U.S. Investigating Computer Exports To Russian Nuclear Weapons Labs

March 1997

By Howard Diamond

Anxious to test the safety and reliability of its nuclear arsenal without nuclear testing, Russia has acquired five American made supercomputers, according to Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM).

The acquisitions of the supercomputers for use in simulating nuclear explosions were deliberately publicized at a January 13 press conference by the head of MINATOM, Viktor Mikhailov. Russia claims to have four Silicon Graphics "Power Challenge L" deskside servers, together capable of more than 4,400 million theoretical operations per second (MTOPS), and one IBM Corporation RS 6000 SP system capable of 10,000 MTOPS.

Russian attempts to buy similar machines directly from IBM and the Convex Company, a subsidiary of Hewlett Packard, were turned down in October 1996 by the Commerce Department as inconsistent with U.S. export control policy. Official U.S. policy is not to provide either classified information or supercomputers to Russian stockpile security efforts.

The Gore Chernomyrdin Commission's Energy Policy Committee has held four meetings since December 1995 where U.S. and Russian experts have conferred on scientific cooperation related to maintaining the safety and reliability of nuclear arsenals under the terms of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). During the commission's eighth meeting in February 1997, collaboration on three joint projects was agreed to under the conditions that the scientists only work with unclassified information and on issues not directly tied to the development of nuclear weapons.

The four Silicon Graphics machines were sent in September 1996 to the All Russian Scientific Research Institute for Technical Physics, which is housed at Chelyabinsk 70, one of Russia's most prominent nuclear weapons laboratories. The computers, worth $650,000, were sold by Silicon Graphics without a license from the Commerce Department with the understanding they would be used for "modeling of earth water pollution caused by extension of radioactive substance." According to the company, in addition to getting this end use statement, the firm checked to make certain the Russian institute was not on the U.S. government's "Denied Parties List."

A Commerce Department spokesperson said that checking the Denied Parties List, while necessary, does not by itself fulfill an exporter's responsibility. "The law requires the exporter to know the customer. They should have called [the Commerce Department] if they weren't sure," the spokesperson said. Current export controls allow supercomputers capable of 2,000 to 7,000 MTOPS to be sold to Russia without a license from the Commerce Department, provided the seller makes certain that the end user is civilian and the computer's end use will not relate to weapons of mass destruction.

Little information is available about the $7 million IBM system, whose sale was reportedly arranged by a European middleman. According to Russian officials, the IBM machine, which was shipped to Arzamas 16, offers a 10 fold improvement in computing power over any previously used Russian system.

At the urging of U.S. computer manufacturers, the Clinton administration substantially loosened U.S. export controls on supercomputers in October 1995. The old limit for supercomputers had moved up slowly from 80 MTOPS in 1992 to 260 MTOPS in early 1994. The new regulations tie licensing requirements to concerns about proliferation, and shift much of the responsibility for assessing potential buyers to the exporters themselves. Friendly or allied countries face few or no restrictions, while "rogue" states are effectively excluded from all computer sales. In the middle are states like Russia, that either have weapons of mass destruction or are believed to be seeking them. For such countries, licensing and speed restrictions depend on the computer's proposed end use and end user.

The departments of Commerce and Justice are investigating the Silicon Graphics sale, and plan to send a team to Russia to conduct interviews and collect documents. The focus of the investigation will be on determining the intent and circumstances of the sale, specifically, to see if the California based company made a mistake or was duped. Silicon Graphics has said it is cooperating with the government's inquiry and maintains it "fully complied with the law in making this export."

Supercomputers can be used to test mathematical models of nuclear explosions, which, by comparing data from the models to data from actual tests and expected values, can be used to assess the safety and reliability of stockpiled weapons. Officials responsible for managing nuclear stockpiles depend on computer modeling to determine if weapons that have undergone changes due to aging or environmental factors will still perform reliably. Computer modeling is also critical to assessing new warhead designs without testing.