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Why Scientists Are Making Vodka in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

It’s perfectly safe to drink, according to a new report

Would you drink it? (University of Portsmouth)
smithsonian.com

After the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded in 1986, spewing radioactivity into the atmosphere, a 1,000-square-mile Exclusion Zone was established around the area hardest hit by the disaster. Scientists say the site will remain unsafe for the next 24,000 years. But as Victoria Gill reports for the BBC, a group of scientists are now making “artisan vodka” using grain and water sourced from the Exclusion Zone—and they say it is perfectly safe to drink.

Led by Jim Smith, an environmental scientist at the University of Portsmouth, the team spent three years researching the transfer of radioactivity to crops in both the broader Exclusion Zone and in an area known as the Zone of Obligatory Resettlement. It is forbidden to farm agricultural land in this subsection, but people continue to live there, Smith says. And in a working paper submitted to Ukranian officials, Smith and his colleagues say that there are ways to safely use the land to aid in the area’s economic recovery.

The team’s research focused on an experimental farming plot near the Opachichi settlement, which, according to the study authors sits “in one of the relatively less contaminated parts of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.”

“The area is officially abandoned,” the researchers add, “but a few ‘self-settlers’ remain.”

When researchers tested rye that was grown on the plot, they found some radioactivity in the grains; levels of strontium-90 were slightly exceeded safety limits imposed by Ukrainian officials. But distilling the rye into vodka seemed to solve that problem. The only radioactivity scientists could detect in the boozy byproduct—which they have dubbed Atomik—was natural carbon-14, at the same levels that it would exist in any spirit.

This, according to the researchers, is not particularly surprising. “As every chemist knows, distillation of fermented grain leaves many heavier elements in the waste product so the distillate alcohol is more radioactively ‘pure’ than the original grain,” they say on the Atomik website.

The distilled alcohol was diluted using mineral water from the deep aquifer in Chernobyl, located some six miles south of the reactor. “All radionuclides analysed in the groundwater sample were below limits of detection,” the study authors report. The team also used computer models to estimate the risk posed to farmers working on the plot, who are liable to be exposed to radiation through inhalation or accidental ingestion of the soil. But “doses to a farm worker are ... well below the reference occupational (non-classified worker) dose rates,” the researchers found.

At the moment, the team has produced just a single bottle of Atomik. But according to Smith, it “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.”

When we speak about the impact of the explosion, we often focus on its deleterious health effects, but the disaster also had devastating social and economic impacts. Forced relocations from the Exclusion Zone were “deeply traumatic” and today, “mental health problems pose a far greater threat to local communities than does radiation exposure,” according to the WHO. Smith concurs with that assessment, noting in a University of Portsmouth video that communities around the Exclusion Zone “need ... jobs, and investment and economic growth.”

With their new vodka, Smith and his colleagues are trying to demonstrate that land in Chernobyl can be used in a fruitful and profitable way. Atomik will be produced under a new “social enterprise” dubbed the Chernobyl Spirit Company, and according to Gill, the team aims to release 500 bottles of the vodka this year. Initially, the booze will be sold to tourists who visit the Exclusion Zone—a growing trend, in the wake of HBO’s hit miniseries about the disaster—and 75 percent of the profits will go towards wildlife conservation and supporting communities still affected by the explosion.

And yes, Atomik has a pleasant taste—at least according to the few people who have sampled it. “I’d call this a high quality moonshine,” says Oleg Nasvit, first deputy head of the State Agency of Ukraine for Exclusion Zone Management. “[I]t isn’t typical of a more highly purified vodka, but has the flavour of the grain from our original Ukrainian distillation methods—I like it.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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