New Exascale Computer to Manage U.S. Nuclear Arsenal

Cray’s supercomputer will be seven times faster than today’s fastest machine.

Computer maker Cray has been tapped to create a $600-million supercomputer to oversee the United States’ nuclear arsenal.

Nicknamed “El Capitan,” the exascale computer will be capable of performing 1.5 quintillion (that’s a 1 followed by 18 zeros) calculations per second—which is believed to be the capacity of a human brain. It is predicted to be seven times faster than today’s fastest supercomputer—Cray’s Aurora.

Supercomputers are used to make sense of massive amounts of data on a scale far greater than commercially available computers can perform. They’re used to study quantum physics, forecast global climate change, and design aircraft.

El Capitan will be tasked with helping to assess and maintain the U.S. nuclear stockpile for the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). It is scheduled to begin operating in 2023.

The supercomputer is built on an innovative architecture that aims to combine the speed and power of high performance computing with the easy administration of cloud-based tools.

“NNSA is modernizing the Nuclear Security Enterprise to face 21st century threats,” said NNSA administrator Lisa E. Gordon-Hagerty. “El Capitan will allow us to be more responsive, innovative, and forward-thinking when it comes to maintaining a nuclear deterrent that is second to none in a rapidly evolving threat environment.”

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on El Capitan.

One of El Capitan’s responsibilities will be to create 3D models and simulations of how nuclear weapons age and deteriorate—something that researchers are unclear about. It will also be used to anticipate evolving national security threats and monitor nonproliferation and nuclear counterterrorism activities.

“El Capitan will allow our scientists and engineers to get answers to critical questions about the nuclear stockpile faster and more accurately than ever before, improving our efficiency and productivity, and enhancing our ability to reach our mission and national security goals,” said Bill Goldstein, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where El Capitan will be housed.

The U.S. nuclear arsenal is aging—the stockpile was built up over decades until the 1990s. With no new weapons being built, there’s increased pressure to maintain the viability of the existing warheads.

The supercomputer will also run complex simulations that will replicate nuclear weapons tests without having to actually detonate a warhead (underground nuclear testing was banned across the country in 1992).

As recently as 2016 the U.S. government still used a 1970s-era IBM mainframe computer with floppy drives to control its stockpile of warheads. El Capitan will slingshot the country’s nuclear arsenal management into the 21st century—while claiming the crown of fastest computer in the world.

Read more about another Cray supercomputer at Department of Energy to Install World’s First Exascale Supercomputer in 2021.