Professor Jim Smith in a park with Life Solved logo in corner

Professor Jim Smith and the first liquor grown from crops in the Chernobyl exclusion zone

  • 09 February 2021
  • 15 min listen

Vodka distilled from grain and water sourced in a nuclear disaster zone?

Normally when alcohol inspires world-changing ideas, they don’t turn out that well, but this University of Portsmouth Professor is clear-headed about how to help kick-start Chernobyl’s economy.

Professor Jim Smith explains his findings after years of studying the impact of radiation upon wildlife and the food chain in nuclear exclusion zones. It turns out that people living in semi-evacuated areas aren’t experiencing life-limitations as a result of radiation as much as the limited economic opportunities.

In Life Solved, Jim battles the myth of Chernobyl as exacerbated by popular culture, and explains how his safe, good-tasting and high-quality vodka is the first consumer product to come out of the area since the 1986 disaster.

He argues that land is now safe to grow crops and plans for 75% of the product’s sales to go back into the local community and wildlife conservation projects.

It’s his hope that the Chernobyl Spirit Company’s Atomik Vodka will be the first of many innovations to change the fortunes of people living in the area, and showcase the real Chernobyl to the wider world.

You can listen to Life Solved on all major podcast players, whether via Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts or other apps. Just search for 'Life Solved' and press the subscribe button.

It's not about getting rid of the radioactivity because that's not the big problem anymore. It's about how to overcome the myths about radiation. The economic development of these regions has been affected not directly by the radioactivity, but by the perception of the radiation risk.

Professor Jim Smith, Professor of Environmental Science

Challenging myths through research

In 1986 the area was evacuated following an explosion in a nuclear reactor. Jim first began studying radiation in the food chain in the 1990s. His research has covered evacuated areas across Ukraine, Russia and Belarus and looked at the impact on wildlife biodiversity as well as the radiation levels in meat, fish and eggs.

You might have seen the haunting images of decaying swimming pools, ghost cities and the overgrown amusement park, but many are unaware that there are still schools, even local councils where people live in semi-abandoned areas. The limitations to their lives are not from radiation, but from restrictions to the economic opportunities that exist.

It would be wrong to say that the Chernobyl exclusion zone is really radioactively contaminated. There are some hot spots, but most of it wouldn't stand out now on a map of natural radiation worldwide.

Professor Jim Smith, Professor of Environmental Science

Artisan Product

Jim and the team are trying to make a high-quality product that nods to the homemade traditions in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. The Chernobyl Spirit Company was founded to create Atomik vodka.

We distil out to 82% alcohol and then and then dilute it down to keep more of the flavour. We've diluted it down with water that's come from Chernobyl town, 10 kilometres south of the power station.

Professor Jim Smith, Professor of Environmental Science

In fact, hydrologists have suggested the water from Chernobyl’s aquifers might actually be of superior quality, rivalling that of France’s champagne region.

The distillation process seemed to remove all traceable radiation from the slightly contaminated grain grown on an exclusion zone farm. Professor Smith says this shows there are productive ways in which the land can be used for crop production, for the benefit of the surrounding communities.

It’s still early days for the product, with regulatory and trade negotiations underway, but Professor Smith hopes that Chernobyl’s first consumer product since the disaster could spell a change in fortune for the lives and opportunities available to the communities living on the fringes of evacuated zones.

At least 75% of profits from the sale of Atomik vodka will to go towards supporting the local community and conserving wildlife.

Stay up to date with their latest research on their website.

Episode transcript:

Anna Rose: Welcome to a new series of Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth. This is the place where you can hear about big ideas, big research and big experiments that are shaping the future of our world. And today we're hearing about one of the most unusual and potentially brilliant ideas one group of scientists have concocted to help challenge misconceptions about Chernobyl.

Jim Smith: So we have to put radiation risks in perspective.

Anna Rose: After decades of study, they've come up with a product to help raise money to rebuild communities and economies in the area.

Jim Smith: Our plan, our dream is to start producing this and market it and sell it and plough back the majority of the profits to those affected communities. We think it would be wrong to make lots of money out of what happened at Chernobyl, we want to try and see if we can use this to help those communities develop economically.

Anna Rose: Today, Professor Jim Smith tells Glenn Harris how public understanding about radiation in modern Chernobyl is about to get a makeover.

Anna Rose: In April 1986, one of the worst nuclear disasters in history took place in Chernobyl in Soviet Ukraine. Following the explosion in one of the power plant's nuclear reactors, fire ripped through the buildings and high doses of radiation were released into the surrounding area. The exclusion zone today includes the 30 kilometre radius in the area from which people were evacuated in the aftermath. This tragic accident and its after-effects have been studied in depth by Jim Smith, Professor of Environmental Science here at the University of Portsmouth.

Jim Smith: And for many years I've studied where the radioactivity from Chernobyl went. So we've worked a lot in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine studying the evacuated areas to see where radioactivity goes in the food chain, how much gets in our milk, meat, eggs, fish and so on. But more recently, we've been interested in what the effect of radioactivity is on animals and wildlife that stayed in the exclusion zone when the people left.

Anna Rose: Jim's work has led him to undergo a complete change in personal opinion about nuclear technology.

Jim Smith: I started off anti-nuclear.

Glenn Harris: Really.

Jim Smith: And before I started studying Chernobyl, ironically, before I started this, I've come full circle and now I think that, you know, slightly reluctantly, I'm in favour of nuclear because it's one of the ways that we can combat climate change. And really the only two countries ever to properly decarbonise their electricity generation system are France and Sweden, and both of them did it by building nuclear power stations. And I'm not saying it's without risk because nothing we do is about risks. But I'm a believer now that if we're serious about combating climate change, we need to use every technology we can. You know, I'm in favour of renewables and I'm in favour of nuclear because neither emit carbon. And carbon, in my experience, is 10,000 times worse than the small radioactive emissions that come from nuclear power stations.

Anna Rose: Jim thinks the biggest problem facing Chernobyl today is not the safety of the area, but the misconceptions people have. Naturally, we asked him what he thought of that 2019 TV drama.

Jim Smith: In general, it gave an impression that all radiation is dangerous and that's just wrong. You know, those people, the firemen exposed to really incredibly intense radiation in that first night of the accident, it was -- it had massive health effects. You know, we know that 134 people were diagnosed with radiation sickness. But I think that we have to be aware that for the rest of the population, even in the people in the town nearby who were evacuated too late, they got a radiation risk that they shouldn't have had but it wasn't a really major risk. It was a small increase in their health risks, akin to somebody who lives in London and gets exposed every day to air pollution. It's that sort of risk. So we have to put radiation risks in perspective.

Anna Rose: Yep, you heard that right. Jim's been studying radiation and the genetic impact on wildlife in the area for nearly 30 years. And he says what many people believe about the exclusion zone is wrong.

Jim Smith: It would be wrong to say that the Chernobyl exclusion zone is really radioactively contaminated. There are some hot spots, but most of it wouldn't stand now on a map of natural radiation worldwide.

Jim Smith: We know that in the first days and weeks after the accident, in some hot spots in the exclusion zone, there were really intense fields of radiation which killed trees and animals and plants in that -- the small areas of forest and damaged trees in a wider area of forest. So we know that immediate aftermath, there were serious effects on the environment. But we also know that after about a year, the amount of radioactivity that was released from Chernobyl in the environment had dropped by about 100 due to natural physical radioactive decay.

Anna Rose: Jim's looked for effects upon genetic mutation rates in animals by collaborating with colleagues in Belarus and the Ukraine.

Jim Smith: We think we might be seeing some subtle reproductive effects, but in general, we don't see big effects on the animals. They're physiologically, reproductively the animals are healthy. And in contrast to that, what we've seen is that because the people have moved out, we've seen a big increase in animals in the area. So -- so we can see the same kind of abundance of diversity of large mammals in the more contaminated areas as in the less contaminated areas. We found that the populations were similar in the exclusion zone. So the other nature reserve – so that's road deer, wild boar further predatory animals for the wolf, we found seven times higher populations in Chernobyl than in the other nature reserves, not because the radiation is helping the wolves, but because there's probably less hunting pressure in Chernobyl than in the other nature reserves.

Anna Rose: Sci-fi and fiction has a lot to answer for in terms of public misconception.

Glenn Harris: So we're not seeing kind of wolves that are glowing in the dark, three-eyed deers?

Jim Smith: (Laughs) No, what we're trying to do is -- I mean, we use this word mutation and we have to be careful about it because it conjures up – in most of our minds – it conjures up all these images of Marvel comics and Spider-Man and all the rest of it. And so mutation is what happens in nature, it's what's caused evolution, it's where we all come from. In some -- some extent we're all mutants because we're all different and unique.

Anna Rose: But it can't just be comic books and stories that have convinced the world Chernobyl still presents a risk to life. Jim explained how the studies done on responder's involved in the clean-up of Chernobyl after the accident, known as Liquidator's, could lead to skewed perceptions when it was suggested there could be a link to an increase in cancer amongst these groups.

Jim Smith: So there were hundreds of thousands of people who went into Chernobyl to clean up after the accident, and some of my Ukrainian friends are part of this liquidated group. People that studied the liquidators and found that there may be a small increase in cancer incidence in that group due to the radiation because they've got relatively high doses. But in general, the radiation certainly isn't the most important health impact on that group. We know that in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia in the 1990s, life expectancy – and most of them are men – life expectancy in men dropped as low as 60. And if you look at cancer incidence in that liquidated group, it's lower than in Western Europe.

Glenn Harris: Right.

Jim Smith: Not because of the radiation stopping the cancer, but because the other factors in their health are more important. So cancer tends to be a disease of old age and most of them, unfortunately, die of other causes like heart disease before they get to the ages where cancer instance is high. So it's not saying that radiation doesn't cause cancer, it does, that high doses radiation can cause cancer. But after Chernobyl, the vast majority of people who were affected, the radiation isn't the biggest health impact in their lives.

Anna Rose: The misplaced belief that the Chernobyl area and land is today radioactive to harmful levels, has another more crucial impact on the people who are living there. This is what Jim wants to counteract today.

Jim Smith: There are still lots of people in Ukraine and Belarus and Russia who are living in these kind of areas, which I wouldn't say are particularly contaminated. You know, they're not much different from where you would see, like in Cornwall, parts of Colorado, in the state, Kerala in India. But there's a big misperception. There's been lots and lots of myths about Chernobyl. And one thing that we're really keen to do is to try and work on dispelling some of those myths. You know, people don't know who to believe, basically, because they're getting so much different information from the scientific community, from environmental pressure groups, from governments. And we're working with a group in the Narodychi district, which is kind of in a semi-abandoned area, so there's still a school, there's still a council, but people aren't allowed to use the land. And we're-- we're talking to them about the radiation risks and what the scientific perspective of that is. And what I'm really interested in at the moment is, is how can we make life better for those people? And that's a challenge. And it's not about getting rid of the radioactivity because that's not the big problem anymore, it's about how to overcome the myths about radiation and help them economically develop because they're -- the economic development of these regions has been affected not directly by the radioactivity, but by the perception of the radiation risk.

Anna Rose: And Jim's not shied away from dreaming up solutions to kick start the Chernobyl economy. In fact, he's doubled down on a boutique local product that he thinks will challenge misconceptions and maybe become the trendiest thing in your drinks cabinet.

Jim Smith: So we came up with a Chernobyl artisanal vodka project.

Anna Rose: Atomik vodka, straight out of Chernobyl and all to help rebuild the local economy.

Jim Smith: Completely safe to drink. We've done an experiment in the abandoned area to look at the transfer of radiation and radioactivity into crops. So we've been growing crops and looking at how much gets from the soil into the crops in those abandoned areas now, 30 years on after the accident. And then we thought, well, a lot of the crops you could use, you know, you could make bread from them or whatever. But we thought if we want to we want to sell something from this, it will be great to make a product that everybody knows is completely pure. So we've distilled-- we've fermented the grain and distilled it to produce a kind of moonshine, a homemade vodka that we know is pure and we've measured it using really sophisticated radiochemistry techniques and we can't find any artificial radioactivity in it. So we've only got one bottle so far. But our plan, our dream, is to start producing this and market it and sell it and plough back the majority of the profits to those affected communities. Because we think it'd be wrong to make lots of money out of what happened at Chernobyl. We want to try and see if we can use this to help those communities develop economically.

Anna Rose: Jim and his colleagues set up the Chernobyl Spirit Company as a social enterprise so that the majority of profits can go straight back into the community. From funding schools to upgrading health care and amenities. He hopes it will change perceptions of the area's viability for production of crops, too.

Jim Smith: Ever since Tsar Alexander in about the 19-- 18 something or other, declared that vodka had to be purified to 96%. So vodka is a very highly distilled drink. So it's first distilled up to 96% alcohol, and then it's diluted back down to 40% alcohol. We don't want to do that. We want to make a kind of artisanal vodka, which is more typical of the homemade vodkas that people make in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. And so we distil it, we don't rectify it so we don't do that extra distillation stage. We distil up to 82% alcohol and then dilute it down. And what that does is it keeps more of the flavour of the grain and we really, really like it. We've diluted it down with water that's come from Chernobyl town. So Chernobyl town is 10 kilometres south of the power station and there's a deep groundwater aquifer, which our geologist friends tell us has the same hydrochemistry, the same water chemistry as the champagne region of France. So it's really good water. And we're using that water-- and again, because it's a deep aquifer, it's isolated from the surface and there's no radioactivity...

Glenn Harris: It's very pure.

Jim Smith: ...From Chernobyl in there, it's very pure water and we're diluting using that. So that all our ingredients are coming from the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

Anna Rose: But perception bending aside, this enterprise is not without its challenges.

Jim Smith: Firstly, I mean, it's a complicated project because it's in Ukraine, which is --makes business quite complicated. It's in the Chernobyl abandoned areas and of course, there's lots of regulation around the use of the abandoned areas. And it's alcohol, which in Ukraine, as in every other country, it's quite the-- the distribution is quite strictly controlled. And so we've got legal obstacles to overcome, but we've got a bit of investment and we've got the company set up, we're hoping to produce a few hundred bottles this year.

Anna Rose: Good luck to Jim and the team and their amazing enterprise. Thanks for listening to this episode of Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth. You can follow all our researchers online at port.ac.uk/research.

Anna Rose: Next time:

Tamsin Bradley: Some of the women literally said, you know, we close our eyes and we dream of something beautiful that we can embroider as a way of not having to constantly focus on the reminders of war that's everywhere.

Anna Rose: We'd love to hear your thoughts on the ideas and applications for how our work impacts your world. So get in touch with us on social media using the hashtag #lifesolved. And if you have a friend that would find this episode interesting, do you share it with them, too. We'll catch you next week.

Previous episode

Next episode

This site uses cookies. Click here to view our cookie policy message.

Accept and close