Would you drink an “artisanal spirit” made from apples grown near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant? A group of researchers from the United Kingdom has just finished producing the first 1,500 bottles. They assure us the drink is completely safe and radiation-free and hope to get it soon on the UK market.
But there’s a problem. The Ukrainian government just seized it all.
The bottles are now in the hands of prosecutors who are investigating the case. The researchers argue they are wrongly accused of using forged Ukrainian excise stamps.
The Chernobyl Spirit Company aims to produce high-quality spirits made with crops from the nuclear disaster exclusion zone. This is a more than 4,000-square kilometer area around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant that was abandoned due to fears of radioactive contamination after the devastating nuclear accident there in 1986.
The event is considered the world’s worst nuclear disaster and exposed millions of people to dangerous radiation levels in large swathes of Ukraine and neighboring Belarus. Jim Smith, a UK researcher, has spent years studying the transfer of radioactivity to crops within the main exclusion zone, alongside a group of researchers.
They have grown experimental crops to find out if grain, and other food that is grown in the zone, could be used to make products that are safe to consume, hoping to prove that land around the exclusion zone could be put back to productive use. This would allow communities in the area to grow and sell produce, something that’s currently illegal due to fears of spreading radiation.
Smith and his team launched in 2019 the first experimental bottle of “Atomik,” a spirit made from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Since then, they have been working with the Palinochka Distillery in Ukraine to develop a small-scale experimental production, using apples from the Narodychi District – an inhabited area after the nuclear accident.
“There are radiation hotspots [in the exclusion zone] but for the most part contamination is lower than you’d find in other parts of the world with relatively high natural background radiation,” Smith told the BBC. “The problem for most people who live there is they don’t have the proper diet, good health services, jobs or investment.”
The drink was initially produced using water and grain from the Chernobyl exclusion zone but the researchers have now adjusted the recipe and incorporated the apples. It’s the first consumer product to come from the abandoned area around the damaged nuclear power plant, the argue, excited about the opportunities that it represents.
The aim of selling the drink, Smith explains, is to enable the team to distribute most of the money to local communities. The rest will be reinvested in the business, as Smith hopes to provide the team with an income to work on the project. The most important thing for the area now is economic development, not radioactivity, he argues.
The researchers are now working hard to get the shipment released. Elina Smirnova, the lawyer representing them in court, said in a statement that the seizure was in violation of Ukrainian law, and accused the authorities of targeting “a foreign company which has tried to establish an ethical ‘white’ business to primarily help Ukraine.”