Vodka produced with grain grown in the Chernobyl exclusion zone is to go on sale, the first consumer product to be produced from Chernobyl since the worst nuclear disaster in history in 1986.

The bizarre artisan vodka is part of a three-year project undertaken by a team of scientists from Ukraine and the University of Portsmouth in the UK. The scientists wanted to find out if it was safe to use the land in the exclusion zone to grow crops.

The exclusion zone is an area stretching out in a 30 km radius from the power plant, which was set by the Soviet Armed Forces just after the disaster. It covers 2,600 square km and is meant to be uninhabitable because of radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl disaster, although around 150 elderly locals still live there illegally, and the authorities turn a blind eye.

Jim Smith, a Briton, who led the project, said that although it isn’t safe to grow vegetables to eat on land inside the exclusion zone, vodka was a different matter because it is distilled.

“30 years on after the accident we found was that in the area the crops were slightly above the very cautious Ukrainian limit for consumption. So technically, you can’t eat those crops. But we thought, well, we’ve got some grain, why don’t we try making a vodka,” Smith told CNN.

They distilled the booze with mineral water from an underground aquifer in the village of Chernobyl, just 10km from the power station, which they insist is completely safe.

Although they did find some traces of radioactivity in the grain they used, which had been grown in the exclusion zone, once everything had been distilled it removed all the impurities and radiation was reduced to an undetectable level.

“When you distil something, lots of impurities stay in the waste product, and the final product is purer. And that’s what we found with our vodka –we fermented the grain then distilled it. We found that we couldn’t measure any radioactivity in the product, except natural carbon 14 that you find in any spirit drinks, or any food,” said Smith.

The levels of radiation in the exclusion zone vary enormously. Although there are some radiation hotspots, in most places radioactive contamination is lower than in many other areas of the world where there is high naturally occurring background radiation such as Cornwall in the UK.  

Radiation no Longer a Danger

But Smith isn’t worried about radiation and thinks that the biggest problem now for people living close to Chernobyl is the dire state of the Ukrainian economy.

“After 30 years, I think the most important thing in the area is actually economic development, not the radioactivity. The problem for most people who live there is they don’t have the proper diet, good health services, jobs or investment,” Smith told the BBC.

In order to make his point that the vodka is completely safe to drink Smith took it down to a swanky cocktail bar in London to compare it with the usual brands.

Sam Armeye, the barman at Bar Swift in Soho, who had the honour of tasting the first bottle of Atomik, thought it was more of a classic grain spirit than a vodka but that he’d make a martini out of it.

Atomik also got the thumbs up from Oleg Nasvit, the first deputy head of the State Agency of Ukraine for Exclusion Zone Management.

“I’d call this a high-quality moonshine. It isn’t typical of a more highly purified vodka, but it has the flavour of the grain from our original Ukrainian distillation methods. I like it.,” he told AFP.

Smith and his team hope to make 500 more bottles by the end of the year, which they will try and sell to the increasing number of tourists who flock to the Chernobyl exclusion zone on guided tours.

Trips to Chernobyl have been available for around USD$120 for some years now, but the recent HBO miniseries about the nuclear disaster called simply Chernobyl has seen a huge surge in visitors. The new Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree in July to allow the exclusion zone to be developed as a tourist attraction.   

Edward Cowley