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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Faces of a Nuclear Disaster

When Vitaly and his friends were conscripted to carry out "secret" work for the government, there was a mood of great excitement, "like boys going to pioneer camp," on the specially chartered train which took them to northern Ukraine. But the laughter soon stopped when the team arrived at Chernobyl. Days after an explosion had torn the roof off Reactor 3, Vitaly and his colleagues were charged with the task of "cleaning up." The men worked above the reactor, on gang-planks which ran straight across the top of the exploded area. Many of them began to vomit and feel dizzy, which made balancing on the planks harder. When a worker collapsed, a siren would sound and his partner would drag him away. Some of those who fell sick were taken away, supposedly for treatment. Many were never seen again.

That was 10 years ago and the total human cost is still unknown. Few objective studies of the effects of the accident exist, and Children of Chernobyl by Adi Roche does not claim to be one of them. Roche was working as a volunteer for the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament when her office received an SOS message from Belarussian and American doctors in 1991. The message urged an immediate evacuation of children, mostly from Belarus but also from northern Ukraine and western Russia, who, six years after the accident, were still living in this highly radioactive environment.

Much of Roche's book is the story of how she responded to that call and helped to establish the Chernobyl Children's Project which was designed to send aid to hospitals in the affected regions, as well as to bring children over to Ireland for recuperative holidays and occasionally life-saving operations.

Roche's talents are better employed as an humanitarian worker than as a writer. For the uneven structure and sloppy, gushing style of her prose does little to engage the reader beyond the initial exclamation of horror.

The book does have it strengths, though. And these lie in the compelling portraits of individuals -- like Vitaly -- whose first-hand accounts of their lives before and after Chernobyl pepper the text. Roche also expands on the now familiar, but nonetheless rage-inspiring contention that the Soviet government compounded the health risks and damage by orchestrating a huge cover-up.

A teacher from Belarus describes how she first realized that something terrible had happened when she saw that local government and military leaders were dressed in white radiation suits on the parade stand at one of the smaller May Day parades which went ahead only five days after the accident.

As part of their damage-limitation strategy in response to the disaster, Soviet officials issued 40 directives. These ranged from dramatically increasing what was considered an "acceptable" level of radiation, to allowing almost 50,000 tons of radioactive meat to be mixed with clean meat and sold throughout the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, in areas contaminated by the accident, government efforts at providing advice and information to the population have proved pitiful, Roche writes. People are still advised not to eat contaminated food, or if they are obliged to (which has tended to be the case, as the shops are empty), they have been told to wash all food in "clean" water (wherever that might be found). Other meager recommendations include leaving your shoes outside the house and skimming milk to make it less radioactive.

"Children of Chernobyl" is a reminder that, although a decade has passed since the accident, its effects are still being felt by those untold thousands of people who lost their health and their livelihoods.

It also draws a stark contrast between the power of individual action, and the impotence of a government more intent on the cynical business of protecting its own political and financial interests than serving its citizens.

Royalties from the sale of the book go to the Chernobyl Children's Project.

"Children of Chernobyl," by Adi Roche, Fount Paperback, 171 pages, ?7.99 ($12).