Column: Koeberg aims to ease Cape Town's water woes through desalination

29th May 2017

Column: Koeberg aims to ease Cape Town's water woes through desalination

In this article, Koeberg power station manager Velaphi Ntuli outlines initiatives under way at the nuclear power station to reduce water consumption and desalinate groundwater

Cape Town is in a drought crisis, and it is predicted that this will certainly not be the city’s last water crisis. Dam levels are dropping at an alarming rate. The previous rainfall was not sufficient to fill dams. According to recent media reports, dam levels are sitting just above 20%, and the consumption rate is remaining stubbornly higher than the consumption rate target of 600 megalitres a day. A declaration of a disaster by the Mayor of Cape Town was issued in March 2017.  This has subsequently been followed by the premier officially declaring Western Cape a disaster area as the city grapples with its worst drought in 100 years. 

The City has put plans in place to augment supply while also implementing demand-reduction initiatives.  However, the reality is that Cape Town is in a water-scarce region and is experiencing the impacts of climate change, in terms of increased frequency and severity of drought events. It would therefore auger well not to implement short-term solutions but rather look into a long-term solution to deal with this drought and with future droughts.

The water levels in the six big dams that supply 99% of Cape Town’s portable water, indicate that the average water captured each year is not enough to supply all the potable water needs for Cape Town. What this means is that should Cape Town get the same rainfall as the previous three years, the crisis will repeat itself. Counting on the rainfall in Cape Town is therefore not a sustainable solution.  Cape Town will need to get an above average rainfall as compared to the previous three years and reduce the consumption significantly.

Koeberg currently uses about 1 300 kilolitres of fresh water per day. In light of the current drought situation, Koeberg is driving various water saving initiatives to reduce potable water consumption by at least a third in the short term.  Some of these initiatives include limiting the amount of water used by various ventilation systems on the plant and using groundwater to cool some of the heat loads. These initiatives are over and above the mandatory requirements that are currently in-force as a result of the current water restrictions that have been implemented by the city.

Good corporate citizenship is based on ethical and effective leadership. The concept that organisations have more responsibilities beyond the economic bottom line has gained traction industry-wide since the publication of the King IV Code. Organisations need to ensure that their operations have minimal negative impact on the society and environment within which they operate.

Koeberg’s positive impact on the Western Cape economy was recently highlighted by an economic impact assessment study done by KPMG. A water crisis poses a threat to businesses and citizens alike. Eskom is of the view that the water crisis that is currently faced by the City of Cape Town cannot be the sole responsibility of the city to resolve. Industry should view this as an opportunity to make a positive contribution to the society and environment rather a business threat that is left solely to the City to resolve.

Risk management is one of the priorities of Eskom and the management team encourages employees to openly share risks. Furthermore, Eskom has put in place a robust risk management process that is used to identify, evaluate, mitigate and where applicable treat risk. The current water crisis was evaluated using this process and it has come up as a Level 1 risk for Eskom operations at Koeberg nuclear power station.  As result this risk is receiving attention at the highest level in the organisation.

In response to this, Eskom has decided to install a groundwater desalination plant at Koeberg nuclear power station. This process entails removing salts and other contaminants from groundwater to make it suitable for human consumption. In this instance, groundwater from the aquarium located near to the power station will be desalinated for use at Koeberg nuclear power station for its daily needs.

The objective of this project is to reduce Koeberg’s dependency on, and consumption of municipal water supplied by the City of Cape Town. This effort contributes to the city’s goal, which is to reduce water consumption by 100 megalitres per day. This will also ensure that the power station has adequate supply of water available should the City of Cape Town run out of water. 

In addition, the implementation of a desalination plant will provide Koeberg nuclear power station with a reliable water supply during drought periods, to ensure safe and reliable operations. The implementation of a desalination plant is split into two phases. The first phase would be an installation of a simplified mobile unit. The second phase would focus more on the strengthening and integration of the desalination plant with other systems in the power station to increase its capacity.

Koeberg already has a useful water infrastructure and the required permits for groundwater desalination. The fact that groundwater desalination is now much more cost-effective than previously supports the implementation of a desalination plant.

It is important for Eskom to mitigate and even eliminate the risk posed by the shortage of water in the Western Cape to operations at Koeberg. Given the importance of the Koeberg nuclear power station to the Western Cape economy, and to South Africa, it is essential for Koeberg to be resilient.  As a result, Koeberg has seen the need to fast-track the implementation of a desalination plant to ensure that the risk posed by the current drought to its operations is limited.

Eskom has set stringent targets for implementing this project.  A request for proposals has been published on Eskom’s website calling for appropriate suppliers to respond. The risk to meeting the challenging implementation schedule that has been set out by Eskom will test the ability of the market to appropriately respond to Eskom’s request in time.

In addition to the initiatives that are under way at Koeberg, Eskom is collaborating with the City of Cape Town to pilot a seawater desalination plant using some of Koeberg’s infrastructure. This project will provide the city with the necessary information to decide on the viability of similar projects on a large scale. If successful, this might lead to a future where seawater desalination forms part of the city’s water supply mix pending approval by all parties concerned.

Like electricity, adequate and reliable supply of water is essential for the economic sustainability of the city and Eskom has taken a stance to be part of the solution by availing resources to help alleviate the situation while mitigating the risk to its operations at Koeberg nuclear power station.  After all, principles of good corporate citizenship demand that companies minimise the negative impact of their operations on society and environment.

- Ntuli is Koeberg power station manager