‘Manhattan Project’ of supercomputers will use AI to simulate nuclear tests

14 Aug 2019

Image: © alexyz3d/Stock.adobe.com

Cray has been tasked with building a supercomputer more powerful than any other with the aim of making nuclear weapons better.

The US government – through the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) – has tasked the supercomputer manufacturer Cray with building its first exascale computer, dubbed ‘El Capitan’, at a cost of $600m.

In a statement, the company said that the supercomputer will have a peak performance of 1.5 exaflops – equivalent to 1.5 quintillion calculations per second – and is expected to enter service in late 2022. Given that the powerful machine will be in the hands of the NNSA, its purpose is to run some of the most complex situations imaginable to replicate nuclear weapons tests without having to detonate one.

The US last tested a nuclear weapon in 1992, with many of the world’s nuclear powers having also stopped their detonations due to the considerable harm they bring to the planet. However, with more than 4,600 nuclear weapons still possessed by the US military, the government is keen to make sure the security and performance of its stockpile is completely understood.

In essence, El Capitan aims to do for supercomputers what the Manhattan Project did for the atomic bomb.

Arriving just in time

Featuring advanced capabilities for modelling, simulation and AI based on Cray’s new Shasta architecture, El Capitan is projected to run national nuclear security applications at more than 50 times the speed of its predecessor, Sequoia. El Capitan will also run approximately 10 times faster than Sequoia’s Sierra system and be four times more efficient.

As reported by TechCrunch, the LLNL’s director, Bill Goldstein, said there is a need for new supercomputers such as El Capitan as “while the stockpile [of nuclear weapons] was designed in two dimensions, it’s actually ageing in three”.

“We’re currently redesigning both warhead and delivery system,” he said. “This is the first time we’ve been doing this for about 30 years now. This requires us to be able to simulate the interaction between the physics of the nuclear system and the engineering features of the delivery system.

“These are real engineering interactions and are truly 3D. This is an example of a new requirement that we have to meet, a new problem that we have to solve, and we simply can’t rely on two dimensional simulations to get at. And El Capitan is being delivered just in time to address this problem.”

Cray confirmed that prior to its use by the NNSA, it will enter a “shake out period” where it will be made available for other uses, such as climate modelling and other scientific endeavours.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic