When Karen Silkwood died in a one-car automobile crash on 13 November, 1974, there was immediate controversy surrounding the crash. Was it simply an accident or was it murder? That controversy continues to this day. It seems likely that the facts will never be publicly known.
The story of the last few months of Karen Silkwood's life and her death are intriguing enough to have resulted in a number of books being written on the subject. In addition, a Hollywood film, Silkwood, released in 1983 and featuring Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell and Cher, brought the public's attention to the circumstances of her life and the mystery of her death.
Who was this woman? Some people consider her a martyr of the labour movement and give her credit for increased public awareness of safety issues surrounding nuclear energy. Others consider her to have been just an attention-seeking troublemaker who created problems where none existed.
After only one year of study, she left school and married William Meadows in 1965. She was 19. Karen and William had three children; Kristi, Michael and Dawn. Karen left her husband in 1972, after discovering that he was having an extramarital affair with a woman named Kathy Adams. William Meadows later married, and subsequently divorced, Kathy Adams. Karen left her children in William and Kathy's care when she moved out. In a 1999 interview with People Magazine, Kristi described the day her mother left. It was a Saturday morning and the children were watching television.
I was five, Michael was three and Dawn was 18 months. She said she was going out for cigarettes and would I watch my brother and sister. 'Keep an eye on your brother and sister.' That's all she said.
Karen Silkwood moved to Oklahoma and got a job as a metallography laboratory technician, grinding and polishing plutonium pellets for use in fuel rods, at the Cimarron plutonium plant operated by the Kerr-McGee Company in Crescent, Oklahoma. She joined the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (now the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union). She participated in a strike at that plant within a few months of being hired.
The union ultimately lost that strike. By the time the strikers went back to work, only 20 of the 150 employees were still in the union.
By 1974, Kerr-McGee had scheduled a decertification election1, a required step in stripping a union of its status as a collective bargaining agent for the employees in a plant where that status had been gained by a similar certification election.
A matter of months before the decertification election was to take place, Karen was elected, by those employees still in the union at the time, as one of the three people to sit on the union's bargaining committee. As a member of that bargaining committee, she was assigned to study the question of health and safety issues.
The results of that study prompted the national union (the parent organisation of her local union) to make health and safety concerns and the education of the plant's workers on the health hazards associated with plutonium a key element in the campaign against decertification. This strategy proved to be effective. The union retained its certification at the Kerr-McGee plant, by an employee vote of 80 to 61.
Silkwood's Health and Safety Findings
Karen Silkwood reported that she had discovered evidence of spills, leaks, and missing plutonium. She charged that Kerr-McGee was negligent in maintaining plant safety and that she, herself, had been exposed to plutonium on several occasions. She provided testimony to this effect to the Atomic Energy Commission2, which was investigating safety procedures then in place at nuclear facilities.
She further alleged that quality control of fuel rods had been compromised. She said that the results of X-ray checks, which would have shown substandard welds in fuel rods, had been falsified. (The fuel rods in question were not pulled from use. Fortunately, they all performed safely and met or exceeded normal fuel rod life expectancy. Some critics of Kerr-McGee state that the fuel rods' performance in not relevant to the charges of flawed safety procedures and cover-ups. In short, they say the Kerr-McGee and the United States public got lucky.)
On 13 November, 1974, Karen Silkwood had an appointment with a union staff representative and a New York Times investigative reporter. At this meeting, she was to provide documentation to the reporter, showing that her charges that Kerr-McGee had been negligent in quality control and had falsified records were justified.
Karen was on her way to this meeting when she died in what seems to have been a one-car crash. The documents she was to have turned over to the reporter were never found.
Karen Silkwood, who died at age 28, was buried in Danville Cemetery in Kilgore, Texas.
The Unanswered Questions
Karen Silkwood worked using gloveboxes. These are radiation and contamination-proof boxes with gloves built in, which allow a worker to handle radioactive or other hazardous substances without direct exposure. At 6.30 pm on 5 November, 1974, during a routine self-check for radiation exposure, she detected a slight positive response. The gloves she had been using were tested. No leaks were found in the gloves. No explanation was found at the time for the fact that those gloves were found to have plutonium on the 'outside'3.
On 7 November, 1974, she was again found to have been contaminated, although she had not worked with the gloveboxes at all that day. Significant levels of radiation exposure were found on her hands, arm, chest, neck and right ear. High levels of radiation were found in a fecal sample.
Tests run on her locker and in her car found essentially no radiation in either location.
When her apartment was checked by Kerr-McGee health physicists, significant levels of radiation were found in the bathroom and kitchen, with lower levels present throughout her home. Her roommate, Sherri Ellis and Drew Stephens, Karen's boyfriend, were tested and found to have a measurable, but medically insignificant, amount of plutonium in their bodies.
After Karen's death, an autopsy showed that the highest levels of plutonium in her body were in her gastrointestinal tract. The only possible conclusion was that she had actually ingested plutonium some time before her death. Signs of plutonium exposure less than 30 days before her death were also found in her lung tissue.
No information is available on how plutonium got into her apartment or her food. The plutonium in her lung tissue would seem to imply exposure to airborne plutonium particles, but there is no information available on when or where that exposure occurred.
The Oklahoma State Trooper who ran the investigation of the crash called it a classic, one-car sleeping-driver accident. Blood tests run during the autopsy found methaqualone (Quaalude) in her bloodstream at almost twice the level recommended for inducing drowsiness, with an additional quantity, undissolved, in her stomach.
If she habitually abused the drug, she would presumably have known her own tolerances. It that case, it seems possible that she might have taken enough to steady her nerves. It seems unlikely that she would have taken enough to make her actually fall asleep at the wheel before all of the drug was metabolised.
If, on the other hand, she was not in the habit of abusing Quaalude, there is the unanswered question of when and how she ingested it.
In either case, the question of why she had that amount of the drug in her system while on her way to such an important meeting remains unanswered.
Accident or Murder?
Karen Silkwood's supporters, attorneys and some private investigators contend that fresh dents and traces of rubber in the rear bumper and fender of her car shows that she was pushed or bumped off the road by a second car.
Because the Oklahoma State Patrol officially ruled the crash to be a one-car accident, there wasn't a homicide investigation.
After Her Death
The publicity around Karen Silkwood's last few months and her death led to a federal investigation of security and safety procedures at the Cimarron plutonium plant. While her death was still being discussed in United States newspapers, National Public Radio ran a report in which they publicised the fact that 44 to 66 pounds of plutonium had been misplaced by the plant's operators.
The Kerr-McGee nuclear fuel plants closed in 1975. 25 years later, the grounds of the Cimarron plant were still being decontaminated under the supervision of the Nuclear Regulatory Agency. Kerr-McGee now focuses exclusively on oil and gas exploration and production and the production and marketing of titanium dioxide pigment (titanium dioxide pigment is what makes white paint white.)
Bill Silkwood, Karen's father, filed a lawsuit against Kerr-McGee on behalf of Karen's children, holding that the company was responsible for her radiation contamination. Kerr-McGee ultimately settled the lawsuit, in 1986, for $1.3 million, without actually admitting liability. Officials at Kerr-McGee have had to repeatedly point out that the settlement relates only to charges of radiation contamination and have nothing to do with her death.
When, in 1978, the Irish government was planning to build that country's first nuclear power plant in Carne, near Carnsore Point, Jim 'Doc' Whelan wrote a protest song entitled 'The Nuclear Express' which included the following lyrics:
But the ghost of Karen Silkwood now lights up the darkened skies/
This brave young girl attempted to expose the brazen lies/
The cover-ups, malpractices, hypocrisy and fraud/
Being practiced by these monsters who thought they knew more than God/
She collected all the evidence to convey it to the press/
But was murdered by the agents of the Nuclear Express.
Some Opinions on Karen Silkwood and her Death
Quotations from her children appeared in a 1999 People magazine article. Quotations from residents of Cresent, Oklahoma appeared in an Associated Press article written by Ron Jenkins and published on 12 December, 1999.
Kristi, Karen Silkwood's daughter:
I really, really appreciate what she did for the world. I can't appreciate what she did for me, my brother and my sister.
[Karen] lived on the edge. I don't think she thought a lot about consequences.
Michael, Karen Silkwood's son:
I am proud of Mom. Whether she did it to become the kind of legend that she became is not really important. It doesn't make up for the loss, though.
Dawn, Karen Silkwood's daughter:
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.
Tony Mazzocchi, Legislative Director of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union when Karen Silkwood died:
Karen Silkwood was a union martyr. Her experience was not that unusual in the trade union movement, except that she ultimately died for her cause.
Jack Harris, Crescent Police Chief:
I think her death has been milked for about everything people can get out of it.
Travis Holliday, who was born in Crescent after Silkwood's death and first heard about her when the movie Silkwood was on television:
[Some people say that] somebody became upset and ran her off the road. But I don't know anything. It's just talk.