KYIV, Ukraine -- A team of British and Ukrainian scientists are battling Ukraine's government in court for the return of 1,500 bottles of liquor made from "radioactive" apples grown near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
The liquor, branded as Atomik, is part of a four-year experiment by the scientists to see if they could produce a product safe to consume from crops grown in an area that was contaminated during the 1986 nuclear disaster at the plant.
The team sourced the apples from a farmer inside the outer ring of the 18-mile "Exclusion Zone." Around 10,000 people still live in that outer zone and the scientists hoped that farming, which is still officially banned there, can now be safe to resume.
The first bottle of the liquor was produced in 2019 and scientists used rye grain and water from the Exclusion Zone. This year, the scientists had hoped to ship their first batch to the United Kingdom, with profits intended to go to the local community near Chernobyl.
But in March they hit a roadblock: Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, seized the bottles at a distillery plant in western Ukraine. The reason, according to Ukrainian prosecutors, wasn’t radiation, but problems with the bottles’ customs documents.
"I have no idea why. The reason they gave was they thought the bottles had forged duty stamps on. But they clearly had the U.K. stamps on. We hope it was just a mistake,” said Jim Smith, a professor of environmental science at the University of Portsmouth and one of the scientists behind the liquor.
The city prosecutor’s office in Kyiv told ABC News that the British stamps for the bottles didn’t correspond to examples submitted by the plant for registration.
Smith said his team won a first ruling in court to return the impounded liquor but are now awaiting a new hearing after the prosecutors appealed.
The liquor was intended mainly as a way of drawing attention to the scientists' real work in the Exclusion Zone, where they have spent years studying how the landscape around Chernobyl has recovered following the disaster.
Smith and Gennadiy Laptev, a scientist from Ukraine’s Hydrometeorological Institute who also took part in the cleanup of the disaster, believe their studies show contamination in the outer ring is so weak that restrictions on farming no longer make sense.
Although there are still hot spots in the Exclusion Zone where radiation levels are potentially dangerously high, in most areas -- even much closer to the power plant itself -- levels are normal and nature in recent years has thrived there.
The apples used in the liquor showed slightly elevated radiation levels but were below the limit considered safe for consumption by Ukrainian law. That radiation was then filtered out in the distillation process, Smith said.
To prove the liquor’s safety, Smith sent it to be analyzed by scientists at the University of Southampton in 2019. The scientists found no sign of unusual radiation, he said. The only trace of radiation in the liquor, Laptev said, was Carbon-14 -- a radioactive isotope that naturally occurs in spirits.
The same Southampton University scientists were due to analyze the batch for sale before they were impounded.
The spirit was expected to sell for around $50 in Britain. The scientists said they had already received a lot of interest.
"We’re getting emails from people all over the world -- Australia, U.S., Canada, France -- from people saying, 'Where we can buy some?'" Smith said.