Waseem Yusuf and Rashmi Kholi

Science fact is much stranger than science fiction. Jellyfish causing the shutdown of coastal nuclear reactors is one such testimony. During the summer of 2011, there were four reactors forced to fully or partially shut down when these otherworldly creatures clogged their water intake pipes that ordinarily cool the reactor.

Shutting a reactor is no mean feat as anti-nuclear protesters would tell you from experience in trying to halt the plans of some of the most draconian and dangerous institutions around. What they have struggled with, jellyfish have done with comparative ease albeit at the expense of being caught up in reactor pipelines.

Jellyfish Invaded Four Nuclear Reactors in Japan, Israel and Scotland in 2011

At Torness in Scotland, two reactors had to be shut down due to the influx of the common or moon jellyfish Aurelia aurita. This jellyfish is supposedly non-poisonous but still requires the use of gloves for handling. An earlier incident at this power plant in the same year involved a large Atlantic grey seal that got caught in the water intake chamber of the plant leading to reactor shutdown again, and in 2006, even seaweed caused blockage.

At the nuclear power plant at Hadera in Israel, a massive invasion of a reported 100 tonnes of jellyfish clogged the cooling pipes and led to another shutdown.

In another similar incident, jellyfish again entered the cooling system in a reactor at the Shimane plant in Japan. Although this episode did not force a shutdown, it shows how serious such incidents could get even in the case of first world countries believed to be ready for all eventualities.

Jellyfish amongst other sea life and debris are sucked into seawater coolant pipes and affect reactors as much as they do desalination plants as Professor Elaine Hunter has highlighted. Despite the sophisticated engineering involved in a reactor, solutions for basic operations such as how to stop sea life getting trapped in pipes when they overwhelm flumes designed to filter them out, are yet to be implemented.

It is not a simple operation to shut down a nuclear power plant. All nuclear power plants run on controlled nuclear reactions and, despite official claims, when a reactor is shut down, untoward pressure, heat, and the permutations and combinations of processes getting out of control remain extremely high. Due to severe secrecy and security measures, local populations would be none the wiser if or when there is a nuclear shutdown. They would only know if a shutdown resulted in a major disaster as occurred at Three Mile Island in the USA in 1979.

Jellyfish are found in all the regions of the world except Antarctica. Box jellyfish, distinguished by its cube-shaped medusa, is claimed to be the most toxic living organism. Even though little longitudinal research has been done on the jellyfish populations, it seems that the worst is yet to come.

The population of jellyfish is growing in localised pockets across the oceans due to various factors including overfishing that kills their natural predators. Nutrient-rich pollution also causes a boom in phytoplankton which is a rich source of food for jellyfish.

Jellyfish can survive extreme conditions. It belongs to phylum cnidaria and has a symbiotic relation with the algae which can produce oxygen inside the body of jellyfish. Thus it can survive in low oxygen environments. It could be said that jellyfish is ‘low-maintenance’. It is made of 95% water, does not have a brain or a nervous system, and effortlessly floats on the surface of water whilst its poisonous tentacles predate on passerbys.

The rise in sea temperatures due to global warming is another major factor that experts argue could increase their populations. This is evident in the fact that all recent coolant blockings have happened during the summer months.

It does not help that coastal nuclear power plants use the sea as an ‘ultimate heat sink’ as water coolant is released back into the sea. In most reactors, the difference between inlet and outlet water is between 8 to 20 degrees with the average at 12 degrees. This temperature increase is dispersed into the sea. Nevertheless, water around the reactors remains higher than elsewhere affecting the sea ecology.

Ardent advocates argue that nuclear power is a solution to fossil-fuel generated climate change. But they choose to overlook the massive carbon footprint involved in the commissioning and decommissioning of reactors after their shelf life is over that is usually between 30-50 years. Nuclear being described as ‘clean energy’ is a myth of mammoth proportions that the likes of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have bought into. Added to this, nuclear reactors have massive often irreversible repercussions on the environment and food chains. As the chronicle of jellyfish suggest, they are also highly vulnerable to the changes and assaults of nature.

So far, in India, there are two nuclear complexes on the coast – Tarapur in Maharashtra, and Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu – with others located on tributaries near the sea such as at Kakrapur in Gujarat and Kaiga in Karnataka. Despite Coastal Regulation Zone rules, several large-scale plants are also scheduled in India’s nuclear energy expansion on the coast such as at Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu, Jaitapur in Maharashtra and Mithi Virdi in Gujarat.

The lack of debate between the government and expert scientists on the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant has shown that neither nuclear officials nor the Indian state listen to its own people when it comes to consultations on the building and maintaining of coastal reactors in potentially hazardous ecological and oceanographic conditions. Perhaps nature has to do its work for it to expunge the wax from their ears. Based on precedents of megalomaniac proportions as revealed in the recent clampdown on tens of thousands of peaceful anti-nuclear activists in Tamil Nadu, chances are that they will fantasise about landing charges of ‘sedition’ and ‘war against the state’ on even these foreign jellyfish terrorists.