Vodka From Chernobyl Is Perfectly Safe, Say the Scientists Who Made It

By Palko Karasz

ImageScientists made the “Atomik” vodka using water and grain from near the nuclear disaster site, and tested it to show it was free of toxic radiation.
Scientists made the “Atomik” vodka using water and grain from near the nuclear disaster site, and tested it to show it was free of toxic radiation.CreditCreditUniversity of Portsmouth, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

LONDON — Would you drink something called Atomik, whose ingredients come from near Chernobyl?

Scientists in Britain and Ukraine have distilled vodka using grains and water from a place that has become synonymous with nuclear disaster and contamination — and they say it is quite free from toxic radiation.

They set out to show that safe agriculture is feasible in some of the abandoned areas around Chernobyl, and they plan to make more of the artisanal spirit as a venture to support the local community.

“I think this is the most important bottle of spirits in the world because it could help the economic recovery of communities living in and around the abandoned areas,” Jim Smith, a professor of environmental science at the University of Portsmouth, said in a statement announcing the project.

The 1986 explosion, meltdown and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine caused the largest release in history of radiation and radioactive material. It became a worldwide symbol of the perils of nuclear power and invisible but deadly radiation.

More than three decades later, a television series broadcast this year brought attention to the victims of the disaster and the remaining dangers in the 1,600-square-mile Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. That area, lying mostly in northern Ukraine and extending into Belarus, is where radiation levels have been the highest, so access is severely restricted.

Residents were ordered to evacuate the Exclusion Zone and an additional “Zone of Obligatory Resettlement,” but some refused. Curious travelers have also appeared, to catch glimpses of the decaying, abandoned towns and explore the dense forest that has reclaimed much of the landscape. Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has spoken of making the area an official tourist attraction.

With the vodka project, Professor Smith and his colleagues hope to draw attention to the people who continue living in the resettlement zone, parts of which he says are relatively safe.

“Since the 1990s I’ve realized that radioactivity isn’t the problem there,” he said in an interview. “There are social and economic problems.”

Professor Smith has spent years studying the long-term effects of radioactivity in the area surrounding the power plant. Four years ago, he and his colleagues in Britain and Ukraine began to look into the possibility of producing crops and collecting water to distill a drink fit for consumption and sale in the West.

He said thousands of people still live in the officially abandoned area, and the unemployment rate among them is about 50 percent. Agriculture and new investment are forbidden, making the prospect of economic recovery unlikely.

The question, he said, was how to make life better for people living in the region, and the government approved the start of vodka production as a research project.

To produce the grain, the team used a plot on a farm within the Exclusion Zone that had levels of radioactivity typical for the area. They pumped the water from an aquifer that is near the power plant but free from contamination, and made the final product just outside the Exclusion Zone, which is a wildlife preserve.

The scientists presented their analysis of the process, the risks and the results in a report published this month. They reported finding some radioactivity in the grain, but, because distilling removes impurities, the only radioactive material in the vodka was a trace of carbon-14, at a level that they said is naturally present in alcohol.

“It’s not groundbreaking science,” Professor Smith said of the results, adding that the group had expected the result. “But if we want to sell it in the future, we need to have the science there.”

He and his colleagues are proposing commercial production of Atomik vodka, using grain primarily from the less contaminated Resettlement Zone, where agriculture still is not permitted. They plan to produce at least a couple of hundred bottles per year, and to return 75 percent of the profits to the community.

Scientists who have specialized in long-term observation of wildlife in the abandoned region have found evidence of nature adapting to the radiation and even thriving. Some bird species appeared to have adjusted to their surroundings by producing higher levels of antioxidants to counter the radiation, and the population of some mammal species has grown.

A 2015 documentary showed people who had stayed in the Exclusion Zone living, in some ways, healthier lives than those who moved far from home and carried with them the fear of radiation’s potential effects.

At a high enough dose, exposure to the contamination released at Chernobyl, like radioactive isotopes of iodine, strontium and cesium, can be lethal or cause illness far into the future. Some staff and firefighters at the exploded reactor in Chernobyl received exposure damaging their organs and tissues so badly that they died within weeks.

The World Health Organization has predicted that the radiation might ultimately cause 4,000 premature cancer deaths. About 6,000 people have been treated for thyroid cancer, often many years after the accident.

Today, radiation levels are thousands of times lower than they were just after the accident, but still above cautious limits set by the Ukrainian authorities. Professor Smith said most of the abandoned areas are now safe.