Jellyfish in a nuclear jam

“At the first glance,” according to the website, “one might think that the jellyfish is the most disgusting creature ever created because of its gelatinous and sticky body. However, if you spend time with the jellyfish long enough you will see that it is a very fascinating creature that has many facets.”

Indeed it has, but “nuclear protester” may not have leapt to mind immediately. These strange sea-dwellers – a form of plankton that has been propelling around the world’s oceans for hundreds of millions of years – have recently been disrupting the operations of power plants in several countries (even forcing reactors offline) in a way that some environmentalists can only dream of.

“Nuclear power plants,” as Reuters explains, “draw water from nearby seas or rivers to cool down their reactors, but if the filters which keep out marine animals and seaweed are clogged, the station shuts down to maintain temperature and safety standards.” In the United Kingdom, Japan and Israel, jellyfish have been doing much of the clogging. (See photos here.)

With a bit of calm and warm weather, one marine biologist told the news agency, jellyfish can turn up inshore in high numbers – as they did in late June at the Torness plant on Scotland’s east coast. And, say scientists, such events could become more common as the planet warms, as oceans become more acidic and as fishing activity increases. (Overfishing of small ones that feed off jellyfish leaves the “jellies” less exposed to natural predators and gives them more room to reproduce, according to the UK’s Marine Biological Association.)

Despite their creation of messy work for nuclear plant workers who have to remove their “gelatinous and sticky” bodies – and their reputation for inflicting nasty stings on humans — the
jellyfish aren’t thought to cause any radiation hazards. A spokesman for EDF, the French company that runs the Torness plant, told BBC Scotland: “At no time was there any danger to the public. There are no radiological aspects associated with this event and there has been no impact to the environment.”

No environmental impact apart from countless thousands of dead “jellies”, that is. In the oceans, they are both food and finders of food, with a role to play in deep-sea ecology. Outside the marine food chain, of course, some species are harvested for food in China and other parts of Asia. And under ultraviolet light in an aquarium, they’re eerily beautiful.

Maryann Bird is associate editor of chinadialogue.