underground neutrino laboratory next month, to try to break the impasse between physicists and environmentalists over its construction.
The 160-million dollars India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) was to have been completed by 2012 to study the elusive particles known as neutrinos.
But, according to a report in Nature News, its construction is mired in controversy over the wisdom of locating the facility in prime elephant and tiger habitat at Singara in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, 250 kilometres south of Bangalore.
The observatory applied for permission to begin construction at the Singara site in 2006.
"There has been no reply to date," said project spokesman Naba Mondal, a physicist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai.
"All I know is we have not cleared it," said A. S. Balanathan, principal chief conservator of forest for the state of Tamil Nadu.
Last month, 11 leading physicists, including Nobel laureates Sheldon Glashow and Masatoshi Koshiba, wrote to India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urging that the project move forward.
"The INO will bring more big science to India and enhance India's role as an important player in front-line science," they wrote.
Meanwhile, prominent Indian conservationists are circulating and signing a letter laying out their concerns and asking that the observatory be sited elsewhere.
The Nilgiri reserve includes more than 5,500 square kilometres of continuous forest cover and six protected areas.
The proposed location for the INO comes as close as 7 kilometres to the edge of one of the sanctuaries.
The project involves digging out a 120-metre-long cavern at the end of a 2-kilometre-long tunnel inside a mountain.
The cavern will house a magnetized iron calorimeter to detect the muons that are produced occasionally when neutrinos interact with matter.
The controversy stems from disagreements over the impact of the tunnelling and the increased human population on the fragile ecosystem.
"Transporting the estimated 630,000 tonnes of debris and 147,000 tonnes of construction material would require about 156,000 truck trips through 35 kilometres of forest - and two tiger reserves," said the NBR Alliance, a group of Indian organizations concerned about the reserve.
This means 468,000 hours of disturbance to animal movement routes, the alliance estimates.
Jairam Ramesh will visit the site on October 10. If a construction permit is denied, INO may have to start looking for another site. (ANI)