Tracing the Cracks: Learning from the History of the Mtskheta Reactor

By George Japaridze

April 4, 2024

IMAGE: Control room of the decommissioned research nuclear reactor at the Georgian Institute of Physics. Photo by U.S. Embassy Tbilisi.


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George Japaridze is a physicist and member of the Georgian National Academy of Science. As a historian of science, he uses oral histories and storytelling to describe operations at the Mtshketa Reactor and the culture of science in the former Soviet Union.



GEORGE JAPARIDZE: One should respect history in science. We have to learn by our history because similar things happening just now also. When I entered the Andronikashvili Institute of Physics it was ’73 so 50 years ago. I was involved from early stages in discussions of the scientific problems administrative problems to learn how it works and being in contact with guys who are responsible who are big bosses at that time and remaining in a good relations with them. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union I had started to renovate my memory and I had a…I made the small interview discussions with these guys. They knew that I knew some truth but not the whole truth. So I am an honest re-translator of stories to told me by real witnesses. It was strange story when the country has something very powerful important scientific tool and is not able to save this tool. Could we trace the first cracks of a dissolution the destruction of the Soviet Union system on the very early stages of the story when this industry quite a strong important scientific system and industry suddenly dissolved and disappeared because these small cracks in the system which work out of the appear in years then they manifestly can be traced now if you know the story.

23rd of October 1957 it started. They managed to convince the Soviet government that it’ll be good to have a research reactor in Georgia. The Chicago nuclear reactor was 14 years old and the nuclear reactor which was built in the Soviet Union was only in ’54. Of course everything was done under the supervision from Moscow. There were responsible persons for this plan but there was no experience of local people to do this. Also was a strong problem. This was a sealed document that this plan is good. And when you start to use these documents or these plans and build and start to construct this reactor there could be some deviations and mistakes and so on. They’re all possible mistakes which are in this project will come out.

A heating system was built in a rather strange way from down to up. So this water was going from below up and then rotating this way. And it turns out it was strange that this fuel element started to vibrate and to move with water. So it was not fixed systems. And they put some fixator on top of the reactor to stabilize this and not to allow them to move up and down. And then they made a rather reasonable decision to rotate the water in opposite direction. It was trivial but it was also in the project it was an easy way to avoid this problem. The temperature of the water on these fuel elements was much higher than expected to be.

The solution was found in a very interesting way scientifically very interesting way but it’s more interesting how it was done. It was introduced an idea by Georgian engineers. Let us make a roughening on the surface of this fuel blocks. They were aluminum blocks and they tried to make a small modulation on top of it to find that there is laminar motion of the water. So it is taking much more water much more heat and manage to reduce temperature from 95 in simple sent from Moscow samples to 52 53. It was a really good result. They told me that we were doing all this by hand so pushing some machine on this tape and preparing this. So it is it is crazy. It was really examples that something was in instruction came from Moscow was not correct but it was not easy to change it. It was it was risky to change it. It was a freedom to find the solution but this freedom became a source of mistake. Serious mistake.

Reactors body a vessel at that time was built from aluminum and then around this there was built a biological defense system which was built in several steps and there was iron ingots around the building. This metallic system was built in a dense way but nevertheless it was necessary to push concrete to fill all empty sides between wall and this metallic. And so to build a unique system and the concrete which was has to be used and has to be indicated in these papers from Moscow was very high level very special having a very short time of solidification.

But when they did this concrete it was too dense and therefore this pumping machines to pump the concrete were unable to pump them in time. And these engineers and these workers were losing money losing support. So they were not happy with this explanation why they did not do anything in time. The guys who are doing this are guys who were working in the. Georgian Tbilisi Metro. And he said “Guys okay we should add the water to this concrete then it’ll be less dense. We have to put it inside and then water will evaporate and we will get what we want.” And so this idea starts out they add the water more than necessary this pumping system start to work and they fill this wall but holes appear.

And why does these holes appear? Because this concrete became solid much earlier than there was a chance to evaporate the water. And it pushed out all the unused water outside of the system of concrete. So you have iron pieces water and aluminum between and so it starts a chemical reaction which caused corrosion of the aluminum but nobody know about this. It’s a dangerous story. So 10 years later, they start to realize that the water is coming down and reducing in the level of the reactor.

Each day it was around sometimes equal to 0.5 cubic meters or something like this. So it was a problem. Occasionally the water start to leak from the concrete part of the biological defense and then they started to analyze the system but were very careful on hiding this. And they found on a level of a 3.5 meters from below where this special biological iron containing part was there. A lot of holes in the system. First question was, how does the government react? All big bosses responsible for this disappear.

So scientists disappear, KGB came. The question they wanted, these KGB guys were only one. Is it mistake or it is specially done? When they checked the situation and became aware that it is stupidity but no personal intention or interest to do something bad they became quiet. Said, “Right maybe they are all idiots” but they were happy that there were no enemy no spies, no terrorists, nothing. So simply a mistake, technical mistake. Then they asked, “How do you want to solve this problem?” Reparation was essentially quite a long time story. They add one additional vessel inside the previous one. All this distance between these two vessels were filled by this new, well concrete. They ask for money but we do not want to ask very much about money from Moscow. Maybe local government will help us with money. They promise them to have money. But the last question which the prime minister asked “Who will do this work?” So shall we in involve somebody from outside in this reparation or we will do it ourselves?

So without telling a lot of people about this happened. So this was how to hide the story. And our team told them that okay, we can do it ourselves. So he washed his hands of it and said do what you do but nobody should write anything to me that it was something wrong. And that was a done finally. In ’88 there was the Chernobyl close and then that was a stopped activity. And it was understandable because Chernobyl and it’s dangerous. But in ’90 when already well known was that something will not happen in a simple way the Georgian Academy made a decision to close the reactor. They have no understanding what it is really what we have.

Because they were occupied by the Civil War by any problems. So there was no guarantees that somebody will really help you to save this. And in that case, maybe they found the simplest way but the wrong way, I’m sure to avoid this problem completely and that was a mistake. This element of freedom create an element of irresponsibility or weak responsibility or not enough thinking and seems to me everywhere it happens similar way. And then finally this result to the end.

People in charge of reconstruction of Georgian science were very much old people of a Soviet type. They became much more afraid of the dissolution of the Soviet Union so much that they lose their basis. And since they lose their basis, they do not want it to take responsibility for something because there was no guy who can call and say what to do. When the mismanagement is based on running away from responsibilities, it grows up very easily. If you want to manage something to take responsibility, it’s very difficult to penetrate the system. Simple solutions are passed easily. Complicated solutions are disappearing on a very early state.

I am trying to learn how to avoid this how to maintain something to convince people that we should not be afraid of responsibility of doing something. Because now I am facing this problem as an administrator in academy which communicates with government as Minister for Education and with our Prime Minister’s office giving them advice as to what to do what should we save and what we should not save. Science is in a bad case in Georgia. We are losing brains here. A lot of my students, a lot of my colleagues are there in the West, they are successful scientists, very good performing scientists.

But I should say, do not be afraid to come back. Be patriots. It will be difficult to work here but come back. Let us try to do something.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Stanley Center for Peace and Security or any other agency, institution, or partner.



George Japaridze
Academician-Secretary of the Mathematics and Physics Department, Georgian National Academy of Science

In 1975, George Japaridze graduated from the Faculty of Physics of the Tbilisi State University. Since 1975, his scientific career is connected with the Institute of Physics of the Georgian Academy of Science, where he worked his way from a PhD student to the chairman of the Science Council of the Institute. In 1978, he defended his candidate’s thesis on the topic: “Magnetic properties of one-dimensional fermionic systems. Exactly solvable models”, and in 1998 – a doctoral dissertation on the topic: “Unusual models of low-dimensional magnetism and superconductivity”. In years 1991-2015, he has been intensively collaborating with colleagues from the Institutes of Theoretical Physics of the Universities of Cologne, Fribourg (Switzerland) and Gothenburg and from the Institute of Correlated Electrons and Magnetism of the University of Augsburg and spent considerable time in European research centers. In 2001 G. Japaridze was elected as a corresponding member and in 2013 as a full member of the Georgian National Academy of Science. Since 2019, he has been the Academician-Secretary of the Mathematics and Physics Department of the Academy.

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