Once, about 2 1/2 years ago, I spent a morning drinking coffee and chatting in the living room of William Kuykendall, one of Greg Mitchell's "Seven Who Would Not Be Silenced." Kuykendall had recently admitted to the FBI that he and an accomplice had poured caustic soda on unused fuel rods at Vepco's Surry nuclear-power station, where he was training to be a control-room operator. Vepco claimed that the caustic had done more than $1 million worth of damage. Kuykendall told the press he had committed this crime to dramatize what he claimed to be a lack of security at the nuclear plant.

I was talking to Kuykendall with the thought of writing an article about him. Here was the story of a courageous and conscientious man standing up to an uncaring corporation. Kuykendall, the "Surry saboteur," as he was romantically, if somewhat misleadingly, called by the press, just might be a hero for our time. But during the course of that morning, my enthusiasm for the story drained away. Kuykendall, in talking about the very serious step he had taken, seemed to me too glib, too freely self-congratulatory and lacking in the "Aw, shucks" modesty we expect of our heroes, too high on the attention he was getting. It seemed to me that Kuykendall might as easily have done the deed out of a thirst for publicity as a need to "commit truth," in Mitchell's phrase.

One of the strengths of "Truth . . .and Consequences" -- Mitchell's admirable book about seven seemingly ordinary people who, when faced with a moral problem the rest of us might be tempted to ignore, rocked the boat hard -- is that the author allows his subjects to be both heroic and human. His respect for them is unabashed, and yet he will report, for instance, that Lois Gibbs, a Niagara Falls housewife who organized victims of the Love Canal chemical dump into a force that had President Carter and New York Gov. Hugh Carey hopping, was thought by some of her neighbors to be a "flaming radical" ("picketing, disrespect for authority, and occasional foul language were reminiscent of student protesters in the '60s, and just as self-defeating, they figured") and by others to be "quick to bark and happy to crawl after every bone the state tossed her way."

Or, in his profile of Hugh Kaufman, a lower-middle-level bureaucrat at the Environmental Protection Agency who has repeatedly used his contacts in the media and on Capitol Hill to embarrass EPA superiors who drag their feet on the toxic-waste problem (and who has miraculously kept his job), Mitchell dryly remarks that "Kaufman had a terrific working relationship with people he didn't work with." He goes on to summarize the often unflattering results of "mostly off-the-record" interviews he conducted with Kaufman's coworkers.

The subject of Mitchell's most compelling profile is a West Virginia sheriff named Ronald Donell, who went undercover to fight the illegal gambling (said to be mob-controlled) that had become a way of life in his county. Donell ended up catching the county prosecutor with his hand in the till all the way up to the shoulder. As we follow Donell into situations where he narrowly misses being exposed, Mitchell's narrative has the tension of a good thriller. Then the story leads us through the next election, which becomes a referendum on Donell's undercover work. Disillusioningly, he loses. We learn in an afterword that Donell worked for a time as a night watchman. He now helps his brother run a beer distributorship.

Most of the seven paid a price for their actions. William Kuykendall went to jail. Lois Gibbs' marriage broke up. Maude DeVictor, who as a clerk with the Veterans Administration in Chicago began to piece together the effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam veterans (until someone realized how much it would cost if the government had to take responsibility for poisoning its soldiers), went on welfare for two years after she lost her job; the VA has recently given it back. Jim Maslinski, who witnessed a prison rape and then broke the jail-house code by testifying against the rapist, is a marked man (another inmate who ran into him at a hearing remarked incredulously, "Maslinski, what are you doing still alive?"). He tried to commit suicide five times, but is now out of jail and working as a building superintendent. Only Hugh Kaufman, who expected to lose his job when the Reagan administration came to town, seems to have landed on his feet.

In his afterword, Greg Mitchell does a lot of musing about why these people took the chance and paid the price when others in similar situations did not. It's not surprising that this line of inquiry takes him only as far as the truism that virtue is its own reward. The profiles themselves suggest that it is impossible to simplify the motivations of such people into a neat generality. That's why Mitchell spent so much time with his subjects, why it is necessary for him to take us into their lives, as he does successfully. These seven acted out of complex sets of circumstances and, despite their claims that they would do it all again, it's not clear to me that, if the circumstances were only slightly altered, they would.

Mitchell has a good eye for virtue and, although the issues raised by the seven are shocking and demoralizing, the book is full of people who do the right thing. Not the least among them are a handful of young reporters for medium-sized newspapers -- Russ Mitchell, Ernie Gates and Michael Brown -- who listened to these stories in the first place and took them to the public. Greg Mitchell does well to give them their due.