Russia’s Nuclear Labs Get U.S. Supercomputers

The Commerce Department is now investigating the first sale of American supercomputers to the Russian nuclear weapon laboratories. The machines will enhance Russia’s ability to design nuclear warheads and were shipped without an export license, which has raised questions about the deal’s legality.

Silicon Graphics, Inc., the California computer giant, shipped four powerful supercomputers last September to Chelyabinsk-70, the center that developed most of Russia’s nuclear warheads, including the world’s most powerful hydrogen bomb. At virtually the same time as the Silicon Graphics sale, the White House turned down requests for export licenses from Hewlett Packard and IBM, who had orders for similar computers from the same laboratory.

Each of the Silicon Graphics machines can operate at 4.4 billion operations per second, making them at least four and possibly ten times more powerful than anything previously available to the Russians. U.S. officials expressed shock at the sale, and stated that they were concerned that Russia will use the machines to design warheads cheaper and faster through simulations, and to make more accurate missiles to deliver them. “It boggles the mind that Silicon Graphics would do this,” said an official at the Department of Energy, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Edward McCracken, Silicon Graphics’ CEO, was among a select group of Republican executives from Silicon Valley who announced their support for President Clinton last August. McCracken then became a candidate for Secretary of Commerce.

Mr. Roger Grossel, export manager for Hewlett Packard in Washington, also expressed shock that Silicon Graphics would make the sale without a license. “For that type of buyer, we would file an application,” he says. “We are not talking about PCs here.” Experts at the Commerce, Defense and Energy Departments also stated that the Silicon Graphics computers–because of their speed–needed an export license to go to Chelyabinsk.

According to a January 15 memorandum from Silicon Graphics to the Commerce Department, a copy of which was obtained by the Risk Report, the four machines were from Silicon Graphics’ “Power Challenge Deskside” product line. Two were configured with eight microprocessors each and the other two with four microprocessors. By adding additional processors, all could be made to operate at 4.4 billion operations per second. The memorandum claimed that the machines were exempt from licensing under Commerce Department regulations. It also said that the machines were sold with the understanding that they would be used for “modelling of earth water pollution caused by extension of radioactive substance.”

When queried about the sale, Bill Kelly, a Silicon Graphics vice president, told the Risk Report that Silicon Graphics shipped the machines through its non-exclusive Moscow distributor, Catalyst Silicon Solutions (CSS), a Canadian firm. Kelly also said that Silicon Graphics did not apply for an export license because Silicon Graphics did not know that Chelyabinsk was a nuclear site. However in 1995, in a guide to acquaint American exporters with Russia’s military sites, the Commerce Department listed Chelyabinsk’s “product line” as “development of nuclear weapons.” Its civilian line was listed as “N\A.” Since opening in 1955, Chelyabinsk has been one of the two best-known Russian laboratories for designing nuclear warheads. Kelly also said that Silicon Graphics had shipped upgrades to the computers in early January, 1997.

Viktor Mikhailov, Russia’s Minister of Atomic Energy, announced to the press in January that in addition to the Silicon Graphics machines, his ministry had also imported an IBM RS-6000-SP supercomputer, apparently for Arzamas-16, Russia’s other main nuclear weapon design laboratory. According to U.S. officials, computers in this series are capable of speeds comparable to the Silicon Graphics machines. U.S. officials also said that the government had not determined how the IBM machine had found its way to Arzamas, and IBM’s Washington office disclaimed any knowledge of a sale by IBM of an RS-6000-SP to Russia.

Mikhailov also announced that Moscow is still designing new nuclear weapons. Russia will obey the new test ban treaty, he said, but will now design its warheads with simulated explosions–using computers from Silicon Graphics. “Like the United States, we have great expertise in this area,” he boasted.