Karen Silkwood died on November 13, 1974 in what was described by police as a “classic, one-car sleeping-driver accident”. However, the suspicious circumstances surrounding her death led to her becoming a cause célèbre of the anti-nuclear movement. She became the subject of a plethora of books and articles and even a major motion picture (the 1983 Academy Award-nominated film, Silkwood, featuring Meryl Streep).
Raised in Nederland, Texas, Silkwood attended college for a year and then married an oil worker. The couple had three children before she abandoned her family and moved to Oklahoma City, telling her five-year-old daughter Kristi that she was going out to buy some cigarettes.
Shortly afterwards, she took a $4 per hour job as a metallography technician at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication plant near Crescent, Oklahoma. Her job consisted of making radioactive plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. Having joined the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers’ Union (OCAWU), she took part in a strike at the plant and was subsequently elected to the union’s bargaining committee (she was the first woman to hold the position in the union’s history). Assigned to investigate health and safety issues, she soon gained some notoriety as an activist who was prepared to confront management on the subject of plant safety. In the summer of 1974, she testified to the Atomic Energy Commission that she had found serious violations of health and safety regulations, citing 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.
At this point, strange things started happening.
On November 5, 1974, she underwent a routine check and discovered she had been exposed to over 400 times the legal limit for plutonium. She had been working in a glovebox in the metallography laboratory, grinding and polishing plutonium pellets that would be used in fuel rods. At the plant’s Health Physics Office, she was given a “nasal swipe”, a test measuring a person’s exposure to airborne plutonium. This returned a modestly positive result and she was sent home with a sample kit to conduct more self-tests. The following morning, despite having handled no dangerous materials in the meantime (she had not worked at the glovebox that morning), she tested positive once again. On November 7, plutonium contamination was found in her lungs. A health physics team accompanied her back to her home and found plutonium traces on several surfaces, especially in the bathroom and the refrigerator. The house was later stripped and decontaminated. Silkwood, her partner and housemate were sent to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico for in-depth testing to determine the extent of the contamination in their bodies.
Though plutonium had been detected on the exterior surfaces of the gloves she had been using, the gloves did not have any holes. Silkwood believed this proved the contamination did not come from inside the glove box, but from some other source. In other words, she was convinced that someone was trying to poison her in retaliation for her whistleblowing activities. (For its part, Kerr-McGee later maintained in court that she had willfully contaminated herself in an effort to make the company look culpable).
A week later, Silkwood resolved to go public with her story. Having gathered evidence documenting the plant’s alleged misdeeds and failures, she set off for Oklahoma City to meet a national union representative and a New York Times reporter. She never arrived. Her car had veered off the road and struck a culvert, killing her.
Methaqualone (brand name Quaalude), a sedative-hypnotic drug, was discovered in her car and in her bloodstream, and the Oklahoma State Troopers concluded that she had fallen asleep at the wheel. Skid marks in the road suggested otherwise. Furthermore, dents and paint scrapes on her rear bumper led her family and supporters to believe that she had been deliberately forced off the road by a trailing vehicle. The documents she had planned to share with the reporter were never found.
Silkwood’s father and children filed a case against Kerr-McGee for wilful negligence. According to Richard Raschke’s book, The Killing of Karen Silkwood, the family’s lawyers were harassed, intimidated and even physically assaulted. A key witness committed suicide before her scheduled testimony. Nevertheless, the jury found in favour of the family, awarding them $10.5 million for personal injury and punitive damages. On appeal, the amount was reduced to a mere $5,000 (to cover the damage to Silkwood’s personal belongings during the decontamination of her apartment). The publicity surrounding the case had led to a federal investigation of the plant and many of Silkwood’s allegations were proven to be correct. Kerr-McGee closed the Cimarron plant in 1975. In 1986, twelve years after her death, the case was heading for a retrial when the company settled out of court for $1.38 million (without admitting liability).
Over 40 years later, Karen Silkwood’s story remains a fascinating and perplexing mystery. Had she been contaminated with plutonium owing to lax safety standards at the Kerr-McGee plant? Had she deliberately contaminated herself? Or is there a more sinister explanation? Had she been deliberately poisoned in an attempt to shut her up? Did she fall asleep at the wheel or was she forced off the road and her documents seized? Perhaps we will never know.