I am fascinated by the story of the Chernobyl Spirit Company, which has been much in the news these days because its first shipment of Atomik Vodka, made from apples grown in the exclusion area around Chernobyl, was seized by Ukrainian authorities for reasons that aren’t totally clear.
What is most interesting to me is the story behind the headlines. The UK and Ukrainian scientists want to raise funds to support wildlife conservation in the area and create a small economic endeavour to help some of the people who still live there. “I think this is the most important bottle of spirits in the world, because it could help the economic recovery of communities living in and around the abandoned areas,” said Prof. Jim Smith in 2019.
Thirty-five years after the explosion at the Chernobyl reactor that sent radioactivity into the atmosphere, there has been much interest because of a television drama called Chernobyl, which dramatized the events of 1986. More than 100,000 people had to leave their homes; two large towns, and more than 100 villages and farms, were abandoned within the 30-kilometre exclusion zone around the reactor, although some people refused to leave and an estimated 200 have returned in the years since.
Less noticed has been what has happened to wildlife because people have not been around for three decades. An amazing 2021 Nature video, Wildlife Takeover: How Animals Reclaimed Chernobyl, explores what has happened to some of the area’s wildlife, including cats abandoned by their owners as they evacuated.
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which covers 2,800 square kilometers, has become an accidental experiment in rewilding – much like other areas where conflict has forced human exclusion, such as the uninhabited border zone between the two Koreas where wildlife has been thriving since the end of the Korean War.
Chernobyl also is now a haven for wildlife that roams in the thick forests that have replaced the pine plantations of 1986. Along with a neighbouring area in Belarus, it is now the third-largest nature reserve in mainland Europe, and its populations of boar, elk, roe deer, and wolves are exploding.
The more biodiverse primary forests which have replaced the pine plantations are more resilient to climate change and wildfires, and better able to sequester carbon, says Sergiy Zibtsev, a forestry expert with Ukraine’s National University of Life and Environmental Sciences. The natural forests will help cleanse contaminated lands and waterways, says Mahir Aliyev, UNEP coordinator for Europe, who is managing a six-year-project that UNEP is carrying out in the CEZ with Ukrainian agencies. The project has helped create a national biosphere reserve around Chernobyl, and working with a Belarusian agency, has created the transboundary protected area.
“The CEZ is a fascinating example of nature’s power to rebound from degradation,” says Tim Christophersen, head of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) Nature for Climate Branch. “Nature’s resilience can buffer human societies from disasters.”
Extensive research on wildlife in the area has been done by James Smith of the School of Environmental, Geographical and Geological Sciences at the University of Portsmouth and Nick Beresford from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. “Our camera trap surveys in Ukraine have photographed Eurasian lynx, brown bear, black storks and European bison,” Beresford says. “Ukrainian and Belarussian researchers have recorded hundreds of plant and animal species in the zone, including more than 60 [rare] species”.
It’s a trend researchers have been noticing for some years. In 2016, for example, biologist Jim Beasley of the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, who has been studying wolves with support from the National Geographic Society, found an astounding number of large mammals on the Belarus side. During five weeks, his camera traps captured images of a bison, 21 boars, nine badgers, 26 gray wolves, 60 raccoon dogs, and 10 red foxes. And lots and lots of wolves.
Marina Shkvyria, a wolf expert at the Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences and one of a handful of scientists who follows Chernobyl’s wildlife, predicts that the growing beaver population will eventually return the land to bogs, as it was a hundred years ago. “The beaver in Ukraine is exactly like the elephant in Africa: it completely changes the look of the landscape.”
To Beasley, the success of animals in Chernobyl and Fukushima carries a mixed message. “To me, it’s really a sobering reminder and a pretty dramatic example of the impacts that humans have on ecosystems,” he told TED in 2020. His research shows that human presence in an area may actually be worse for animal populations than radioactive contamination; humans appear to stress an ecosystem simply by living in it.
One of the world’s endangered animals is thriving in Chernobyl. Przewalski’s horse, the last remaining sub-species of wild horse, became extinct in the wild by the mid-1950s, except in Mongolia. Between 1998 and 2004, 36 horses were released in the Chernobyl exclusion zone; their numbers have now almost doubled. Beasley’s camera traps groups of the wild horses gathering in Chernobyl’s abandoned houses and barns. “Wildlife are really resilient, and I think that’s a good example of that resiliency,” he says.
The group of Ukrainian and UK scientists who created the Chernobyl Spirit Company think that resiliency can extend to people as well. They have spent their careers working on the consequences of Chernobyl nuclear disaster and are committed to supporting Ukraine’s long recovery.
“More than thirty years after the accident, we believe that what these areas need most is economic development and management of the unique wildlife resource the abandoned areas represent,” they say. “At least 75% of profits from sales of ATOMIK will go to supporting communities in the affected areas and wildlife conservation.”
They have studied the transfer of radioactivity to crops in both the main exclusion zone and in Narodychi district, which is within an area known as the ‘zone of obligatory resettlement’. Their research shows that in many areas, land could now be used to produce crops that are safe to eat. Distilling fermented grain leaves many heavier elements in the waste product so distillate alcohol is more radioactively “pure” than the original grain, they say, making it possible to make a Chernobyl product that people will want to consume.
They worked with the Palinochka distillery to produce a kind of ‘apple jack’ made from apples grown in Narodychi, which is still inhabited. But in early May, a first batch of 1,500 bottles intended for shipment to the US was seized by Ukrainian authorities.
“We hope this issue can be resolved so that we can continue our work trying to help people affected by the devastating social and economic impacts Chernobyl had on communities,” says Dr. Gennady Laptev, one of the scientists, who worked as a Chenobyl ‘liquidator’ in the first weeks after the accident.
Atomik Vodka website.
How Chernobyl has become an unexpected haven for wildlife. UN Environment Programme, 16 Sep. 2020
Animals Rule Chernobyl Three Decades After Nuclear Disaster. National Geographic, Apr. 18, 2016
After a nuclear disaster, then what? A surprising look at the animals of Chernobyl and Fukushima. TED ideas, Feb. 13, 2020
The world’s most unlikely nature reserve: Wildlife is thriving in Chernobyl. Euronews, May 9, 2021
Photos show what daily life is really like inside Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, one of the most polluted areas in the world. Business Insider, Apr. 20, 2020
Life goes on at Chernobyl 35 years after the world’s worst nuclear accident. National Geographic, Apr. 26, 2021
Scientists produce ‘Atomik’ vodka from Chernobyl grain. The Guardian, Aug. 8, 2019