It started with “Chernobyl moonshine.” Scientists studying crops grown in the Chornobyl exclusion zone decided to use some of their leftover grain to produce alcohol.
That experiment became a social enterprise, making and selling a spirit called Atomik.
The aim was to show that slightly radioactive fruit grown in orchards in or near the contaminated exclusion zone that surrounds Chornobyl’s nuclear power plant could be distilled into a spirit that was no more radioactive than any other. Profits were channeled into communities that live in deprived areas close to the zone.
As Russian troops occupy the land where that fruit is grown and harvested, this unusual company is making a defiant marketing move by releasing two more “premium drinks” and donating profits to help Ukraine’s refugees.
While the future of an enterprise that makes a niche spirit might seem insignificant amid the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, it is an example of how war has upended decades of progress.
After 30 years of studying the exclusion zone, the scientists who set up the Atomik project enabled people on contaminated land to sell their produce. It was a small but significant milestone in the recovery of a patch of Ukraine that was largely abandoned after the nuclear catastrophe in 1986.
“Now, that whole region where we harvest our fruit for production is occupied by Russian forces,” explained Kyrylo Korychenskyi, an environmental researcher and member of the Atomik team.
Russian forces seized control of the now defunct Chornobyl nuclear power plant in the first few days of the invasion.
Military machinery kicking up radioactive dust in the usually carefully controlled zone caused a spike in radiation levels.
“The information we’re getting from the region is awful,” says Kyrylo. “Russian forces go into the villages and put their tanks in the middle of people’s gardens.”
In the heart of the exclusion zone, Ukrainian authorities have accused Russian forces of looting and destroying a new research laboratory designed to process and analyze radioactive samples and monitor the area.
Prof Jim Smith is one of the founders of Atomik and a scientist at the University of Portsmouth. He has spent much of his career studying the exclusion zone and says that decades of progress are being destroyed.
“The communities who have been suffering for 35 years are now suffering even more,” he told BBC News. “We used to worry about the risk from radioactive strontium in [cities] that are now being bombed.”
The future of the Atomik project and the people who live and grow fruit in their orchards near the exclusion zone is uncertain.
If the war has ended by the time the next harvest season comes around, Kyrylo – who remains in his home in Kyiv with his wife and children – says he hopes to keep going. He hopes to return to his “pre-war life” and pick up the project where he left off.
“I think people there will need money and help because the Chornobyl accident for this territory will no longer be the worst thing that happened there.