The Turbulent Path to Operation Auburn Endeavor

By Petre Mamradze

April 4, 2024

IMAGE: Andronikashvili Institute of Physics in Georgia. Photo by Dean Calma / IAEA, with revisions, used under CC BY 2.0 DEED.


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Petre Mamradze is the former Chief of Staff to the President of Georgia. He describes the political contexts for efforts to remove highly enriched uranium from Georgia.



PETER MAMRADZE: I was born in ’52 and my father was a scientist and all his friends were, most of them, scientists. I was seven years old when they opened this nuclear reactor in Mtskheta and I remember they were full of enthusiasm but only about research of course. This is the very beginning of this nuclear odyssey they called it. It was ’86, this great explosion Chernobyl. And then all over the USSR, in all reactors they took special measures for security and nuclear safety, radiation, et cetera. They, you know, closed some things here in Mtskheta. It was not about research anymore.

Late eighties, beginning of the nineties the idea was that Georgia very soon will be independent and once Georgia is independent it’ll be the richest state in the world. People cared about everything. We have plenty of gold, plenty of gas and also plenty of uranium. And so once we are independent, we will also have, of course you know, nuclear bombs because our famous Georgian scientists who work in Moscow’s Institutes, they will come back and having this uranium will do it. They were, you know, taken by this megalomania, may I say. Even physicists, scientists, were taken by this mythology. It’s so precious we have to keep it because if other states, you know, will know that we have nuclear, let’s say, resources and one day could be a nuclear superpower it will be much more easy for us to restore territorial integrity.

I remember one of the physicists, doctor of science, trying to explain to me how easy it is to make a nuclear bomb. All the stories were, most of them were of course, you know like, you know, fairytales. It was, let’s say dangerous, indeed. Georgians discovered that they had to buy power that we are a very poor nation, poor state, et cetera. Crowds in the streets were gathering. We had a sort of, you know, small war in Tbilisi, complete chaos. Paramilitary gangs running in Georgia, dangerous. Some of them, you know, were trying to take things and to sell them out, making themselves rich.

That famous institute in Sukhumi was absolutely destroyed and marauded by troops. Some paramilitary groups were, you know, coming to reactor in Mtskheta and they were armed with Kalashnikovs, with grenade launchers, trying to take uranium. Those professionals who worked at the Institute of Physics, they were so afraid that something terrible happens day and night, 24 hours per day, there were people there to prevent something, you know, from being taken away. Thanks, you know, to them a Georgian small reactor with it’s vaults of waste survived.

I knew what was happening in Georgia. I arrived from St.. Petersburg where I worked at Ioffe Institute for Physics and Technology in March ’92. I called my friends, physicists saying that this physics is over, but now we have to save Georgia. So whatever, you know, is next I can do. And they recommended me to work in politics. So I agreed. It started in April ’92, very quick and in September I was already a member of parliament. It was, you know, in such situation when Shevardnadze arrived.

This man, Shevardnadze, was the political head of Georgia First Secretary of the Communist party years ago. He really knew everything about Georgia. After a few of my speeches, you know, in parliament, Shevardnadze made his decision and then I became chief of his staff. President Shevardnadze, he was saying that we are going to be an open state, we are going to build democracy, you know. We weren’t accepted to the UN when he arrived, but we became members of the NATO council because they trusted Shevardnadze who was with, you know, great patience explaining to everybody that we have to be this open state and show the entire world, you know, that we are not about making missiles and nuclear warheads.

He knew everything about uranium, exactly how much we had, you know. He was trying to get rid of this, you know, waste and show American friends and the entire world that Georgia is, you know, safe state with no ambitions. United States, they had a special program, and America was spending billions of dollars to make, you know, all this, you know, nuclear, let’s say, waste or whatever, to be collected to make it, you know, clean and safe. From Georgia’s, you know, side from Shevardnadze, there was political will.

You know, here it is, come and take it away, you know, that’s it. We cannot, you know, take it away ourselves, you know. Through this already, you know, let’s say basis, you know, Americans approach Shevardnadze saying that perhaps now it’s time that we can do it what you asked us. So very soon, very soon, you know, this agreements were signed, you know, about all the things and you know, safety and nuclear safety, radiation, et cetera. So it, it could be done just in a few days, but it lasted four years because all these negotiations, you know this Russian Federation, new independent state of Russia was keeping these USSR standards of bureaucracy of approach and everything.

No, we cannot do it now because of our new laws, et cetera, and then, okay, we can do it but we need more than a million US dollars. It was good process indeed, but you know, it lasted four years. Towards the very beginning it was decided to make it top secret. It was my idea to know as less as possible, you know because of the crowds and public opinion and some crazy politicians who will gather people and shout that they’re taking, you know, our precious and strategic resource out of Georgia. This craziness dominated in public opinion.

So to avoid such things, you know, we kept it in secret and I know that it lasted till the very last day information leaked. Georgian journalists know that there is special American aircraft at the airport taking it out. So how did it happen? There were, you know, some American pilots or one pilot who was drinking some whiskey in Metechi Palace Hotel surrounded by young Georgian journalist girls and the guy wanted to show that he was on a very important mission so it leaked, but it did not cause something in Tbilisi that time and it was taken away. It was safe.

It’s about priorities. As Shevardnadze used to say, in politics perhaps the most important point is to have clear and, you know, let’s say, correct priorities. Among his priorities was you know, indeed, you know this openness, absolute openness that we are not hiding anything. All institutes are open and we are open to democratic world. It was strong thing and they trusted him in it. Life is very, very interesting and there are many beautiful things in this life in spite of all these tragic events that all of us face.

When there is, you know, chaos about issues and priorities, it causes, you know, bad things. What can we wish to future generations? To solve all these problems as quick as possible and you know, we have to be sincere people of our age and say that we don’t have any receipt for solution. At least easy one. No. They have to find it, you know.

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.



Petre Mamradze
Associate Professor at Caucasus International University

Petre Mamradze is a politician and a former member of the Georgian Parliament. He holds a doctorate in theoretical Physics and Mathematical Sciences. Mr. Mamradze’s thesis was on “Fundamental processes of annihilation in high magnetic fields.” He is a recipient of prestigious Knight of the Order of Merit (2006). In 1992, he was an assistant to the Vice Prime Minister. In 1992-1995, he was a member “Green Party of Georgia.” In 1995-2003, he was the First Deputy Minister of State and Head of the State Chancellery. In 2003-2008, he was the head of the Chancellery of the Government of Georgia, from 2008-2012, he was a Member of the Parliament of the 7th convocation of Georgia with the party list “United National Movement – Winner for Georgia.” He has authored and co-authored many articles and books on subjects ranging from Georgian politics and geopolitics to works on sciences.

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