As HBO’s recent smash hit mini series made startlingly clear, the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was more serious than most of us ever imagined. The explosion at Reactor 4 and subsequent fallout came within a whisker of wiping out Europe as we know it. Even after the heroic efforts of the scientists tasked with saving the Ukraine from radioactive obliteration, the damage to the immediate vicinity was devastating. Cities were abandoned, lives lost and communities destroyed. It goes without saying that the region has never been the same since.
However, despite the serious side effects of the catastrophe, a team of scientists have set out to prove that there is still hope that we might one day return to Chernobyl. The researchers, led by University of Portsmouth professor Jim Smith, are specifically interested in whether the radiation-soaked soil that surrounds the decaying plant might one day be used to produce consumable goods. They have determined that the best way to do this is by making vodka. Incredibly, they have succeeded.
Atomik Vodka is being described as the first consumer product made from materials inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Using rye grown on a carefully monitored research farm, the team have been able to distil a spirit that, according to the lab at Southampton University, is free from radioactive contamination, suggesting that it is possible to envisage a use for land that was once thought lost.
In an interview with the BBC, Professor Smith explained that, "Any chemist will tell you, when you distil something, impurities stay in the waste product. So we took rye that was slightly contaminated and water from the Chernobyl aquifer and we distilled it.” He went on to add that, “This is no more radioactive than any other vodka," despite its infamous provenance.
The result is a single bottle of Atomik Vodka, produced by the newly created Chernobyl Spirit Company. As Smith stated in his BBC interview, "It's the only bottle in existence - I tremble when I pick it up." The spirit has since been sent to expert mixologists at Bar Swift in Soho, who have created the world’s first “Atomik Martini”.
Despite the limited supply, Smith hopes to be able to produce around 500 bottles a year in the future for public consumption. Smith intends profits from the drink to be returned to the local community, who have been so starkly affected by the aftermath. As he explained, "after 30 years, I think the most important thing in the area is actually economic development, not the radioactivity," adding, “"We don't have to just abandon the land. We can use it in diverse ways and we can produce something that will be totally clean from the radioactivity." It’s certainly an eye-catching way to draw attention to the issue.