Will U.S. Supercomputers Design Russian A-Bombs?

The Clinton administration may soon allow American supercomputers to be sold to Russian laboratories that design atomic and hydrogen bombs. The sales the first such exports in history are fiercely opposed by defense and nuclear weapon experts inside the U.S. government, who fear the Russians will use the machines to strengthen Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

The Convex Computer Corporation has asked the U.S. Commerce Department for permission sell powerful machines to Arzamas-16, the secret lab that developed Russia’s first A-bombs and H-bombs and is still Russia’s main nuclear weapon design site, and to Chelyabinsk-70, a second lab that claims to have developed the world’s most powerful H-bomb and to have pioneered most of the nuclear warheads now in the Russian arsenal.

Convex, acquired recently by Hewlett Packard, has informed the Commerce Department that the computers will be used only for peaceful applications such as “ground water and atmospheric pollution modelling,” but a U.S. nuclear weapon expert is skeptical: “I can’t imagine that they won’t be used for nuclear weapon work,” he tells the Risk Report.

The United States has always used the most powerful computers available to design nuclear weapons. Supercomputers are still the most powerful tool for developing both nuclear warheads and the missiles to carry them. The two Convex models for Arzamas would operate at 1,600 and 1,800 million operations per second and cost $1.5 and $2.6 million. The model for Chelyabinsk would operate at 4,500 million operations per second and cost $3.8 million. The three computers are faster and much more reliable than anything now available to the Russians, according to a U.S. official familiar with the deal. The sales will also come at a time when, according to a recent U.S. government-sponsored study, “the reform process in Russia…[has] devastated much of high-performance computing there.”

Convex’s application was filed in November 1995 and is seen by U.S. officials as motivated by a desire for prestige. According to one official, Convex believes that a sale to the Russian labs would enhance its reputation for high-end computing and allow it to compete more effectively with Cray.

Convex is also arguing that the computers are needed to carry out a set of new contracts sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The contracts authorize and pay for cooperation between American and Russian nuclear weapon labs. Convex obtained copies of the contracts through Freedom of Information Act and has interpreted them as requiring supercomputers. But a U.S. official familiar with the contracts rejects this position, saying that none of the contracts requires supercomputing.

Opponents of the deal are concerned that Russia will use the machines to maintain and develop its nuclear arsenal. Itar-Tass, the Russian news agency, reported last April that Arzamas was still developing new warhead designs using simulations, even though Russia has halted nuclear testing. The simulations are done by using “steel, lead or composite materials instead of plutonium or uranium,” Itar-Tass reported. The opponents fear that the American supercomputers will greatly enhance Russia’s ability to build new types of warheads.