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Karen Gay Silkwood (February 19, 1946 – November 13, 1974) was an American labor union activist and chemical technician at the Kerr-McGee 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 in Nederland, 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 Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union local 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]:19-23
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.[4]:22-23
On November 5, 1974, Silkwood performed a routine self-check and found 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 feces 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 did not come from inside the glovebox, but from some other source.[5]
The next morning, as she headed to a union negotiation meeting, she again tested positive for plutonium. This was surprising because she had only performed paperwork duties that morning. She was given a more aggressive decontamination. The following day, November 7, 1974, 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 housemate were sent to Los Alamos National Laboratory for in-depth testing to determine the extent of the contamination in their bodies.[6]
Debate has centered over how Silkwood became contaminated over this 3-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 would also concur with the fact that samples she took at home had extremely high levels of contamination, whilst samples taken in 'fresh' jars at the plant and 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 extremely lax that workers could easily smuggle out finished plutonium pellets.[4]:56-62 Indeed, on one occasion a worker gave his son a pellet to take to a show and tell session at school.[citation needed] Silkwood had previously been noted for inquiring as to the health effects of eating a pellet (an understandably unusual request).[citation needed] Furthermore, upon decontaminating her home, Kerr-McGee employees found several pieces of lab equipment, such as beakers and test tubes.[citation needed] It is theorized that her house was broken into, and the plutonium was placed in her home to further contaminate her with intent of causing her death;[citation needed] and at the same time, attempting to frame her for intentionally contaminating herself, so she could not pursue civil compensation from Kerr-McGee for her contamination.[4]
Nonetheless, Richard Raske's book also asserts that the precise type of plutonium found in her body (soluble) came from a production area to which Silkwood had not had access for 4 months. The pellets had since been stored in the vault of the facility.[4]

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 she left a union meeting at the Hub Cafe in Crescent. Another attendee of that meeting later testified that she did have a binder and a packet of documents at the cafe.[1] Silkwood got into her car and headed alone for Oklahoma City, about 30 miles (48 km) away, to meet with New York Times reporter 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 sedative methaqualone (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.[7]
However, some have theorized that Silkwood's car was rammed from behind by another vehicle and with the intent to cause an accident that would result in her death. Skid marks from Silkwood's car were present on the road, which have prompted some to suggest that she was desperately trying to get back onto the road after being pushed from behind.[4]:99-101, 114-115
Investigators also noted damage on the rear of Silkwood's vehicle that, according to Silkwood's friends and family, was not present prior 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 only have come from a rear-impact from another vehicle. Silkwood's family claimed that Silkwood did not have any accidents or fender-benders with the car that they knew of, and that the 1974 Honda Civic she was driving was not a used car when it was purchased. Further, there had been no insurance claims filed on the vehicle.[4]:114-115
The car did not contain any documents, which relatives swore she took with her and had placed on the seat beside her, leading some to allege 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. Such speculation about foul play has never been substantiated.[4]
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, which tends to suggest that the plutonium was 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 concerning 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.[7]

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; another key attorney was Arthur Angel; William Paul was the chief attorney for Kerr-McGee. The estate presented evidence that the autopsy proved Ms. Silkwood was contaminated with plutonium. To prove 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. Dr. Voelz stated that he believed the contamination was within legal standards. Mr. Spence ultimately probed enough to get Dr. Voelz to admit he was unsure of the level of contamination needed to cause cancer. The defense later proposed that Ms. Silkwood was a troublemaker who may 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. On appeal, the judgment was reduced to US $5,000. In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court restored the original verdict.[8] The suit was headed for retrial when Kerr-McGee settled out of court for $1.38 million, admitting no liability. According to Richard L. Rashke's book The Killing of Karen Silkwood, investigators into Silkwood's death as well as into the Kerr-McGee corporation and Cimarron plant received death threats, one of these investigators disappeared under mysterious circumstances. One of the witnesses to the Silkwood incident committed suicide very shortly before she was to testify in court against the Kerr-Mcgee corporation under oath about the alleged happenings at the plant.[4]
The Silkwood family's legal team (according to Rashke's book) were followed, threatened with violence, and even physically assaulted. The book also claims that the 44 pounds of missing plutonium (enough to make four nuclear weapons) at the plant were stolen in part of a secret underground plutonium smuggling ring that many government agencies including the highest levels of government and international intelligence agencies CIA, MI5, Israeli Mossad, and a shadowy group of Iranians were all a part of. The book states that the United States government covered up many details about Silkwood's death, and may have been the ones who carried out the alleged Silkwood assassination itself, and not entities from the Kerr-McGee corporation.[4]


  1. ^ Silkwood, Karen Gay. Handbook of Texas Online. Retrieved on 2009-02-14.
  2. ^ Garraty, John Arthur; Jackson, Kenneth T.; Markoe, Arnold; Markoe, Karen E.; (1994). Dictionary of American Biography. Scribner's. pp. 726. ISBN 0-684-19398-1.
  3. ^ Booth, Bibi; Mongillo, John (2001). Environmental Activists. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 260. ISBN 0-313-30884-5.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Rashke, Richard L. 2000. The killing of Karen Silkwood: The story behind the Kerr-McGee plutonium case, 2d ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, ISBN 080148667X
  5. ^ "The Karen Silkwood Story: What We Know at Los Alamos", Los Alamos Science. Number 23. p. 252. [accessed 1/3/09]
  6. ^ "The Karen Silkwood Story: What We Know at Los Alamos", Los Alamos Science, Volume XXIII, November 23, 1995
  7. ^ a b "Karen Silkwood - Campaigner", BBC Online, January 8, 2002
  8. ^ Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 464 U.S. 283 (1984)

External links

As an aside, I used to live in Boulder, Colorado. Just south of there is a place called Rocky Flats. There the plutonium from Kerr-McGee is tooled and shaped for nuclear weapons (and the like). I became friends with and interviewed a local physician (who had no connections to the plant other than many patients who worked there or lived nearby) who had become very interested in high cancer rates of some of his patients and in reports of radioactive pollution in the whole area of the plant. He eventually started a major investigation on his own and died rather mysteriously himself, IMO.