Soviet reporter's view of events after the Chernobyl disaster

Chernobyl: A Russian Journalist's Eyewitness Account, by Andrey Illesh. New York: Richardson & Steirman. 200 pp., with 50 exclusive photographs. $18.95. This is not a detailed account of what caused the nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union. But it does offer a Soviet view of the events following the explosion of Chernobyl nuclear Reactor No. 4 on April 26, 1986.

Andrey Illesh is a reporter for the Soviet government newspaper Izvestia. His book depicts the aftermath as seen through the eyes of a patriotic writer who is trying to present in the best possible light what he acknowledges is a disaster that shocked his nation. It is based on his diary, first-hand accounts from those involved, and a mixture of Soviet propaganda and his own philosophizing about nuclear power and arms control.

Because it is primarily a personal account, its logic can be hard to follow. A subject is introduced, dropped, and picked up a few pages later almost as though nothing had intervened. Despite the digressions, we get a tantalizing glimpse of the people's courage.

For example, stopping the fire was a top priority because of the danger to the other three reactors. To get to the roof of the control room where the fire fighters could attack the blaze involved climbing a 200-foot ladder. Besides the intense heat and the radiation, the melting pitch on the roof stuck to their boots, making movement very difficult. When an individual was too overcome by conditions to work further, he had to climb back down that 200-foot ladder to safety. Illesh acknowledges that not all were brave; some simply fled. But this information is given in bits and snatches almost as though the author were chatting with the reader. Yet some parts of the book are well organized and detailed.

For instance, the book addresses the widely held belief that Soviets acted irresponsibly after the accident and did not take precautions for their own and other nations' safety. In detail we are told how the evacuation of nearly 100,000 people was organized, how food in the affected area was tested, what medical care people received, etc. Illesh also quotes the deputy director of the Institute of Atomic Energy, Valery Legasov: ```I won't deny that I had no idea of the true dimensions of the accident.... To immediately understand and evaluate what had happened just wasn't possible.'''

Illesh refers a few times to erroneous reports that were published in the West, but he does this without antagonism. Ironically, there is at least one inaccuracy in his comments on other nuclear accidents. In writing of Three Mile Island, he says the radioactively contaminated water spilled into the Saskatchewan, instead of the Susquehanna, River. A minor point, perhaps - unless one is Canadian!

The final chapter discusses what the Soviet Union learned from the disaster and what it can teach the world. The stress is on safety, discipline, and international cooperation.

Despite the challenge of sorting out what is fact, opinion, and propaganda, there is some ``gold'' here. The photographs are both clear and instructive. And the methods devised for coping with the disaster, which are well described, make the book worth the effort.

Rosalie E. Dunbar reviews books on energy and the environment for the Monitor.

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