There’s a small experimental farm located in the abandoned heartland of Chernobyl’s radioactive exclusion zone where, for years, scientists have been growing crops. Rye grain, to be precise. The team of researchers, led by University of Portsmouth professor Jim Smith, wants to prove that consumable goods can be made using contaminated ingredients. And they’ve just unveiled their first creation—the very first consumer product to be made inside the exclusion zone—an artisanal vodka, labelled Atomik and bottled by the newly created Chernobyl Spirit Company.
"Our idea… was [to use the grains] to make a spirit," said Professor Smith, in conversation with the BBC. "It's the only bottle in existence—I tremble when I pick it up.”
Vodka distilled from deep within the Chernobyl exclusion zone feels like something you’d find at the centre of a dark tourist’s venn diagram: a seductive blend of macabre fetishisation and dangerous thrill-seeking. Smith insists, though, that Atomik is “no more radioactive than any other vodka.” And that’s pretty much the point.
"Any chemist will tell you, when you distil something, impurities stay in the waste product,” he explained. "So we took rye that was slightly contaminated and water from the Chernobyl aquifer and we distilled it. We asked our friends at Southampton University, who have an amazing radio-analytical laboratory, to see if they could find any radioactivity. [And] they couldn't find anything—everything was below their limit of detection."
Dr Gennady Laptev, a scientist based at the Ukrainian Hydrometeorological Institute in Kiev and a founding member of the Chernobyl Spirit Company, explained to the BBC that the vodka shows how some of the land surrounding the damaged Chernobyl reactor can be used productively, for things like agricultural enterprise.
"We don't have to just abandon the land," he said. "We can use it in diverse ways and we can produce something that will be totally clean from the radioactivity."
While there’s currently only one bottle in existence, Smith and his team are aiming to produce as many as 500 this year, potentially selling them to the growing number of tourists who visit the exclusion zone. The researchers hope to distribute most of the money to local communities around the contaminated area, who have faced ongoing social and economic struggles in the fallout of the disaster.
"The problem for most people who live there is they don't have the proper diet, good health services, jobs, or investment," Smith said. "Now, after 30 years, I think the most important thing in the area is actually economic development, not the radioactivity."