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Russian nuclear weapons staff arrested in cryptocurrency scheme

The Russian Federal Nuclear Center reportedly catches scientists trying to make money by using computing power to process cryptocurrency transactions.

Russian nuclear bomb museum in Sarov
Sarov, the location of a nuclear weapons lab where scientist are accused of a cyrptocurrency scheme, is also home to this museum showing several historic Russian nuclear bombs. This photo is from a 1995 visit by Stephen Shankland, second from left.
Stephen Shankland/CNET

Computers at nuclear weapons labs are supposed to be used for things like simulating fusion reactions so countries can have some faith their thermonuclear bombs will work. But scientists at a top Russian lab are accused of trying to use one to make money with cryptocurrency instead.

The scientists from the Russian Federal Nuclear Center, also called VNIIEF were arrested for "an unsanctioned attempt to use computer facilities for private purposes including so-called mining," the center said, according to the BBC on Friday.

Mining, a process that verifies cryptocurrency transactions, can be a profitable enterprise if you have a powerful enough computer, and in earlier days could generate useful returns. It's hotly competitive now, and recent declines in the value of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin means it's harder to make money.

But if you can hatch a plot to use somebody else's computers and electrical power, though, there's a lot more money to be made. Innovations in computing provide an endless supply of new schemes, whether it's cryptocurrency mining, phishing scams to break into your bank account or ransomware that locks up your laptop.

Details on the Russian case remain murky, but local news media said a supercomputer was used for the work, according to the BBC and the Russian Interfax news agency. The machine was supposed to be disconnected from the internet for security reasons, but the mining was discovered when the machine was connected to the network.

The lab is located in Sarov, a city that was renamed Arzamas-16 during the Cold War to make it seem like just another part of a city that's actually a 60-mile drive away.

Cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and ether enable payments and other digital transactions, but the process of verifying and recording those transactions, called mining, requires powerful computers. The system periodically rewards those who operate mining computers with newly generated cryptocurrency, an incentive that has proved strong as the value of cryptocurrencies soared, at least until recently.

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