There is a new brand of artisan vodka called ATOMIK. It's been described as fruity and you can definitely call it exclusive – in fact, there is only one bottle of the tipple and it's not yet available for purchase. Apparently, it tastes great in a martini.
But its exclusivity isn't the point. The vodka is made from water and grain collected and grown in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. It is the very first consumer product to come from the area since its (virtual) abandonment in 1986 when an uncontrolled explosion in a power plant resulted in one of the biggest nuclear accidents in history.
The exclusion zone covers an area of 4,200 square kilometers ( 1,622 square miles) and was put in place to protect locals from the radioactive fallout, which has been linked to a rise in thyroid cancer and other health problems in the years after the accident.
The radioisotope iodine-131 was particularly dangerous. Large amounts of the chemical were released during the explosion, contaminating crops (and people) in the immediate aftermath of the event. Fortunately, it has a relatively short half-life of just eight days. This means it doesn't pose a health risk today.
There are certain areas you'd be advised to avoid (including the power plant and eerily-named Red Forest) but as Jim Smith, a professor of environmental science at the University of Portsmouth, previously told IFLScience, many areas of the exclusion zone contain no more radioactivity than places with naturally higher levels of radiation – like Colorado or Cornwall.
"Natural radiation worldwide varies – if you're living at high altitudes, you get more cosmic radiation," Smith explained. "For most of the exclusion zone, the doses that you would get living there are within that range of variability of radiation doses worldwide."
Now, Smith and his colleagues are using vodka to show that many areas that have remained abandoned since the accident can be used to grow viable crops. Crops that can be used to produce food and drink that is safe to eat and drink. Their working paper is available to read here.
"We don’t think the main Exclusion Zone should be extensively used for agriculture as it is now a wildlife reserve," Smith said in a statement. "But there are other areas where people live, but agriculture is still banned."
"33 years on, many abandoned areas could now be used to grow crops safely without the need for distillation."
The team did find that levels of strontium-90 in the vodka were ever so slightly above Ukraine's cautious limit of 20 Bq/kg but after the distilling process removes impurities in the original grain, there was just one radioactive chemical detected in the drink. And that was Carbon-14 – at the same levels you would expect to find in any spirit drink, the researchers say.
The distilled vodka was then diluted with water collected from the deep aquifer in Chernobyl town, which is 10 kilometers (6 miles) south of the power plant. It is free from contamination and has similar chemistry to groundwater in France's Champagne region.
The newly created Chernobyl Spirit Company plans to produce 500 bottles of ATOMIK this year, with three-quarters of its profits going to local communities still negatively affected by the accident and the remaining 25 percent to be reinvested in the company.
It's already received a thumbs up from the State Agency of Ukraine for Exclusion Zone Management. First Deputy Head Oleg Nasvit calls it "a high-quality moonshine" – "it isn’t typical of a more highly purified vodka, but has the flavor of the grain from our original Ukrainian distillation methods – I like it."