Karen Silkwood (AP Photo)
Forty years ago today, union activist and plutonium plant worker Karen Silkwood was found dead in what police ruled a single-car accident. But the circumstances surrounding her death have kept people guessing to this day.
Karen Silkwood was born in 1946 and grew up in Nederland, Texas. After attending college for a year, she married an oil worker and had three children before she abandoned her family and moved Oklahoma City. Her children were 5 years, 3 years and 18 months old when she left them, telling her oldest daughter Kristi that she was going out to buy some cigarettes.
Shortly thereafter, she took a $4 per hour job as a metallography technician at the Cimarron plutonium plant operated by Kerr-McGee near Crescent, Oklahoma. Her duties there included polishing fuel rods packed with radioactive plutonium pellets. While at the plant, she joined the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union, who staged a strike at Cimarron not longer after she started working there. When the strike ended in failure, many of the workers severed ties with the union. Not Silkwood, however, and as a member of the bargaining committee (the first woman to hold the position in the union’s history) was charged with investigating health and safety issues at the plant.
In the summer of 1974, Silkwood testified to the Atomic Energy Commission that she had found serious violations of health and safety regulations – including evidence of spills, leaks, faulty fuel rods and enough missing plutonium to make multiple nuclear weapons. She also alleged the company had falsified inspection records.
Not long after, some strange things began happening.
On November 5th, during a routine check, Silkwood discovered she had been exposed to over 400 times the legal limit for plutonium. She was sent home with a sample kit to conduct more self-tests. The following morning, despite having handled no dangerous materials as part of her job that day, she tested positive once more. On the 7th, plutonium contamination was found in her lungs and she was sent to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico for further testing.
Silkwood believed she was deliberately contaminated as a result of her whistleblowing efforts against Kerr-McGee. The company would later maintain in court that she willfully contaminated herself in an effort to make them look culpable. While radiation levels at her apartment were high, no radiation was detected either in her car or her work locker.
By November 13th, she had decided to go public with her story. She gathered evidence documenting the plant’s wrongdoing and was enroute to meet a national representative of her union and a New York Times reporter in Oklahoma City when her car went off the road and struck a culvert, killing Silkwood. She was 28-years-old.
Quaaludes were found both in her car and in her bloodstream, and the Oklahoma State Troopers ruled that she had fallen asleep at the wheel. But her family and supporters noted there were skidmarks in the road – how could she have hit the brakes while asleep? Dents and paint scrapes on her rear bumper lead her supporters to believe that she was deliberately forced off the road by a trailing vehicle. The documents she’d planned to share with New York Times reporter were never found.
The publicity surrounding the case led to a federal investigation of the plant, where many of Silkwood's allegations were proven true. Kerr-McGee closed Cimarron in 1975.
Silkwood’s father and children filed suit against the company, not for wrongful death, but for willful negligence leading to her plutonium contamination. According to the book The Killing of Karen Silkwood by Richard Raschke, the family's lawyers were harassed, intimidated and even physically assaulted. A key witness for the plantiffs also committed suicide before her scheduled testimony. The jury, nonetheless, found in their favor, awarding the family $10.5 million. On appeal, the amount was reduced to a mere $5,000 – to cover the destruction of Karen’s personal belongings during the decontamination of her apartment. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the case and it was headed for retrial when Kerr-McGee settled out of court for $1.38 million. They admitted no wrongdoing as part of the settlement.
Did Karen Silkwood deliberately contaminate herself? Or did she come into contact with plutonium because of lax safety standards at the plant? Or, most disturbing of all, did someone deliberately dose her with plutonium-239 as a way to shut her up? Did she drive off the road, or was she forced off?
Karen Silkwood’s story was popularized in the 1983 Academy Award-nominated film Silkwood, and in the years since she has become somewhat of a martyr for unionists, whistleblowers and those opposed to nuclear power. Others see her as shiftless, hard-living malcontent who was only looking for attention. Even her own children seem divided on her motives. Her son Michael told People magazine in 1999, “I am proud of Mom. Whether she did it to become the kind of legend that she became is not really important.” Meanwhile, her daughter Dawn said, “My belief is that she did what she did because she was a troublemaker. I don't believe her intentions were as good as everybody said.”
Whatever her intentions were, her story still fascinates us 40 years later.