Summary: The third report from CSR’s Working Group on Climate, Nuclear and Security Affairs, “Nuclear Energy Developments, Climate Change, and Security in Egypt,” highlights Egypt’s complex web of security, economic, and energy risks, exacerbated by a changing climate. Sea level rise and subsequent flooding/saltwater intrusion, projected fresh water insecurity, hotter temperatures, and climate-influenced population movement are all likely to unfold in tandem over the next several decades. Alongside these issues, Cairo is trying to meet rising energy demands from a growing population, including by pursuing its long term nuclear power goals. Other security dynamics from domestic terrorism to regional fragility will shape the government’s ability to address these parallel and interrelated risks. At the same time, the growing strain in global nonproliferation systems will shape the environment in which Egypt’s nuclear power program proceeds.

Egypt has expansive energy needs. The country struggles with widespread blackouts due to increasing temperatures, rising demand, and deteriorating infrastructure. In light of these issues, the Egyptian government is increasingly pursuing alternative energy sources. As one of many measures listed for its greenhouse gas mitigation efforts, Egypt committed to seek “new generations of nuclear power” in its Nationally Determined Contribution (a document signatory countries submitted outlining how they plan to work toward the 2°C target).  Following several years of nuclear engagements, Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2017 on their countries’ increasing military and economic cooperation, and their teams inked a $21 billion agreement to move forward on the nuclear El Dabaa nuclear power project. In March 2019, Egypt’s regulatory authority issued the coastal site’s permit, an important step toward licensing and construction.

Since the height of hope for a transition to greater democracy after the Arab Spring, Egypt’s leaders have once again consolidated and elongated their reigns. Now president since the coup, an April 2019 referendum granted el-Sisi further powers over the judicial and legislative branches of government and extended presidential terms to allow him to remain in power until 2030. Egypt must also grapple with the security risks of its broader neighborhood (e.g., Libya and Sudan). The region is also greatly influenced by the behavior of external powers. While Russia’s relationships from Syria to Iran draw frequent concern, it is also working to extend economic and political influence further around the Mediterranean and Red Seas.

Added to these significant dynamics, Egypt and its region are feeling the increasing pressure of climate change effects and other environmental factors on the security landscape. Low-lying river deltas are extremely at risk to sea level rise, and Egypt’s is one of the most vulnerable in the world. As Egypt stated in its Nationally Determined Contribution, “sea level rise threatens the electric power plants and networks located along the coasts.” This is likely to apply to the coastal El Dabaa site and any future nuclear reactor sites planned for coastal areas.

Mean annual temperatures are also projected to increase by at least 2°С by 2050. Higher temperatures and drier conditions overall will create more sand storms, resulting in topsoil degradation. International standards recommend nuclear reactors factor in these types of extreme temperatures and the impacts of events such as sand storms to ensure safe operations; however, this work may not adequately account for the changes projected to occur as the world warms.

Recommendations

The United States should work to renew its past leadership in international nuclear affairs, including in promoting safety and security of civil nuclear programs and helping to shore up the nonproliferation regime. This can include:

  • Encouraging countries such as Egypt not to pursue domestic enrichment or reprocessing capabilities. As one example, the United States can play a stronger role in exploring new multilateral fuel cycle arrangements.
  • Beginning to develop an approach to the renewal of the U.S.-Egypt 123 Agreement, which will expire at the end of 2021.
  • Helping to strengthen the global web of nonproliferation and export control systems by extending the New START treaty with Russia.
  • Quietly pushing for universalization of the Chemical Weapons Convention (which Egypt has not yet ratified), and possibly as a Middle East chemical weapons free zone as a step toward a region free of weapons of mass destruction.

Egypt—and other nations and international entities assisting in its nuclear energy program—have a responsibility to prepare for the full range of effects climate change could have on the nation, including direct and indirect effects on any nuclear facilities Egypt builds in the future. This should include:

  • Forecasting and planning for increasing flooding around coastal sites
  • Modeling and planning for the effects of extreme temperatures on nuclear-related infrastructure and personnel

Government and non-governmental entities should offer to share methods for developing comprehensive climate security assessments with countries such as Egypt. This can include the use of advanced modeling and artificial intelligence-based systems that can help understand the convergence of climate, security, and sociopolitical dynamics.

Read the full report here.