|Advanced Computing: Scientific, Socio-Political & Global Solutions|
|Dr. Victor H. Reis is a Senior Advisor in the Office of the Secretary at the Department of Energy. His primary responsibility lies with the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), part of President George W. Bush's Advanced Energy Initiative. He is also a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the US Strategic Command. Dr. Reis led the development of the Department of Energy's Stockpile Stewardship Program when he was Assistant Secretary for Defense Programs in the US Department of Energy and he created the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative (ASCI) program at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).
His past appointments include serving as Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Director of Defense Research and Engineering (DR&E) at the Pentagon and Assistant Director for National Security and Space in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President (OSTP). He has chaired and served on numerous high profile committees and is well known for his contribution to implementation of high end computing in multiple national projects.
Dr. Reis earned a Bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, (1957) a Master's degree in Mechanical Engineering from Yale University (1958), and a Master's degree and Doctorate (1962) from Princeton University. He has authored numerous scientific and policy publications and his many awards include two Department of Defense Distinguished Public Service Medals.|
|Dr. Victor H. Reis, Senior Advisor, Department of Energy talks to Dr. Lali Chatterjee, Editor in Chief of SciDAC Review, about computational science in national
security, nuclear partnerships and more.|
Dr. Chatterjee: Introducing high end computing as an effective
mechanism for addressing large scale, specialized problems has been
one of the signatures of your leadership role in national security
matters. Please comment on your vision for ensuring national security
through use of computational science and large scale simulations.
Dr. Reis: National security involves people with a wide variety
of backgrounds and motivations: it is an interactive multidimensional
problem and as such it can never be absolutely
ensured. The unique advantage of using simulations, is that we
can sample multiple levels of human interactions. We can allow
people to interact in very different ways and this allows security
analysts to anticipate and understand situations in greater
So, you can sample a complex sub-space of people's interactions as it were?
Yes, to some degree, because we can use simulations to create
scenarios. We can ask "what if" questions in some measure of
detail and examine the outcomes. For example, a very relevant
national security issue today is that of nuclear weapons stockpiles.
The current President and others want to maintain our
nuclear weapons stockpile – preferably without under-ground
testing. It is not clear whether the current weapons are satisfactory
or we need a new weapon that can be developed and certified
without testing. Advanced simulations play a critical role
in answering these kinds of questions.
When you say "people", I assume you are referring to decision makers –
not the public?
Right. It is critical to reach the decision makers. They could be
tactical decision makers, policy decision makers, business decision
makers, economic decision makers and so on. The point
is that high performance computing can really make a major
difference in how leaders make decisions. It can facilitate
informed, and hopefully improved, decisions.
Returning to your comment about the weapons stockpiles – how
exactly could the simulation be utilized in order to ensure that the
weapons could be maintained without new testing?
One example is to examine the effects of long term storage on
weapon safety and performance. Materials change in a radioactive
environment. Little cracks or changes in the material configuration
may arise. Are these small effects going to make a
difference in safety or performance? How would we know? In
the past, underground testing determined such effects. In the
absence of testing, detailed validated simulation provides added
knowledge upon which better judgments can be made.
Is it possible to take the human element into account in simulations? For
example, what if somebody makes a mistake while they are working?
|That is a good question. A computer allows you to factor in various types of mistakes. This allows us to train and to learn.|
Moving on to the next question, Dr. Raymond Orbach has identified
advanced computing as the third pillar of science. What is your
perspective on this?
I think he is absolutely right. Advanced computing bridges the
gap between theorists and experiments. It allows theorists to
do experiments in a very realistic way and it allows
experimentalists to try their experiments before hand. I think
this advance testing is extraordinarily important. People
sometimes miss the point: it is as much about people as it is
about computation. It is not that computation is replacing the
human being in making the decision. It enables human beings
to make better decisions, to understand the science better, and
to design better experiments. Obviously, we can achieve these
goals much faster, and move into otherwise inaccessible realms.
The crucial DARPA enabling discovery
was packet switching – allowing
computers to communicate with each
other. Massively parallel computing is
part of that technology heritage.
Since you are talking to the readers of the SciDAC Review, a compelling
question to consider is one about the philosophy and power of
programs like SciDAC. Do you think this idea of the three groups of
people (computer scientists, applied mathematicians, and discipline
scientists) working together is also conducive for the type of large complex
environment that includes "people" components?
Very much so. In fact, that is how we started the ASCI (Accelerated
Strategic Computing Initiative), program in Defense Programs –
now the NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration). That
program was organized around just such collaborations. When
we started the Stockpile Stewardship program it was obvious we
needed a lot more computing power. But when I visited the laboratories,
I noticed that the computing people were separated from
the designers. So, when I brought in Gil Weigand from Sandia to run this program, I said, "Gil, don't talk to the computing department.
Talk to the weapons designers, the people who actually
have to address the problem. Ask them about the important challenges
that they are going to have to face in the absence of testing.
They are the ones who are going to have to make timely decisions."
We were able to get the requirements that way as opposed
to talking to the computer people and asking how they can build
fast new computers.
So, you wanted need-based development of the computer?
Right, and then we found later we also needed a new set of visualization
tools, and we had to broaden the community beyond the
laboratories. We put a significant amount of money into developmental
interdisciplinary research because stockpile stewardship
is an interdisciplinary problem. It wasn't just a physics
problem; it was also a materials problem, an engineering problem,
a chemistry problem, and a coding and algorithm problem.
And then there is the parallel computer environment.
That is very important. The weapons parts of the laboratories
were not using parallel processing very effectively, so we had to
build that in as well.
You established communication between these groups of people?
Right. SciDAC's interdisciplinary approach for solving specific problems is essential when dealing with many areas in applied science. It reinforces the approach we took with the ASCI
We also had to interface and partner with the computing
industry because they are the ones who have to build the
computer and so they have to understand our computing
needs. Solving large complex problems usually involves
developing and using the right sorts of tools.
You have talked about the ASCI program. You also initiated novel and
interesting explorations of computational structure during your leadership
of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), and
you are currently involved in GNEP (Global Nuclear Energy Partnership).
We would like to hear about the role of simulation and advanced
computing in relation to these programs.
Advanced multidimensional simulation is what we are hoping
to apply as part of the GNEP. The nuclear reactor design community
has been very conservative and traditionally has not used
truly advanced computing as part of their design process.
Don't they use simulations to run their reactors?
But we're talking about designing and qualifying a new class
of reactors and more importantly the entire fuel cycle.
Remember that we haven't built a reactor in a long time, and
the United States is just beginning to seriously consider closing
the fuel cycle. This means there are a number of issues
involving separation, transmutation and disposition that need
to be considered as well as reactor design.
When we started the ASCI program in 1993, the world's
fastest computer was at Los Alamos. It was a Thinking Machine
computer, and it had less speed than a Macintosh you can buy
today. In supercomputers, we are now at 200 teraflops and there
is a mature, commercial vendor base that can be applied to the
You asked about DARPA. When I first went to DARPA in 1989,
DARPA was the leader for developing massively parallel computing.
This was a continuation of its role as a major driver in computer
and information technology development. During my time
there, one of my main concerns was getting mainline computer
companies, like Cray, involved in using the massively parallel
approach, and applying massively parallel machines to a variety of
national security problems. In fact, if we go back a little bit further,
the crucial DARPA enabling discovery was packet switching,
which allowed computers to communicate with each other. Massively
parallel computing is part of that technology heritage.
So, the DARPA research was not classified? It was readily handed over?
Oh, yes. This was started well before my time. And there is a
fair amount of literature about it. The book Rescuing
Prometheus by Thomas Hughes, (Pantheon Books, 1997),
describes how it all started.|
I will quote you on that. Thank you. A related question: How did you
develop your own interest in computational science?
Well, when I was a director at DARPA, I asked myself how
DARPA can continue to make an impact. This was at the end
of the Cold War, and I realized that the DARPA's strength was
in the information technology they had been developing. This
technology was to be even more important in the new national
Do you expect a new vision as we go now from teraflops to petascale
computing, or do you think we do not need to be at this scale?
I don't foresee that there will ever be a limit to "how much we
need". Computing, in particular high performance computing,
can be thought of as a tool for expanding the brain, and
providing for a deeper understanding. It is powerful as a
communications tool, and we are learning how to input and
output human effects. For instance, we can create pictures and
make very effective dynamic imagery.
The GNEP has three simultaneous
goals: to provide sufficient nuclear
power (1000–2000 GigaWatt/year by
2050), dispose of radioactive waste,
and reduce proliferation risk, and we
think recycling by fuel cycle states may
realize this. The GNEP principles
emphasize that global issues require
global solutions and spent fuel is an
asset to be managed, not a waste.
Dr. Victor Reis, SciDAC 2006, Denver, CO
Like virtual reality?
Dynamic virtual reality. It probably depends upon what you
mean by "reality". Let me give you an anecdote that relates to
this and dates to the time I was at DARPA during the first Gulf
War. Right after the war ended, I sent a group of people to Iraq
to recreate a battle that had actually been fought. Using the people
who participated on the actual terrain and recordings of
voice transmissions, we built a simulation of the real battle
which could, in principle, allow for continuous interaction of
both sides leading to possible different outcomes.
So you have the added dimensions of people's interactions to
transform a computer (data) simulation into a "humanized"
visualization or a movie?
Exactly. I showed a movie of the simulation, to the then Secretary
of Defense, Dick Cheney. His reaction was – "if I had had this
before, we might have been able to show people the repercussions
of their actions and so used it to avert the war." I think he
meant that very seriously. It is important that we provide the
proper information in the proper form, in order to help policy
makers to make decisions.
The national laboratories have been torchbearers in some sense for
advancing science and technology. Do they have a role in GNEP?
The reason we have national labs is not only to advance science
and technology, but also to apply their expertise to important
national problems. The GNEP is addressing one of the most
important national and international problems of the 21st century,
and there are significant technical problems that must be
overcome. The national labs will be critical in this effort, and in
particular, we see them as playing a leading role in the myriad
simulation and validation aspects of GNEP. When we work on
major national/international problems, they should have
appropriate tools. Computing is one of the tools, just like largesized
machines such as the National Ignition Facility, at Livermore,
or the Accelerator facilities.
Since you mentioned Livermore, would you like to comment on
BlueGene/L? (see "High Performance Hardware," p40)
BlueGene was designed to solve some specific types of problems.
But that is where the art of designing the "tool set" comes
in; BlueGene was developed for special focus tasks as part of an
integrated program. I should add that it is very good for material
science, which is a significant part of the GNEP Research and
So, basically BlueGene/L did come into being because of that whole
Yes. But again, the partnership between IBM and Livermore to
create it was important. The labs can't build a computer by
themselves and the industry is often reluctant to invest their
own money. Collaboration is essential.
Nuclear power has been extremely controversial in the U.S. for
decades. Is GNEP ready to face the challenges?
Interestingly enough, a lot of the polls indicate that there is a
real difference between what people really believe (they are in
favor of nuclear power) and what they think is generally
believed (they think most people are against it.) The U.S. has by
far the largest amount of nuclear power in the world. It represents
20% of our electricity in this country, and it is running
very safely and very efficiently. The whole purpose of the GNEP
is to have a lot more nuclear power, not just in the U.S., but
around the world. I think we are ready, but time will tell.
Fuel Leasing is an integral component of GNEP plans. This chart has been developed from Dr. Reis's talk at SciDAC 2006,
Do you think that you need to share more information with the public
so that the public is involved in a positive sense?
Yes. It is the public who uses the electricity, and worries about
the long-term concerns. I should note that the problem is not
in designing the reactors, the problem is in how we handle the
waste. If we are going to put this stuff away, it is going to have to
stay away, safely for long periods of time. Because we can't wait
2000 or two million years to experiment, we have to simulate.
And here we return to policy makers. Simulation has to be convincing
not only to the scientists, it has to enable policy makers
to understand what is happening and feel comfortable that
they are making the right decisions. This takes us back to our
earlier discussion where I talked to Vice President Dick Cheney
– absolutely a policy maker–and he said "Ah! I can help make
better decisions using this." Simulation has long been in use for training people who were in battle for instance. What we are doing is taking it to another level and using it in policy making. The people in the GNEP, the national laboratories and the computing
people are going to contribute to this development and
this is really where the simulation is going to play out.
But you have a complicated situation here because as you said at the
start, this effort involves so many different countries and cultures.
Right. The one thing all these other cultures are interested in is
simulation. But they all do it differently. This is a global effort
that must incorporate the different approaches to this problem.
When I go to Japan to discuss this, I have to understand their
constraints. When I go to France, I have to prepare for a different
set of conditions. Large scale simulation is headed to becoming
an international communication tool.
So you visualize computational and simulation science as
communication at many different levels?
Exactly, and that's where I think SciDAC can help. For example,
a SciDAC-like problem is the long term disposition of waste in
the global context.
Our planet is for all, so it makes sense that waste disposal should be
addressed at the global level.
Right. The problem of waste disposal is a global one, and the
solution must survive many hundreds and thousands of years,
or eons as it were. Remember one of the keys to the GNEP is
the whole idea of fuel leasing–even Hans Bethe suggested it
thirty years ago, ("The Necessity of Fission Power," Scientific
It isn't just U.S. fuel leasing; it is fuel leasing around the
world. Geologies are different, and the geo-chemistries are
different. We want to be able to design waste repositories in
forms conducive to the geology that they will be embedded in.
We don't do that now.
In some ways this is similar to the problems we faced with stockpile stewardship. What can we do if we can't test? How do I get people to understand what the problems are? Not just
the weapons designers, but the people who have to make the decisions.
It is also a major task to get the public – the global public –
to accept the long term waste issue concurrent with a major
expansion of nuclear power. So it is broader than just a science
problem, it is a socio- political problem. How do we convince
policy makers around the world that our approach to waste
disposition is safe and secure? Remember, different countries
have diverse cultures. They have different ways of looking at
these problems. We must understand and respect their varied
The United States has been out of the game (research and
development of nuclear power) for over a decade. France, Japan, the
UK, and other countries have continued the research and development
of the construction of nuclear power facilities. What role can we
effectively play given that we may be fifteen years out of date?
While others are certainly better prepared in some ways, we
have a major strength – simulation power. Secondly, we really do
have the national laboratories that have been involved in the
technology, and we also have a lot of very good universities that
people aspire to come to from all over the world. And recall, the
GNEP is a global effort, so the emphasis is on partnership.
Are our current reactors all old designs?
Yes. The current reactors are old, but I think we will get new
reactors. Again, the mission of the GNEP is to create a global
partnership to solve global problems such as climate change.
Nuclear power is the only real source of energy that can produce
baseload electricity without greenhouse gas emissions or
So, solving the greenhouse problem is part of the "big picture plan"?
Yes. Globally, there is enough coal around to provide energy
for some length of time. But coal is also synonymous with
pollution, climate change, and other crucial problems.
Nuclear energy – on sufficient scale – is a primary means
of dealing with greenhouse gases.
You have a history of initiating new wave projects as you said, and
now you have to go beyond just getting computer companies
interested – you are going to have to get the whole world interested.
With the end of the Cold War, nothing is more important than
getting an international approach to the energy, climate change,
and proliferation challenges. The GNEP is an approach to
attacking all of these issues simultaneously. Our initial discussions
with international partners have been very encouraging,
but I am reminded of the Japanese proverb:|
"A vision without action is a dream. Action without a vision is a nightmare."
I think we have the global vision. Time will tell whether the
global community has the will to act. The people and institutions
that participate in SciDAC can help.
Thank you for talking to us.