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All-Russian Scientific Research Institute for Experimental Physics (VNIIEF) (Nuclear)

  • Location
    Sarov, Nizhniy Novgorod Oblast
  • Type
    Nuclear-Education and Training
  • Facility Status

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Founded in 1946 at Arzamas-16 (currently Sarov), VNIIEF was the Soviet Union’s primary nuclear weapons research and development center. Originally called KB No. 11, the Institute developed the first Soviet atomic bomb (RDS-1) in 1949. 1 Its weapons designs also include the RDS-6S hydrogen bomb, the RDS-37 two-stage hydrogen bomb, and the AN602 Tsar Bomba. In the 1950s, VNIIEF’s work expanded to include research on warheads for ballistic missiles, torpedoes, and strategic cruise-missiles. Among many of its contributions to the Soviet nuclear program, the Institute developed the warhead for the R-36M [SS-18 “Satan”] ballistic missile, which formed the mainstay of the Soviet Union’s nuclear deterrent. 2 VNIIEF also led the Soviet Union’s extensive “peaceful nuclear explosions” program. 3

The Institute’s weapons-related activities were carried out within its divisions dealing with theory, computations, design, and experiments. 4 VNIIEF maintained production capabilities at its two plants – VNIIEF, and Avangard in Sarov. The latter facility was the first in the USSR to mass produce nuclear armaments, and served as a warhead assembly site until 2000. 5 All nuclear warhead assembly and disassembly work at VNIIEF ceased in 2003. 6

Today, VNIIEF conducts nuclear warhead design and provides stockpile support to the Russian nuclear arsenal. VNIIEF also engages in projects related to advanced conventional weapons, nuclear safety, intellectual property protection, and other civilian applications. 7 Its facilities are home to Russia’s most advanced supercomputers, and included among its research tools are the ISKRA laser-based inertial confinement fusion device and the BIGR pulsed reactor. 8 The Institute also has a critical assembly and 5 operational research reactors; all of these are pulsed reactors used in weapons research that are powered by highly-enriched uranium (HEU). 9 For an overview of Russia’s HEU policy and the full list of Russia’s facilities using HEU, see the Russia Civilian HEU profile.

The Institute has a history of cooperation with foreign partners. Beginning in 1995, VNIIEF participated in the U.S. Department of Energy’s MPC&A program, and served as the demonstration facility for DOE’s Lab-to-Lab program. 10 It also took part in International Science & Technology Center Programs and the Nuclear Cities Initiative. Today, it conducts research projects in cooperation with laboratories in the United States (Los Alamos, Livermore, Sandia, and Oak Ridge); France (CEA/DAM); and Germany (Dresden and Karlsruhe). The Institute’s personnel are actively involved in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s International Network of Nuclear Reaction Data Centers, in the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. 11


Nuclear weapon
Nuclear weapon: A device that releases nuclear energy in an explosive manner as the result of nuclear chain reactions involving fission, or fission and fusion, of atomic nuclei. Such weapons are also sometimes referred to as atomic bombs (a fission-based weapon); or boosted fission weapons (a fission-based weapon deriving a slightly higher yield from a small fusion reaction); or hydrogen bombs/thermonuclear weapons (a weapon deriving a significant portion of its energy from fusion reactions).
Thermonuclear weapon
Thermonuclear weapon: A nuclear weapon in which the fusion of light nuclei, such as deuterium and tritium, leads to a significantly higher explosive yield than in a regular fission weapon. Thermonuclear weapons are sometimes referred to as staged weapons, because the initial fission reaction (the first stage) creates the condition under which the thermonuclear reaction can occur (the second stage). Also archaically referred to as a hydrogen bomb.
Ballistic missile
A delivery vehicle powered by a liquid or solid fueled rocket that primarily travels in a ballistic (free-fall) trajectory.  The flight of a ballistic missile includes three phases: 1) boost phase, where the rocket generates thrust to launch the missile into flight; 2) midcourse phase, where the missile coasts in an arc under the influence of gravity; and 3) terminal phase, in which the missile descends towards its target.  Ballistic missiles can be characterized by three key parameters - range, payload, and Circular Error Probable (CEP), or targeting precision.  Ballistic missiles are primarily intended for use against ground targets.
Cruise missile
An unmanned self-propelled guided vehicle that sustains flight through aerodynamic lift for most of its flight path. There are subsonic and supersonic cruise missiles currently deployed in conventional and nuclear arsenals, while conventional hypersonic cruise missiles are currently in development. These can be launched from the air, submarines, or the ground. Although they carry smaller payloads, travel at slower speeds, and cover lesser ranges than ballistic missiles, cruise missiles can be programmed to travel along customized flight paths and to evade missile defense systems.
The actions of a state or group of states to dissuade a potential adversary from initiating an attack or conflict through the credible threat of retaliation. To be effective, a deterrence strategy should demonstrate to an adversary that the costs of an attack would outweigh any potential gains. See entries for Extended deterrence and nuclear deterrence.
Pulsed reactor
A type of research reactor with which repeated short, intense surges of power and radiation can be produced. The neutron flux during each surge is much higher than could be tolerated during steady-state operation. Pulsed reactors generally use large quantities of HEU fuel to achieve this high level of neutron flux, and could be difficult to convert from HEU to LEU fuel. However, these reactors are generally used for defense, not civilian, purposes and would thus not be covered by a civilian ban. 
Research reactor
Research reactor: Small fission reactors designed to produce neutrons for a variety of purposes, including scientific research, training, and medical isotope production. Unlike commercial power reactors, they are not designed to generate power.
Highly enriched uranium (HEU)
Highly enriched uranium (HEU): Refers to uranium with a concentration of more than 20% of the isotope U-235. Achieved via the process of enrichment. See entry for enriched uranium.


  1. “История” History, ВНИИЭФ VNIIEF, www.vniief.ru.
  2. “Дальнейшие разработки атомного оружия” Further nuclear weapons developments, ВНИИЭФ VNIIEF, www.vniief.ru.
  3. “Деятельность” Activities, ВНИИЭФ VNIIEF, www.vniief.ru.
  4. “Деятельность” Activities, ВНИИЭФ VNIIEF, www.vniief.ru.
  5. O. Bukharin, H. Feiveson, F. Von Hippel, S. Weaver, M. Bunn, W. Hoehn, K. Luongo, “Helping Russia Downsize its Nuclear Complex: A Focus on the Closed Nuclear Cities,” Report of an International Conference held at Princeton University, 14-15 March 2000, p. 14.
  6. “Date Set for Closure of Russian Nuclear Weapons Plant: U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration is Helping Make it Happen,” National Nuclear Security Administration News Release, 27 September 2001.
  7. “Деятельность” Activities, ВНИИЭФ VNIIEF, www.vniief.ru.
  8. “Основные достижения” Main accomplishments, ВНИИЭФ VNIIEF, www.vniief.ru.
  9. “Research reactors: Russia,” International Panel on Fissile Materials, www.fissilematerials.org.
  10. Mark Mullen, “Status Report on U.S./Russian Laboratory-to-Laboratory Cooperation in Nuclear Material Protection, Control, and Accounting,” Los Alamos National Laboratory paper presented at the 37th annual INMM conference, August 1996, pp.2-4; “Program for Upgrading Nuclear Materials Protection, Control, and Accounting at All Facilities within the All-Russian Institute of Experimental Physics (VNIIEF),” U.S. Department of Energy paper, 1998, www.osti.gov.
  11. “Международное сотрудничество” [International cooperation], ВНИИЭФ [VNIIEF], www.vniief.ru.


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