Karen Silkwood, An Anti Nuclear Industry Martyr

Trailer for movie “Silkwood”

About Karen Silkwood

According to Wikipedia; “Karen Gay Silkwood (February 19, 1946 – November 13, 1974) was an American labor union activist and chemical technician at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site plant near Crescent, Oklahoma, United States. Silkwood’s job was making plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. She died under mysterious circumstances after investigating claims of irregularities and wrongdoing at the Kerr-McGee plant.

Early life

Silkwood was born in Longview, Texas, the daughter of Merle and William Silkwood, and raised inNederland, Texas. She attended Lamar State College in Beaumont, Texas.[1] In 1965, she married oil pipeline worker William Meadows with whom she had three children. Silkwood left her husband in 1972 and moved to Oklahoma City, where she briefly worked as a hospital clerk.[2][3]

Union activities

After being hired at Kerr-McGee, Silkwood joined the local Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union and took part in a strike at the plant. After the strike ended, she was elected to the union’s bargaining committee and assigned to investigate health and safety issues. She discovered what she believed to be numerous violations of health regulations, including exposure of workers to contamination, faulty respiratory equipment and improper storage of samples. She also believed the lack of sufficient shower facilities could increase the risk of employee contamination.[4]

In the summer of 1974, Silkwood testified to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) about these issues, alleging that safety standards had slipped because of a production speedup which resulted in employees being given tasks for which they were poorly trained. She also alleged that Kerr-McGee employees handled the fuel rods improperly and that the company falsified inspection records.[5]

On November 5, 1974, Silkwood performed a routine self-check and found that her body contained almost 400 times the legal limit for plutonium contamination. She was decontaminated at the plant and sent home with a testing kit to collect urine and faeces for further analysis. Oddly, though there was plutonium on the exterior surfaces (the ones she touched) of the gloves she had been using, the gloves did not have any holes. This suggests the contamination had come not from inside the glovebox, but from some other source.[6]

The next morning, as she headed to a union negotiation meeting, she again tested positive for plutonium. This was surprising because she had performed only paperwork duties that morning. She was given a more intensive decontamination. On November 7, as she entered the plant, she was found to be dangerously contaminated — even expelling contaminated air from 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 her housemate were sent to Los Alamos National Laboratory for in-depth testing to determine the extent of the contamination in their bodies.[7]

Debate has centered over how Silkwood became contaminated over this three-day period. Silkwood herself asserted that she was the victim of a malicious campaign, and that the testing jars she had been given were laced with plutonium. The contamination in the bathroom would have occurred when she spilled her urine sample on the morning of November 7. It was also consistent with the fact that samples she took at home had extremely high levels of contamination, while samples taken in “fresh” jars at the plant and at Los Alamos showed much lower contamination.

Kerr-McGee’s management asserted that she had contaminated herself in order to paint the company in a negative light. According to Richard Raske’s book The Killing of Karen Silkwood, security at the plant was so lax that workers could easily smuggle out finished plutonium pellets.[8]

Raske’s book also asserts that the soluble type of plutonium found in her body came from a production area to which Silkwood had not had access for four months. The pellets had since been stored in the vault of the facility.[9]
[edit]Going public

Silkwood said she had assembled a stack of documentation for her claims. She now decided to go public with this evidence, and made contact with a New York Times journalist prepared to print the story. On November 13, 1974 Silkwood left a union meeting at the Hub Cafe in Crescent. Another attendee of that meeting later testified that Silkwood had a binder and a packet of documents at the cafe. Silkwood got into her car and headed alone for Oklahoma City, about 30 miles (48 km) away, to meet with New York Timesreporter David Burnham and Steve Wodka, an official of her union’s national office.


Later that evening, Silkwood’s body was found in her car, which had run off the road and struck a culvert. The car contained no documents. She was pronounced dead at the scene from a “classic, one-car sleeping-driver accident”. The trooper at the scene remembers that he found one or two tablets of the sedativemethaqualone (Quaalude) in the car, and he remembers finding marijuana. The police report indicated that she fell asleep at the wheel. The coroner found 0.35 milligrams of methaqualone per 100 milliliters of blood at the time of her death — an amount almost twice the recommended dosage for inducing drowsiness.[10]

However, some[11] have theorized that Silkwood’s car was rammed from behind by another vehicle with the intent to cause an accident that would result in her death. Skid marks from Silkwood’s car were present on the road, suggesting that she was desperately trying to get back onto the road after being pushed from behind.[12]

Investigators also noted damage on the rear of Silkwood’s vehicle that, according to Silkwood’s friends and family, had not been present before the accident. The crash was entirely a front-end collision, so there would be no explanation for the damage to the rear of her vehicle. A microscopic examination of the rear of Silkwood’s car showed paint chips that could have come only from a rear impact with another vehicle. Silkwood’s family claimed to know of no accidents of any kind that Silkwood had had with the car, and that the 1974 Honda Civic she was driving was new when purchased. Further, there had been no insurance claims filed on the vehicle.[13]

The car contained no documents, though her relatives swore she had taken these with her and had placed them on the seat beside her, leading to allegations that they were stolen from her car immediately after the crash in order to silence her allegations concerning her workplace. According to Silkwood’s family, she had received several threatening phone calls very shortly before her death. Speculation about foul play has never been substantiated.[14]

Silkwood’s organs were analyzed as part of the Los Alamos Tissue Analysis Program by request of the Atomic Energy Commission and the State Medical Examiner. Much of the radiation was in her lungs, suggesting that the plutonium had been inhaled. When her tissues were further examined, the second highest deposits were found in her gastrointestinal organs.

Public suspicions led to a federal investigation into plant security and safety, and a National Public Radio report alleging 44 to 66 pounds of misplaced plutonium. Silkwood’s story emphasized the hazards of nuclear energy and raised questions about corporate accountability and responsibility. Kerr-McGee closed its nuclear-fuel plants in 1975. The grounds of the Cimarron plant were still being decontaminated 25 years later.[10]

Estate of Karen Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee

Silkwood’s father and children filed a lawsuit against Kerr-McGee on the behalf of her estate. The trial was held in 1979. Gerry Spence was the chief attorney for the estate; other key attorneys were Arthur Angel and James Ikard; William Paul was the chief attorney for Kerr-McGee. The estate presented evidence that the autopsy proved Silkwood was contaminated with plutonium. To prove that the contamination was sustained at the plant, evidence was given by a series of witnesses who were former employees of the facility.

The main witness for the defense was Dr. George Voelz, a top-level scientist at Los Alamos. Voelz stated that he believed the contamination was within legal standards. Spence ultimately probed enough to get Voelz to admit he was unsure of the level of contamination needed to cause cancer. The defense later proposed that Silkwood was a troublemaker who might have poisoned herself. Following the summation arguments, Judge Frank Theis told the jury of the longest civil trial in Oklahoma history, “If you find that the damage to the person or property of Karen Silkwood resulted from the operation of this plant, Kerr-McGee is liable.”

The jury rendered its verdict of US $505,000 in damages and US $10,000,000 in punitive damages. Onappeal, the judgment was reduced to US $5,000. In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court restored the original verdict.[15] The suit was headed for retrial when Kerr-McGee settled out of court for US $1.38 million, admitting no liability. According to Richard L. Rashke’s book The Killing of Karen Silkwood, investigators of Silkwood’s death, as well as the Kerr-McGee corporation and their Cimarron plant, received death threats. One of the investigators disappeared under mysterious circumstances. One of the witnesses to the Silkwood incident committed suicide very shortly before she was to testify against the Kerr-McGee corporation about the alleged happenings at the plant.[16]

According to Rashke’s book, the Silkwood family’s legal team were followed, threatened with violence, and physically assaulted. The book also claims that 44 pounds of plutonium missing from the plant had been stolen by a secret underground plutonium-smuggling ring in which many government agencies, including the highest levels of government and international intelligence agencies CIA, MI5, Israeli Mossad, and a shadowy group of Iranians, were involved. The book states that the United States government covered up many details about Silkwood’s death, and allegedly carried out the Silkwood assassination rather than Kerr-McGee personnel.[17]


The 1983 film Silkwood is an account of Silkwood’s life and the story. Meryl Streep played the title role.



^ Silkwood, Karen Gay. Handbook of Texas Online. Retrieved on 2009-02-14.
^ Garraty 1994, p. 726.
^ Booth 2001, p. 260.
^ Rashke 2000, pp. 19–23.
^ Rashke 2000, pp. 22–23.
^ Los Alamos Science 1995, p. 252.
^ Los Alamos Science 1995, p. 253.
^ Rashke 2000, pp. 56–62.
^ Rashke 2000, p. [page needed].
^ a b “Karen Silkwood – Campaigner”, BBC Online, January 8, 2002.
^ B.J. Phillips, The Case of Karen Silkwood: Mysterious Death of a Nuclear Plant Worker, Ms April 1975, pp. 59–66.
^ Rashke 2000, pp. 99–101, 114–115.
^ Rashke 2000, pp. 114–115.
^ Rashke 2000, p. [page needed].
^ Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 464 U.S. 283 (1984).
^ Rashke 2000, p. [page needed].
^ Rashke 2000, p. [page needed].

Booth, Bibi; Mongillo, John (2001). Environmental Activists. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-313-30884-0.
Garraty, John Arthur; Jackson, Kenneth T.; Markoe, Arnold; Markoe, Karen E.; (1994). Dictionary of American Biography. Scribner’s. pp. 726. ISBN 978-0-684-19398-4.
Rashke, Richard L. (2000). The Killing of Karen Silkwood: The Story Behind the Kerr-McGee Plutonium Case (2nd ed.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0-8014-8667-8.
“The Karen Silkwood Story: What We Know at Los Alamos”. A True Measure of Exposure 23. November 23, 1995.

External links

 Biography portal

Annotated Bibliography for Karen Silkwood from the Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues
Karen Silkwood Remembered
The Karen Silkwood Story (PBS account based on the Los Alamos report)
Karen Silkwood biography (biography.com)
Karen Silkwood at Find a Grave
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_Silkwood#Death

Karen Silkwood, An Anti Nuclear Industry Martyr; via A Green Road Blog

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