U.S. HPCs to Be Moved to Russian Civilian Center

The Department of Energy (DOE) and Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM) have resolved a dispute over 16 IBM supercomputers that Russia acquired in 1996 by circumventing U.S. export controls. According to the new DOE-MINATOM agreement, announced September 30 by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, the computers have been moved from nuclear weapons labs in Sarov (formerly known as Arzamas-16) to a civilian "open computing center."

IBM pleaded guilty in July 1998 to making the sale and agreed to pay the maximum-possible criminal and civil penalty of $8.67 million. (See ACT, August/September 1998.) Former MINATOM chief Victor Mikhailov said in January 1997 that Russia intended to use the computers for assuring the safety and reliability of its nuclear arsenal.

Russia has maintained that during negotiations on the comprehensive test ban U.S. officials promised Moscow access to U.S. supercomputers if Russia signed the treaty. Clinton administration officials insist that no such promise was ever made, and U.S. export controls on high performance computers (HPCs) continue to distinguish between civilian and military end-users in countries of security or proliferation concern, such as Russia.

In 1995 the Clinton administration liberalized export controls on HPCs, but the subsequent acquisition of supercomputers by Russia and China prompted Congress to reverse part of the administration's decision in November 1997. In July, President Clinton announced revised control thresholds for HPCs, which would allow civilian end-users in Russia to buy computers capable of 12,300 million theoretical operations per second (MTOPS) and military end-users to purchase machines capable of 6,500 MTOPS. The changes will not take effect until a 180-day congressional review period expires. The IBM computers illicitly acquired by Sarov are believed to be capable of 10,000 MTOPS.