My Nuclear Life: Stories from Georgia’s Nuclear Legacy

By Shelly Lesher, Shorena Lortkipanidze, and Mariam Chabashvili

February 27, 2024

IMAGE: Removal of highly-enriched uranium from Tbilisi, Georgia, via Volga-Dnepr Airlines. (Photo: Josef Podlaha, ÚJV Řež/NRI, Czech Republic)


Audio Story

Spend time with Shelly Lesher and two guest as she travels to Tbilisi, Georgia. First she discusses storytelling and Georgia’s atomic odyssey with Shorena Lortkipanidze from the Civil Council on Defense and Security (Tbilsi, Georgia). Next, Mariam Chabashvili explains her love for computer programming after Georgian independence and how she became an invaluable member of the nuclear science team at the Institute of Physics in Tbilsi, Georgia. This podcast episode is a collaboration between My Nuclear Life and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security.



The transcript below may contain errors.

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: As we realized afterwards on the summit one before last, Georgian government took responsibility to be free from nuclear fuel. So it was political decision, but we were not told simply we received the request from American side if we are ready to part with it.

SHELLY LESHER: Welcome to My Nuclear Life. I’m Shelly Lesher. There have been a few developments behind the scenes here at My Nuclear Life and I’m finally able to share them with you. We have partnered with the Stanley Center for Peace and Security to bring you a couple of really exciting and different podcast episodes. The first is a set of conversation with Georgian scientists which will span two episodes, this being the first. I know most of my listeners are Americans and we are notoriously bad at geography and when I say Georgia, many of you think the state, not the country. So let me provide a brief background.

Georgia is a country which straddles Europe and Asia and as part of a region called the Caucasus. Georgia Borders include the Black Sea, Armenia, and Russia. As such, it was part of the former Soviet Union gaining independence in 1991. The capital is Tbilisi, where I attended a workshop on nuclear storytelling, sponsored by the Stanley Center and met with the Georgian scientists featured in these episodes. I will be introducing them as the episodes progress.

The first person featured is Shorena Lortkipanidze. She’s not a scientist but was our contact in Georgia and was able to put the organizers in touch with all the scientists. She wrote a book about the Georgia nuclear legacy, which I will link on the episode web page.

How did you get involved in the storytelling project and what is your interest in telling Georgian stories?

SHORENA LORTKIPANIDZE: In May, I was attending International Nuclear Materials Management conference in Vienna. I met Nick there and he shared this project with me and he also said that we are looking for a place for the next storytellers’ workshop. I said that you can come to Georgia, to Tbilisi. That was how we met. And then Nick took this idea to Stanley and then we got connected and we were so excited. I could not believe that this meeting and once talking about that could result in workshop in Tbilisi.

SHELLY LESHER: This project is Adventures in Nuclear Risk Reduction, organized by a group of practitioners from around the world and sponsored by the Stanley Center for Peace and Security. The workshop took place in Tbilisi at the end of October 2023, where these podcasts were recorded. Nick Roth from the Nuclear Threat Initiative who Shorena mentioned was one of the organizers. Why do you think it’s important for the community to hear from the Georgian nuclear community?

SHORENA LORTKIPANIDZE: That was this occasion when we shared, he shared with me about that and so I was thinking that that’s a great opportunity. That’s this small scientific community we have in Georgia. They were heard and they were listened and it’s a great opportunity for our scientists to tell their stories and actually to bring their personalities, their personal achievements, failures, and also explain context of the country, which is in transition, which underwent so many challenges and hardships. So I thought that that’s wonderful actually to listen to other stories and also to search for Georgian stories.

And actually we already in our organization, we have done something in that direction. In 2013, 12, 13, 14, we were working on Georgia’s nuclear history book and that was a very interesting path when we have contacted those people, they contributed to the book a lot and we also recorded other stories from those who are not alive now, these old scientists and we have these videos of course with that. So I already knew the flavor and taste of doing these things and I’m personally and of course my colleagues and my friends in the organization, we all shared the same approach to that.

But I can tell that I’m a person who loves stories. I believe in stories and humans and I also understand that those stories even regarding the same subject could be different because there is this subjective reality and actually this is something we all have to acknowledge and accept sometimes. That was kind of my motivation, interest, and of course interest working with other people whom I thought and I felt that I have some kind of something in common and that was a great opportunity for me personally and for my organization and for my colleagues.

SHELLY LESHER: So what is your organization? You mentioned your organization and your colleagues. So tell me a little bit about your organization.

SHORENA LORTKIPANIDZE: Yeah, so this is Civil Council on Defense and Security with this long and strange and scary name, but actually this is an NGO with my colleagues, those who are also founders like me. So we have been working together for almost I think 23 years or even more. I was very young when I engaged in the field. In 2005 we established as the team of core thinkers. We wanted to work together on security sector reform, transformation, oversight, security sector oversight issues. And in 2011 we decided to register this group as an NGO.

And then that was interesting that Swedish Radiation Safety Authority, they have approached us, Lars Van Dassen, he entrusted us this book on nuclear history, which the idea was born in our discussions, how to start working on these issues because I think that we were that time the first organization who was professionally interested in nuclear stuff, let’s say in security, nonproliferation. And because that was not common at all. And we thought that to start with the history is so important.

First of all, we have to get to know, and actually I am an internationalization specialist, but my colleagues Tamar and Irakli, they are physicists and mathematicians. So for them that was very just, and even Tamar, she has PhD in physics, but for me they all were involved the time in this political analysis in NGO. So no more practicing science. But for me and for us it was important to start to research, to start connecting people, science, academia with civil society, just bring this understanding of what civil society means in academia and also somehow to connect with government because we think that this partnership can have great value. And actually that was fascinating process working with the scientists trying to get new interviews to find out those scientists and witnesses who knew something.

We were searching in libraries, in archives. Especially for me it was very interesting to read Communist party archives because all these kinds of reports about Schetar Reactor we found in Communist party archives and there were reports like the scientists and local staff violating rules or they were not changing their clothes, they were not using properly with the laundry room or they were not drinking enough milk because there were some internal procedures. And they were also very interesting in the archive materials, budgets of the reactor or for that time it’s the period from 1958 to like 68. So that period we have found-

SHELLY LESHER: Very active period.

SHORENA LORTKIPANIDZE: Very active period. And for me it was interesting to observe how these rules working at reactor were introduced and then how they were applied, what kind of resistance there was. And then plus, we were getting more information from scientists about the research projects. We were looking for articles in dead times journals about the researches they were conducted.

And then most interesting part of all this was that we decided to go to NATO and to search in NATO archives because one of the questions accepted science history for us was whether nuclear weapons were or not on the territory of Georgia during the Soviet Union. So actually the book has three parts. The first is science history and nuclear reactor history in Tbilisi, in Tskheta. And another nuclear reactor was not reactor, but Institute of Physics was in Sokhumi, which is now occupied. I mean it’s breakaway region and out of Georgian government control. And the first institute of physics actually and technology was established in 1954 in Sokhumi and then in Tbilisi.

And then there was decision in the framework of Atoms for Peace to have nuclear reactor in Tbilisi because there was already some experience and some practice and some knowledge because of that Sokhumi reactor, by the way, the predecessor of Sokhumi Institute of Physics and Technology was the project of nuclear bomb creation project when Barry now the time rather Soviet kind of law enforcement guy originally from Georgia, from that region of Georgia, they have kidnapped German scientists and they have opened two labs there in Sokhumi.

SHELLY LESHER: So those were weapons labs?


SHELLY LESHER: If they had kidnapped the German scientists, those were the weapons labs in Georgia?

SHORENA LORTKIPANIDZE: Absolutely, absolutely. Very famous German scientists were working there. Two labs were established and they were working on two different methods, actually. That experience was already in Georgia and that was I think kind of how we get to first institute and then Tbilisi reactor. Another chapter was about military kind of aspects of nuclear history in Georgia.

SHELLY LESHER: Oh wait, you didn’t say. Did you find nuclear weapons on Georgian territory?

SHORENA LORTKIPANIDZE: Actually we could not write that. We had some evidence because even some people would say yes there were because, but we could not find this direct kind of thread. But we assumed that there might be because there was infrastructure actually Soviets at Soviet military bases, there were.

SHELLY LESHER: So there was a lot of circumstantial evidence?

SHORENA LORTKIPANIDZE: Yeah. And that was in NATO archives, which were recently opened for public, actually. We find so many other interesting stories. Actually in that archives there were NATO kind of countries spies reports about Soviet’s military complex.

SHELLY LESHER: Did you just go, I mean-


SHELLY LESHER: As they call it, down the rabbit hole? Did you just keep reading and reading and reading and reading? Did they have to kick you out of the archives every day?

SHORENA LORTKIPANIDZE: Yeah, something like that. Yes. That was great actually. We also, we were reading there and also they gave us digital versions of the reports. Everything is reflected in the book including the kind of tables or structures which were constructed by Western spies about Soviet military complex and the structure, who was responsible for what in which agency. This nuclear weapons kind of industry, military part of the industry.

So I mean with all these photos actually from seventies, sixties, even made for dead time satellite images, we were so lucky to have all this. Of course there were a few times mentioning of Georgia in those, not so many times, but we have learned a lot about how the systems were working. And the last part of the book is about more than Georgia after the Soviet Union, and so what happened. Actually all those stories which were told by our on orphan sources or other challenges, they are part of this last part of the book.

So we started with that book and then we decided now we have book and we were very proud of that. Now we have to start working with journalists, with scientists, with political scientists and to bring this knowledge into these knowledges, cross-cutting knowledge actually to different institutions.

SHELLY LESHER: Absolutely. Yeah.

SHORENA LORTKIPANIDZE: So we had several summer university schools for journalists. So we always were organizing the study tours at reactor at Lugar lab. And we have also did some translations of manuals and textbooks for Georgian universities of scientific aspects of nuclear and also some political and military aspects. And we met with so many wonderful people and I’m lucky to be part of that space.

SHELLY LESHER: And the book is online, right?


SHELLY LESHER: Great. I will make sure it’s linked for our listeners. When approaching people to tell their stories, like coming to this workshop and telling their stories or telling stories that are going to be consumed by the general public, especially telling them in English, are there some people that are resistant to telling their stories that are going to be outside of Georgia and being consumed by the US and the UK and maybe even heard by current Russians? Is there a concern for some people?

SHORENA LORTKIPANIDZE: We had no that concern, because people with whom we were working, they were very open and they know us. But of course there was some problems because in Georgia’s population is very, not population but very polarized kind of environment. And these politicians and former government people who are now in opposition and vice versa, they are very adversarial. And even in our group actually we thought that would they tell stories together? These certain people, for instance, Petra who is from, he’s a kind of witness and himself participant and actor of nineties politics and then Dato who was very active politician and the diplomat in Saakashvili’s period after the Rose Revolution, they have some conflicting ideas.

And actually we were thinking a lot about this kind of setting the scene that it’s fine that it was not easy actually. And Nino who is now NGO person and was minister for so many years, so we were thinking a lots of things and then we just decided at least we have all these kinds of challenges in mind, some risks maybe. We worked on that, but we need that stories, we need Petra, who knew Shevardnadze so well and he was at the dawn of Georgia’s independence.

We need Dato who just the foundation for Lugar Center. And he was just in the middle of this making decisions on this high political level being at least part of decisions, maybe not making himself, because that time was also very strange in Georgia. And the problem is that I was thinking that Georgians are not very, yeah, they are telling good stories, but when we were telling them that it should be your story, what you have felt, what you have experienced, it was very difficult for them to, “What it is? How to do that?” I mean we are quite… I mean we’re, yeah. So this culture is a little bit different in Georgia.

SHELLY LESHER: How did it feel now that the event is over? How did it feel for a group of people to come from all over the world to hear Georgian stories and to show such appreciation for them when it was over? For you, how did that feel?

SHORENA LORTKIPANIDZE: I’m very full and I’m very happy in a way and I hope that our stories were connected to these people from across the world who came here. So I hope that they will have this feeling that it was not in vain. They have gained something. So I hope for that. At least we tried our best to make that connection and bonds. Actually, it’s not only stories I think we also should talk about. It was so good to speak about the meaning and the importance of stories.

Because sometimes we do things intuitively, so it just works like that. It just works that we like each other, we understand each other, but reflecting on importance of that is also important. And in this rush we can’t catch that so very meaning of these connections for the society, for science, for our own empowerment. That’s why it’s good to reflect on these things and it makes you better actually when you speak about that, that this intuitive processes comes from our education, family, you know how to behave that you have to say hello, you have handshake or you have to say care about something, but why it is important and how it makes you better. This is something which makes things alive.

And that’s why the importance of this project is from my perspective, I don’t know, I’m sure that the authors of this project were thinking quite the same, but for me that’s indicating and reflecting on importance of this stuff and empowering each other is very important.

SHELLY LESHER: When you approached people sometimes was their immediate answer, “I don’t have anything interesting to say”?

SHORENA LORTKIPANIDZE: Yeah, we started with, “Oh I have nothing to say” and yeah, of course.

SHELLY LESHER: Or why would someone want to hear about that?

SHORENA LORTKIPANIDZE: Yes. Or maybe I don’t remember correctly or I have to check. Yes. Or maybe somebody won’t like my story or criticize me or-

SHELLY LESHER: So people have those insecurities about their own story?

SHORENA LORTKIPANIDZE: Yeah, of course. And we had a lot of discussions and phone calls and meetings and just to identify their stories and to strengthen them and just do it. It’s good. It’s a good story and this is the story we need to hear. So yeah, of course.

SHELLY LESHER: Have you heard from your colleagues about the way they felt after telling their stories or have you heard back from them if they felt more empowered after telling their stories?

SHORENA LORTKIPANIDZE: I think so. Yeah, I think so. And I definitely want to organize something just to meet in our office and to have some kind of debriefing, definitely. But the feedbacks we were receiving during these three days were absolutely, they were all so surprised kind of everything happening, all these stories coming out, how they were telling these stories, how they even discovering themselves in the stories, which maybe they were not even relating to themselves. So that was the process. And there is something else. I mean I was telling to my students that things what we have now and they are so obvious were not so obvious for other generations.

SHELLY LESHER: Absolutely.

SHORENA LORTKIPANIDZE: Like things at Evrika. So opening eyes and this is all about very simple truths, but they were discovered by people, someone and now we just forgot that they were discovered once. These kinds of discoveries are great. So there are things you could never thought possible, but it’s so simple on the other way.

SHELLY LESHER: And what I find so interesting about a lot of these stories is that you think they’re going in one direction, right? And then you ask certain questions and they turn out to be something different.


SHELLY LESHER: So even the story you think you’re telling is not the story you end up with?

SHORENA LORTKIPANIDZE: Yeah, absolutely. You see these people from different angles, so you see more potential in collaboration and for new ideas, more trustful environment. So I think that’s wonderful and we have to keep telling stories.

SHELLY LESHER: There were so many amazing stories shared during the workshop. I couldn’t possibly record them all, but I was able to sit down with a few of the Georgian scientists to ask them questions about what it was like to work in Georgia over the years and to share some of their nonproliferation stories. There are three, you’re going to hear one of them today and two of them in the next episode.

Mariam Chabashvili worked at Tbilisi State University as a mathematics teacher and is an expert in computer science, but that doesn’t tell you everything. She managed to be involved in all things nuclear around the Institute of Physics and work closely with the IAEA, the US and EU member states. I get the impression she doesn’t like staying still. See if you agree.

I heard you’re actually a mathematician. You have a PhD in math?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: No, I have no PhD at all.

SHELLY LESHER: You have no PhD?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: No, I don’t have. No, Soviet system was a different, we studied for five years and it was called specialist. It is some analog of master to say now. My department was called the department of Applied Mathematics and Cybernetics.

SHELLY LESHER: Cybernetics?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Yes. Cybernetics. Okay. Georgia actually was first Republic in Soviet Union where cybernetics started to develop. We had very huge institute, scientific or cybernetics. I haven’t worked there. When I started to study at the time, it became clear that cybernetic was not how to say material thing. And we more turned or not we, but our education, it was a mathematical one, but with specializing into if you understand the discrete mathematics and everything, which is needed for computer theoretical of computer science to say. No, of course we have some practical studies, but it was time of mainframe computers.

SHELLY LESHER: So what year is this? What year did you finish or kind of what period is this?


SHELLY LESHER: Okay, so you were at the beginning?


SHELLY LESHER: Of computers?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: I was. I was for many years teaching computers and program languages, I became interested of computers, history of computers and I said that I am contemporary of it. It was very interesting history.

SHELLY LESHER: So what was the first computer you owned?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: It was Soviet computers. I can tell names but it’ll tell you nothing. One was called-

SHELLY LESHER: No, no, I want to know. Yes.

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: M220 as it were, mainframe computers. Students didn’t have much access only we have once or twice a year kind of practice there. Before that we studied on the desk and writing programs-

SHELLY LESHER: Just writing the programs?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: I was teaching it myself again and once or twice a year we have practice. And this practice was simply first time that we were told how to use magnetic tapes and magnetic, not these discs, but-

SHELLY LESHER: The big ones.

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: And punch cards of course. We even knew when there was some mistake on punch it, we knew somehow to put some little pieces of this inside and maybe not having to punch it any more again to make some changes. So many interesting things happen there.

SHELLY LESHER: So you could correct the errors and the punch cards by-

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Not everything, not everything but something. So these punches are simply as we love the programmers to have zeros and ones. When you change one zero to one, sometimes you make great difference. So if it was possible, we have done it.

SHELLY LESHER: For some reason that reminded me, I don’t know if you knit, but sometimes when you’re knitting and you drop a stitch, sometimes you can pick it up, but sometimes you have to destroy everything.

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: There was even such jokes, Soviet programmers, jokes, cards. To drop your pack of cards unnumbered.

SHELLY LESHER: So how many cards would be in a program?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: It depended on program.

SHELLY LESHER: But was it like hundreds?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Hundreds, this was too big for us, for students, yes. For us it was maybe 20 30, maybe 40 because-

SHELLY LESHER: Okay, but that’s a lot of combinations if they’re not numbered.


SHELLY LESHER: So were you working at the physics institute?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: No, I was working for many years, almost 20 at the university was functioning. Soviet Union is a very special country. There was no unemployment. So everybody to be employed and as it was not real life to say there were many scientific institutions. And one of them ours for in something, it was good because ours what it was called Institute of Applied Mathematics and all the new Soviet computing techniques, again, mainframes. We were first in Georgia who used it and no, it was called scientific. We were doing some software for computers to say operational systems and some translators and compilators for programming languages. Again, I speak for those who understand about what I’m speaking. So we were studying a new programming languages and it was our life to say. Then I get married, I have children, I need some additional income, and life was going bad. Soviet Union was dispersing to say, and I found additional source of living. I was tutoring students for whom it was difficult to study programming languages.

SHELLY LESHER: So you then became a programming teacher?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Yes, yes. And I discovered that I have some talent for teaching. Yes. It was a little strange for me because I never dreamed to be teacher. No, teacher was not very prestigious profession at that time in Georgia. It is not now.

SHELLY LESHER: No. But it is desperately needed to have good teachers.

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Yes. But I can say it was not some my to say, naturally I had it appeared. And for years I was teaching at home. Some students came, I tutored them, I helped them to make the special work they needed. And then again, I moved to the university. I started teaching full time and I was teaching programming languages. And also it was end of nineties and personal computer start to came and somehow we managed I and my husband to buy personal computer for ourselves, our own. It was very rare at the time to have personal computer, which you bought by your own money. If anybody had it for some project or something. It was our own and for years. And it was very hard time in Georgia, end of nineties where there was no work, no money, no job, nothing. We called it our milk cow because I have private pupils at home whom I was teaching computer skills.

SHELLY LESHER: On your private computer?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Yes. And Windows, ours was one of these very advanced PC at the time and Windows and Word and this Microsoft systems and everything you can.

SHELLY LESHER: I actually remember that time and I remember the computer I had in 95, and I did not have Windows in 95.

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: No, we bought it 96. No, not 90. Yes, 90. 99, 6 years. 96.

SHELLY LESHER: That is an advanced computer for the time.

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Even when I bought it and when we first brought it at home, and we know this Windows system, but at the university we have another PC, you know this black and white with another system?

SHELLY LESHER: That’s what I had.

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Yes. And I looked actually, I liked them. I am the lover of these very graphics. I prefer when dealing with text pattern. I looked at it and I said, “Now it’s good time for somebody to ask me to teach him Windows and work for me to be obliged to study it.” And next day somebody called me.

SHELLY LESHER: Somebody called you?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Yes. So at the time, it was time when there was energy crisis and we have energy supply only several couples a day, maybe two hours in the morning, four hours in the evening. So I put strictly that it’s my time. Nobody comes inside when I have because I have to have pupils.

SHELLY LESHER: It was only for the computer?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: If there were people.

SHELLY LESHER: If there were people?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Yes. And so somehow it helped us, honestly.

SHELLY LESHER: So the story you shared in this workshop had to do with the reactor.

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: And how we got there, yes.

SHELLY LESHER: How did you get, so you’re teaching students in your home on this very advanced computer, and how do you get then to the reactor?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Yes, yes. I will tell. My husband whom he has, he is there, he was the whole, his time he worked at the Institute of Physics. Actually I had many friends there besides him. He already started to work with his specialties, plasma physics. And also he worked in computational physics so he knew this computer as well. This non-proliferation project started in the 2002 3, but it was not his field. He was not reactor guy. He had one friend, he worked there. He was very close friend. He was also close relative of his, and he was a reactor specialist. Theory of reactors was his specialty. And he worked on the reactor. He was not to say practical shift or something, but no, he knew it. And at that time, people who were at the reactor, they started to participate in this project. Rather he became interested in he said, and they were going first.

That group, they were invited to some workshops on this CIT I mentioned. It’s called commodity identification training. It’s export control of dual-use commodities for customs and border guard people. And somehow this American side who was funding, you understand, everything. They were looking for people who could manage it. And they tried. As we afterwards, we discovered they tried different groups. And one of the groups that tried at the institute as institute has its reactor. At that time, many people were alive who worked really. So there was knowledge of to say radiation to say very primitively. And they tried that group. They invited, I remember it to some such trial trainings. And one of them is Baku. He asked, “Please take me too, I’m interested.” He went, he got interested and somehow he was inserted into this group. It was 2003.

In 2004, they actually started this. Trainings were first this American instructors made. They were only attending. And then they took to them several presentations to some special course. These presentations were given. We translated it. I helped with it. And this training, some were made in Tbilisi and some were made in Batumi. Batumi is a seaside, it’s main seaport of Georgia. And so there are many such border and customs guys and trainings were held there. It was summer and everybody likes to go to summer in Batumi. And I asked to go with them. It’s usual way. I went as a wife to say.

SHELLY LESHER: I was going to say my husband’s here for the same reason. He thought, “Well, it’d be nice to come to Tbilisi.”

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Yes, I went as a wife, but there were other wives too to say. But they went to the beach and I went to the training.

SHELLY LESHER: That’s not the idea. You go so that you can go have fun and go to the beach.

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: I was interested. I was interested.

SHELLY LESHER: So you went and worked and got unpaid?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: No, no, unpaid. I was simply attending and looking and then this, it was three-day training. And these participants students, they were given some allowances, allowance of kind of how it’s called meals and incidentals.

SHELLY LESHER: Oh yes, yes.

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: But actually it’s mindful they were paid to be sitting there. But as we all understand background of it, they were not given this money the first day. Yes, because there was a threat that they will take this money and they will go away.

SHELLY LESHER: So they got it on last day?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: This money was handed them and I offered this money. No, this giving money, counting money is not well, good thing actually. But as I’m mathematician, I like counting. I said, “I can do this job” as I had nothing to do. Oh, everybody was happy. And so I handed this money to them and they loved me.

SHELLY LESHER: So every day were you handing out the money?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Three days, yes. Every day in the middle of the day. And when they saw, they were happy when they saw me, this was 2004, 2005 was the same story. One in Tbilisi, one in Batumi, and one in the mountain resort place. And I went there already.

SHELLY LESHER: Did they invite you to come this time so you could pass out the money?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Again, I went as a wife. I went, but when I was somewhere, then I looked, I think, “Why maybe I will do it too.” I said, and Zaza liked this idea. And we asked one of the heads of the group. There were several. At the time, we didn’t understand well what was difference because there were to say heads from argon to say scientific. And there were heads from DOE, such bureaucratic, but we can see the difference very much to say at that time. So we asked both heads and they were not happy as we understood. They said that it’s not approved to have family there because of certain reasons. But then in Georgia we don’t change our names. When they heard that our names were different, so there is no problem they said.

And again we came, but I was thinking about being as an instructor of certain presentations I looked at, it was not, I know some physics to say not as a physicist, but enough when we came back and we had one session in Tbilisi, it was in the border guard department.

One day we came out on the midday and I helped to find a little restaurant where we had to have lunches for these listeners. No, I have nothing to do. I offered my service to say. And once I went out of the room and somebody from this course of working there, somebody came to me, “Oh good that I see you.” He said, “There is car standing in not the proper place and please take care to be taken it away.” And then I took microphone. I came and said, “Please, owner of this car, please take care.” And then I understood that I am already starting to behave as a facilitator, not as a wife. So next year I already entered this program as an instructor with certain topics and doing. And then when you do something, it’s general rule. They load on you more and more. Yes, yes.

More and more. And then I started to make correspondence. And then we have another project started SLD project, the second line of defense. And for one moment we have to make negotiation with somebody in PNNL. It was very malicious accountant there had or some contracts officer who didn’t want it to give us the money we asked for. And there were two men who were responsible for it. But I had to write letters for both of them.

SHELLY LESHER: Did you get the money?


SHELLY LESHER: I have no doubt you got the money.

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: It was a big money. No, this money, we were prompted by somebody, but we would have never dared to ask such money. But as we knew that it was possible, why not? In 2006 at the university grade, changes were made. And I was to say fired because there was changes made. Some new management came and they wanted everybody new.

So I was left out. And many, not only I, but many my colleagues, they were very everywhere, were offended and very hearty to say. And Zaza said, “No, you can come and work for us whole time at the institute. And what I will do with you.” I said, “You know me, I’m no physicist.” “No problem, no problem.” He said. I went there and he make a big announcement on the wall that everybody who wants to start computer skills of different level, please come. And everybody rushed.


MARIAM CHABASHVILI: And we make several groups and maybe for a year or so I was teaching everybody. Then we have advanced courses, then we have Excel courses after some time. So this was finished because everybody was educated. And the same time I went with this project and said, I’m happy that I was kicked because participating in this project means that I have to go for several weeks sometimes, especially by this SLD program out of town.

We have training there. When I’m teaching, I have my schedule. How I do it? I couldn’t. Yes. And I would haven’t done it. And now I’m free to do, I have much more money. I have much interesting work. I am respected and thanked. “So go to hell with all your university” I said.

SHELLY LESHER: So you didn’t feel that way at the university?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: No, I haven’t returned, though I was asked. Yes. So it was good decision for me. And after that I got involved very actively on all these projects as an instructor, as a translator, as a manual writer, as a manager and everything. And in 2012, at that time, many activities were going and institute received invitation to Korea, to Seoul. It was nuclear summit there. Before that nuclear summit, it was called some conference of nuclear or something for scientists.

And institute received invitation for one person. When such invitations come, it goes first to director and they will decide to go. And then Zaza came and said, “That is such an invitation, and do we want to go?”

SHELLY LESHER: You get to go?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Yes. I said, what a question. I said-


MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Who wouldn’t? He said, “Nobody wants to go because they are funding only flight there and back two nights in the hotel, nothing else, no meals.” And no hello, was nothing. I said, “I will go. Never. It’s my only chance in my life to go and see Korea.”

We went in many different places. No, it was at the time it was farthest. And there on this, how it was called? I didn’t remember some conference to say. The scientific summit or something. There was a Russian guy one, several. And he came and he asked, he saw this my page and there was name of the institute and institute name. It was quite a well-known name in Soviet Union among the physicists. He came, oh, he said a good name. I said, “Yes, of course I agree.” And he said, “Do you know I want to ask you something?” “What?” I said. “I know that you have removed this fuel.” I said, “Yes, we had.” “And can you tell me why Russians refuse to take it back?”

I said, “You from Russia ask me?”

SHELLY LESHER: Yeah, why would you know?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: He said, “I tried for a long time. Why can’t Soviet Union?” It appeared that there was a guy who was involved in some nonproliferation issues. He had some funding from how, it’s MacArthur Foundation or McCarthy Foundation?

SHELLY LESHER: Oh, McCarthy, yeah.

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: McCarthy Foundation. He was editing some magazine. It was called the Nuclear Club. And he ordered to make a little paper on removal of this fuel for this magazine. It was in Russian. We make this paper, it makes very compact and good. I have quite a long description of that. But we made for this paper and I received from the radio just exactly $500, which I paid for going to Korea.

SHELLY LESHER: It worked out then?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Yes, yes. So it paid back. So I was happy. This was story how I get involved. And then there were different projects and very activity to say active activity doesn’t sound good. Yes.

SHELLY LESHER: Active activity. No. So what is the most memorable project from working in the-

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: This project I was speaking about removal of this fuel. Because I was in the center of it because we had projects. The CIT projects went for 10 years. This SLD projects went for four years. We have some, several others do. But that was most important for me because I was inside it. I was responsible for it and everything was swirling around me.

SHELLY LESHER: So my listeners didn’t hear the story. So can you describe a little bit about what this project was that you were in charge of?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: All of the fuel from this reader one.

SHELLY LESHER: So this isn’t the reactor from the institute?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: It was not from the reactor. It was a device. Itself, it is a little reactor, but because it has a neutron source, it has fuel, but it is called subcritical device.

SHELLY LESHER: So what is it used for?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: It was used for, it’s called neutron activation analysis.

SHELLY LESHER: Okay, so it’s a scientific?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Yeah. First it was not for scientific, but formal industrial use because it’s called express analysis. When you analyze your something, samples of some ores or something. But when it was returned to the institute, it was used for forensic. At the time there was no other place. Everything was coming to our institute. And it was mostly this for analyzing and forensic was done on that device.

SHELLY LESHER: So why did you decide to get rid of it?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: First of all, it was old and it has some malfunction already, but somehow it was not very safe to use. Mostly it was at the time it was stopped to say. Then as we realized afterwards on the summit, one before last, Georgian government took responsibility to be free from nuclear fuel. So it was political decision, but we were not told. Simply we received the request from American side if we are ready to part with it.

SHELLY LESHER: Ah, so you were politely asked if you would like to get rid of it?


SHELLY LESHER: And you thought it was a good idea?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: We refused. So I don’t know, but-

SHELLY LESHER: Oh yeah. Was it a polite invitation or did you think you didn’t have a choice?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: No, no. It was polite invitation, but it was reasonable. Institute has no money to repair itself or change for something. We were offered compensation because in such projects always this giving institution is giving some compensation. For example, in Kharkov, they have a big such research reactor. They took a lot of and they built them new research reactor, very big one. I know because manager of our project was all the time going there. It was from the same project.

SHELLY LESHER: So you didn’t get a new reactor, you just got money?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: No, no. Simply we should have chosen to have in-depth device a new fuel of a low enrichment. But the situation is already, we saw that importance of the institute was going down because there were new forensic labs, there were not much sources to be analyzed because most were already discovered and gathered and only very rare findings and rare seizures should have been. And there were special labs for it. And it was not to say reasonable to ask because there was no need for it.

So we asked for different alternative. It was to receive equipment for special forensic lab, not such device with some sources inside and such things and fuel. But simply, especially for spectrometers, we were offered several and we had to choose staying into a certain range of funding, what we liked. We even went, especially for this to the States, we were to Oak Ridge and Savannah River National Labs to see how it looks.

And this forensic should have been for, again, nuclear sources. There were several, I and Zaza went. And also one very good expert from our institute. There we had interesting to say decisions to make. And one decision was that to refuse to have nuclear forensic because we saw that buying equipment is not enough. Then as much money, then you have to operate it for nuclear uses because the one time you put there some radiation nuclear source and it’s already dirty and you need the great amount of money to keep it clean.

And as there was no grade in it, we simply decided to stay for simply good forensic analyzing equipment. And we decided on certain things what our physicists needed and we bought it. It needed six years to say because it went through IAA for certain reasons. Again, not interesting to say why. And three big devices were about some kind of spectrometers. Names will tell you nothing because they tell nothing to me. For example, optical emissional spectrometer or some. Yes.

SHELLY LESHER: Maybe someone knows what that means.


SHELLY LESHER: So you’re placed on the project and what is your first step? You’re a mathematician. You’ve been working in the lab, but you don’t know. I mean I wouldn’t know where to start to take this thing apart.

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: No, no, of course not. You are asking for the device.

SHELLY LESHER: Yeah. How did you know where to start to take it apart?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Which was this, how we fuel you are asking?

SHELLY LESHER: How did you know how to take the breeder reactor apart?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Yeah, so we have engineers. The bad thing was that people who operated this reactor, they were not alive anymore. But there were albums, big, such dusty, big albums of such equipment always comes with descriptions and instructions and technical description and these albums with sketches, drawings, everything. And the group, one engineer and two to say more technicians, they were sitting for two months. And they were sitting and looking and trying and so they knew before opening it what was inside. That was the very difficult thing to tell because they had to be sure. Yes, you didn’t like to have surprise. Well though, there was surprises.

SHELLY LESHER: I was going to say, what was the surprise when you opened it?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Usually I am asked. And why was that epoxy to there and not… You remember it was the story. They opened this device and there were no bolts. There was epoxied clay inside, epoxied glue. Glue.


MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Why? Because explanation, it’s my explanation. And I’m sure that all former Soviet citizens will agree with me. There was some drunk technician who didn’t, maybe he has no bolts, maybe he had to go somewhere for bolts. Maybe he was simply lazy to screw it inside. It’s very down. He took simply this glue and put it inside. And this is easiest. And I think it’s simplest and the truest explanation. All Soviets agree. Nobody says, “Oh no, it can’t be.”

SHELLY LESHER: My thought would’ve been when you get furniture to put together and you’re missing something, I’m guessing all this stuff came. There was no bolt. And he said, “Well, I have to get this done. I have to fix it somehow. Epoxy will work.” And just does that. But I like the drunk story better.

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Yes. I wasn’t there.

SHELLY LESHER: So how do you take a reactor apart that’s epoxied together? I mean you can’t just unscrew a bolt. So what did they do?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: No, no, it’s simply bolt, which was to say unseal this construction. Inside there was source and it was not simple source. Again, in the reactor. And I don’t understand. What is your understanding of reactor operating? In real reactors, there is so-called assemblies, fuel assemblies, such rods and such set of rods, which is put there and exchange. Here. It was a different decision. It was some experimental thing. As I said, it was made only three times. This fuel was not in the rods. This fuel was dispersed into some paraffin.

SHELLY LESHER: Did they know this? Was this in the plans?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: It was known. It was known.

SHELLY LESHER: So that would’ve been really bad if they expected fuel rods and they got in and they saw this giant candle basically?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: It was known because of this. When they were speaking about this device, there were two kind of numbering of to say fuel. By certain sources, they told that it was two kilograms by others, that it was 900 grams because real fuel there was 900 grams. But with paraffin it was two kilograms. It was dispersed like raisins in the cake to say. And so for this paraffin soap was made, designed and made special. It’s called basket in reactor industry.

SHELLY LESHER: Okay, yeah, I’d never heard of that.

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Yes, I too, it was first time for me. It is called basket. It’s a container. But when you take this fuel, you put it in the basket and you seal it, seal it with IAA seal. And then this basket is put into another container. This basket was designed specially for this fuel. It was for one time use, one thing. It couldn’t have been used for anything else.

There is a Czech enterprise. They have some storage and some reprocessing facility and everything, and they make containers for radioactive. Usually there are different kinds of containers. This load in this radiation industry, it’s called the type ABC. C is the worst one. A is the easiest one. So this were called type A. This type A was the big blue container. So this basket was inserted into this big blue container. And then this big blue container was placed in an ISO container. ISO container is everything is a big, you have seen a big box? It’s standard, ISO. ISO, it’s a standard institution.

SHELLY LESHER: So how big is the big ISO box?



MARIAM CHABASHVILI: No, you have seen, maybe you have seen some containers you have seen on the sea when the ships carry the standard.

SHELLY LESHER: Oh, oh yeah.

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: ISO, ISO. A Institute of Standards.


MARIAM CHABASHVILI: International Standards Organization.

SHELLY LESHER: I got it. I got it. Yeah.

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: So it’s not special.

SHELLY LESHER: Yeah, it’s like a cargo container.

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: And this ISO container was loaded into a cargo plane. It was Russian cargo plane. It’s special. There is such companies called the Nebra Volga or something like this. They fly everywhere in the world.

SHELLY LESHER: And pick up radioactive [inaudible 00:54:28]?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Yes. For money, yes. These baskets and these blue containers. When the contracts for them though, the contracts were not between us and them, but it was maybe contract between this Russian organization, IAEA and this Czech. But they needed signing from us that we accepted. So I saw that contracts and I was terrified when I saw prices of them, costs. What do they cost it?

SHELLY LESHER: And then your signature’s on there. So you’re responsible?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Not of mine, directors.

SHELLY LESHER: Oh, okay. I was going to say I wouldn’t have taken responsibility for that.

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: I was signing only some invoices so, I wasn’t talking.

SHELLY LESHER: And so where does this basket go after it gets on the cargo?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: In Russian federations that have many such enterprise, it was called Luch. Then I think they took this fuel from there. And then usually in such cases when the fuel is fresh, the fresh is reprocessed and then it’s sold. Sometimes to the United States, sometimes to others. It’s turned to low enriched actually, because now this high-enriched isn’t allowed in commercial. When it is not fresh and it’s called spent, then it is sent. Russia has a very big enterprise, near [foreign language 00:55:47]. It’s called the Mayak. Mayak is a lighthouse and they have a big re-processing and such things go there. Where it has gone, I can say it’s Russian’s business. And even Russians very often don’t know.

SHELLY LESHER: Yeah, it’s not your problem anymore.

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: But the funniest thing was there was one guy who was to say playing on my nerves all the time. And the last day when we were sitting at the restaurant, this already plane went away and we are sitting and lounging. We were just in that Copala place. And somebody called him. Maybe some, it’s five hours, six hours in the evening and it went in the morning, six hours fly away.

And he spoke to somebody and he said, “And who made that sign? Hazard signs. What a fool made them, because the signs are not correct and the Russian customs refuses to let them in Russia.”

SHELLY LESHER: Oh no, who made the sign?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: I said, “What a pity. I’m so sorry.” Of course they had to let it.


MARIAM CHABASHVILI: They couldn’t send it back.

SHELLY LESHER: You weren’t going to accept it.

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: Yes, it was gone from Georgia. When we load it, our director, signed, manager signed Russian side signed. And it was not Georgian anymore.

SHELLY LESHER: If it gets to Russia, if the customs forms are wrong?

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: No, it’s their problem.

SHELLY LESHER: Too bad it’s gone.

MARIAM CHABASHVILI: No bother of mine. I was happy.

SHELLY LESHER: Thank you for listening and thank you to the Stanley Center and the Georgian scientists. Please listen to the next episode for more stories. Visit our website for links of interest in this episode, our email address and information on how to access bonus material. Until next time, I’m Shelly Lesher and this has been My Nuclear Life.

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.



Shelly Lesher
Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse (UWL)

Shelly Lesher is a Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse (UWL) where she teaches undergraduate physics and conducts nuclear research. The My Nuclear Life podcast is based on a class she taught at UWL about how physics impacts society, and society impacts physics. A version of this class was also taught as a seminar at Yale University.

Shorena Lortkipanidze
Co-Founder & Board Member, Civil Council on Defense and Security

Shorena Lortkipanidze is a co-founder and board member of Civil Council on Defense and Security. Since 1999 has been working in Civil Society sector as analyst and programme manager. Her professional interests are: foreign policy, defense and security policy, security sector reform, nuclear security and nuclear nonproliferation, peace and conflict studies, gender and diversity. Since 2008, Shorena has been lecturing at Tbilisi State University. She is an expert in EU programmes. She is a consultant of the World Bank International Accountability Mechanism. Shorena worked for the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia and as an adviser at the defense and security committee of the Parliament of Georgia.

Mariam Chabashvili
Program Manager & Facilitator, PNNL Plutonium Verification Training Program

Mariam Chabashvili received a Diploma of Specialist in Computer Sciences from Tbilisi State University (TSU). For more than 20 years, she worked at TSU as a mainframe software designer and taught programming languages and computer skills for PCs. Since 2005, she has worked at the Andronikashvili Institute of Physics as program manager for International Nuclear Nonproliferation and Nuclear Security Projects. Among them: SLD with PNNL, Dual Use Commodities Export Control with ANL, nuclear safety projects with the Swedish Radiation Safety Agency. She was program manager of the RRRFR (Russian Research Reactor Fuel Repatriation) program in 2015. At present, she is program manager and facilitator in the annual PNNL Plutonium Verification Training program for IAEA safeguards inspectors which is held at the Applied Research Centre (former research reactor site) of the Institute of Physics.

Adventures in Nuclear Risk Reduction

The Stories