Highlights from the Erice International Seminars on Planetary Emergencies
Every year since its first session in August 1982, an interdisciplinary assembly of internationally renowned scientists had gathered at the Ettore Majorana Foundation and Center for Scientific Culture (EMFCSC) for the International Seminars on Planetary Emergencies. This assembly was denoted from the beginning as the World Federation of Scientists (WFS), which has had as members some of the most illustrious physicists, biologists and physicians of the 20th century. The extraordinary motive force behind the WFS and its annual Seminars has been Antonino Zichichi, whose goal was to focus the attention of scientific leaders from across the globe upon issues of existential importance and by so doing to alert and energize both the public and its elected officials. This year, after a hiatus of three years due to the global pandemic, the 55th Session of the Seminars resumed in Erice.
After a greeting from Antonino Zichichi via the Internet and a physics lecture by the co-chair of the Seminars, Cristiano Galbiati of Princeton University, the first day of the Seminars began with a topic that motivated the very first gatherings of the WFS: nuclear weapons, the devolution of global security, and the prospects for arms control in an increasingly dangerous world – this year including a major war in Europe. This sobering discussion and possible moves by the WFS toward informal engagement of thought leaders across the world – North, South, East and West – was followed by an examination of the origins of COVID-19 and its many variants that took the life of millions of people across the planet.
The second day of the Seminars considered an energy emergency with global impact, namely, the volatility of the oil markets during the transition to net-carbon zero policies especial in the EU and the Americas. For example, we asked whether the world will see the return of the crippling prices that accompanied the global financial recession. The discussion was animated, with many geopolitical nuances, but it is hard to predict that future with so many uncertainties about total energy supplies and great uncertainties about the role of nuclear energy.
One possibility that enjoyed extensive examination was progress in the EU, Russia, and the US toward the development of small modular nuclear reactors (SMR) of the 100 MW class. Questions for our debate were "Will SMRs simplify or complicate solutions to waste disposal?" and "Is there an economic rationale for SMRs?" The WFS will continue to track this energy emergency.
Other emergencies that occupied the participants included the challenges of cyber security in conjunction with the current political crises, the continuing deleterious effects of pollution and the safety of water supplies, and the effects of environmental contaminants on children's health.
In anticipation of the meeting of the WFS next August, we heard an initial description of capturing CO2 from the atmosphere to control a forcing function of global temperature rise. Also, recognizing the dramatic incidence of wildfires around the globe this summer, the WFS has initiated a new project concerning the early identification of potentially dangerous wildfires and means for their control before they endanger population centers in both rural and urban centers.
It is gratifying that despite the interruption of face-to-face meetings of the WFS, that we have been able to return to the original missions envision by Zichichi, namely, the focus leading scientists on emergencies of potentially enormous consequences on a global scale.
William Barletta – Adjunct Professor, Department of Physics of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Coordinating Editor-in-Chief of the international journal, Nuclear Instruments and Methods A and Editor-in-Chief, Physics Open. He is Chair of World Federation of Scientists Permanent Monitoring Panel on Managing Catastrophic Risks, (2022 – present) and Vice-Chair: World Federation of Scientists Permanent Monitoring Panel on Energy, (2001 – present). He was elected as Foreign Member of the Academy of Sciences of the Bologna Institute.