On 26 April 1986, the worst nuclear accident in history occurred when a reactor core exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in then Soviet Ukraine. Authorities enforced a 30-kilometre (19-mile) exclusion zone, forcing over 100,000 residents to be evacuated.

In their absence, wildlife has flourished, adding to the unique opportunities the area is providing for environmental research. Professor of Environmental Science Jim Smith has been studying the long-term effects of chronic radiation on animals here for 30 years. Some of his research findings are quite startling.

“In general, we don’t see big effects,” he says. “Animal populations in the zone are thriving. We see the same abundance and diversity of large mammals in the more contaminated areas as in the less contaminated areas.”

One exception to the otherwise ‘normal’ population levels is wolves, which have thrived in the absence of hunting. Professor Smith and his colleagues in Belarus calculate wolf numbers around Chernobyl to be seven times higher than in other nature reserves.

In the most contaminated ‘hot spots’ he does expect to see an increased mutation rate but says this has been subtle: “When we use the word ‘mutation’ we have to be careful, because the reality is that mutation is part of nature. It is happening in all animals and plants every day, all over the world. It’s where we’ve all come from. There is no clear evidence that any increase in genetic mutation is affecting animal populations at Chernobyl.”

He also points out that not only is mutation natural, but there are many areas around the world where naturally occurring radiation is at the same level as much of the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

Community recovery

The main exclusion zone is likely to remain a wildlife reserve, but huge areas of land in surrounding regions were never fully evacuated.

In the town of Narodychi in northern Ukraine, there is a local council, a school and shops, although no new investment is allowed and the farmland remains officially abandoned. Half of the adult population is unemployed, and Professor Smith and other scientists have been working with them to help rebuild their communities.

“I’m interested in how we can make life better. The economic development of these regions has been severely affected, not by the radioactivity directly, but by the perception of the radiation risk,” he says.

This takes a fair degree of myth-busting: “For example, exposure to Chernobyl radiation in surrounding populated towns would be less risky to health than living in London’s polluted air or living in many areas of high natural radiation worldwide.”

To drive home this reality, he has embarked on a novel economic project that tries to capture – literally – the spirit of regeneration in the affected areas. 

I’m interested in how we can make life better. The economic development of these regions has been severely affected, not by the radioactivity directly, but by the perception of the radiation risk.

Professor Jim Smith, University of Portsmouth

Science to drink to

Enter ATOMIK Vodka. Professor Smith’s research with Ukrainian colleagues had identified that, while there is still a transfer of radioactivity from soil to crops, many areas can produce food below safety thresholds.

To demonstrate this, the team decided to make a product from those crops – one that everyone would know is pure. They fermented local grain and distilled it to produce vodka – and used advanced radiochemistry techniques to prove its safety.

Professor Smith says ATOMIK actually has more flavour than many of its potential competitor drinks because it is made in the style of local Ukrainian homemade vodkas, which preserve more of the grain taste.

The aim is to produce the vodka commercially by a social enterprise in collaboration with local farmers. Seventy-five per cent of the profits will go to helping revive communities in contaminated territories. Professor Smith hopes this new spirit of Chernobyl will help to change more than local lives. He’d like to make people the world over think again about the environmental costs and benefits of nuclear power:

“Nothing is without risks. But if we’re serious about climate change we need to use every technology we can. I’m in favour of renewables, but, after nearly 30 years of research at Chernobyl, I’m also in favour of nuclear. Neither emits carbon dioxide, a pollutant which is much worse than the small radioactive emissions that come from nuclear power stations.”

The research team has only made one bottle of ATOMIK grain spirit so far, in advance of the planned community project, and Professor Smith thinks it might just prove to be the most important bottle of vodka in the world.

Explore related courses, research and stories