Silkwood, Karen (1946–1974)

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Silkwood, Karen (1946–1974)

American anti-nuclear activist and lab technician who—possibly armed with information that proved tampering in quality control at the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant in Oklahoma City—was killed while driving to meet a reporter from The New York Times. Born Karen Gay Silkwood on February 19, 1946, in Longview, Texas; died in a car accident on her way to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on November 13, 1974; daughter of William Silkwood (a paint contractor); attended Lamar College in Beaumont; married Bill Meadows, in 1966 (divorced 1972); children: three.

Interested in science, had taken lab technician courses before applying to work in Kerr-McGee's Cimarron nuclear facility in Oklahoma City (1972); became suspicious of a poor plant safety record of 17 contamination incidents involving 77 employees, all the more so after she was contaminated (1974); determined to prove the need for better safeguards for workers, gathered information to deliver to David Burnham, a reporter; killed in an auto accident (1974); no trace of the information she was carrying was ever found.

Karen Silkwood was born in 1946 in Longview and grew up in Nederland, in the heart of the Texas petrochemical region halfway between Port Arthur and Beaumont, where the hum of oil refineries broke the stillness. At night, their bright lights and tall torches lit the sky. The petrochemical industry had long supported the Silk-wood family both directly and indirectly. Her grandfather was employed in one of the first oil refineries in the area, joining the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) union. Karen's father was a paint contractor and her mother worked in a bank. Like their neighbors, the Silk-woods were moderately prosperous. The eldest of three girls, Silkwood had an ordinary childhood, happy and secure. She rode her bike, played with dolls, and enjoyed tennis. A member of Future Homemakers of America, Silkwood played flute in the band and was on the volleyball team.

[I]f something was wrong, [Silkwood] was not going to stand by and ignore it.

—Karen Miller Patterson

But Karen Silkwood also excelled in science at a time when science was considered a field for men. She especially loved chemistry. A good student, she was a member of the National Honor Society and one of 22 honor graduates in the class of 1964. Classmates at the local high school remembered a well-rounded individual who stuck by her principles. Noted her friend Karen Miller Patterson :

As I remember Karen, she was the kind of person who, if something was wrong, was not going to stand by and ignore it. She was not afraid to stick her neck out. When she went into anything, she put everything into it and she stayed with it. It was like that in the band, in sports—even down to batting a volleyball around in my driveway at night. She was intensely loyal. She'd stick up for her friends.

After graduating from high school, Silk-wood attended Lamar College in Beaumont on a scholarship from the Business Professional Women's Club. She spent the first summer after her freshman year at her grandmother's in Kilgore, Texas, where she met Bill Matthews; the two eloped after a whirlwind courtship.

Married life proved difficult. Matthews worked in the oil fields, which meant constant moves throughout Texas and Oklahoma. As well, three children were born in quick succession, and financial difficulties eventually led to bankruptcy. After several years, Silkwood left her husband, taking the children with her; she supported the family by working in hospitals. When Matthews filed for divorce and decided to remarry, Silkwood realized single motherhood was too great a burden for her to manage successfully. She offered Matthews and his new wife custody of the children, explaining to her parents and friends that they would provide a more stable environment. In 1972, Karen Silkwood moved to Oklahoma City to work in a laboratory at the Cimarron facility of Kerr-McGee.

She was enthusiastic about her new position. As a producer of fuel rods used in nuclear fission reactors, Kerr-McGee was on the frontlines of modern technology. Having taken high school and college courses in advanced chemistry, trigonometry, physics, zoology, and radiology, Silkwood felt her scientific skills could be used in the laboratory. She had always been extremely conscientious and meticulous, qualities which this work demanded. Not long after she began working at the Cimarron river plant, Silkwood joined the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union, probably because her grandfather had once been a member. When the union went on strike in 1972, she walked the picket line. After nine weeks, she returned to work when the strike proved unsuccessful.

Over the next two years, Silkwood established a new life in Oklahoma. She fell in love and became involved with Drew Stephens, a fellow laboratory analyst, though he was married at the time. After a few months, Stephens left his wife and filed for divorce. A sports car enthusiast, he taught Silkwood to drive in rallies and competitions; she turned out to be an excellent driver and won several trophies. The couple enjoyed collecting records, especially rock, as well as country and western. Union activities were another shared interest. Silkwood was elected as one of three governing committee members of the OCAW local in the spring of 1974. Her expanded union activities were to change the focus of her life and eventually lead to her death.

Silkwood's first sense that things were not as they should be at the Kerr-McGee facility occurred in May 1974: a co-worker fainted on the job. When health officers tried to revive the worker with smelling salts and then brought in a faulty oxygen tank, Silkwood was outraged. She began to complain, convinced that better procedures should be in place in a facility that manufactured nuclear rods. That summer, Silkwood and her coworkers noticed a production speedup and a rapid turnover of employees. Between January and October 1974, 99 of 287 workers, or 35% of the workforce, left the facility. Kerr-McGee was requiring its employees to put in 12-hour days and giving them little notice when they were changed from day to night shifts. A high turnover rate, long hours, and continual shift changes inevitably led to a precipitous decline in safety standards. Silkwood was well aware of the dangers of the plutonium handled at the plant. One of the most toxic substances on earth, plutonium is 20,000 times more lethal than cobra venom; minuscule amounts can poison and kill. Dissatisfied with working conditions in the Cimarron river facility, Silkwood began to document safety procedures at the plant.

In its four years of operation, the Kerr-McGee plant had accrued a dismal safety record; 77 employees had been involved in 17 contamination incidents. One occurrence had been a threat to public health, when an employee left the plant "hot" and went to eat at a restaurant in Crescent. In another incident, seven workers received levels of airborne plutonium above those sanctioned by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). In January 1974, an employee had had "a small portion of skin excised to remove plutonium in a wound." Kerr-McGee was careless in handling nuclear waste as well. Because of storage in improper containers, nuclear waste seeped out of drums onto a flatbed truck, leaking onto the axle, tires, and ground on more than one occasion. Although no one had documented Kerr-McGee's approach to the handling of nuclear waste, the company's sloppy record was already well known before Karen Silkwood began a close scrutiny of plant safety procedures.

Silkwood was working the 4 am shift in the Emission Spectrography Laboratory on the night of July 31–August 1, 1974, when radioactive material was found on air-sample filter papers in the room in which she was stationed. A urine sample collected from her showed nuclear contamination. Kerr-McGee's past safety record combined with Silkwood's personal experience transformed the lab technician into a zealot. She began to carry a notebook with her everywhere, openly documenting safety conditions in the plant. During this same period, her personal life began to disintegrate. Stephens, who had quit his job at Kerr-McGee because of poor working conditions, became concerned about Silkwood, whose weight dropped from 112 pounds to 94 in four months. She slept less and less, and began to rely increasingly on sleeping pills and tranquilizers. Placidyl, Parest, and Quaalude were all prescribed for the nervous insomniac. Stephens watched as Silkwood took prescription drugs in increasing quantities while her obsession with safety at the Cimarron river plant grew. Said Stephens:

I felt it was consuming everything she had, mentally and physically. She just lived it, couldn't let it go and relax, particularly in the last month she was alive. I never accepted it. The good times that we'd had together were being lost to what happened at the plant. I didn't think it was good for either of us, especially for Karen on the basis of the physical considerations. I told her this. She said, "They need me."

Karen Silkwood's fears about the dangers of nuclear power flew in the face of conventional wisdom at the time. When atomic bombs were dropped on Japan to end World War II, Americans were awestruck by this new source of energy. Clearly it could kill, but in the right hands, most reasoned, nuclear power could greatly benefit humankind. A deluded public developed a naive outlook toward nuclear power and weapons. Thousands of bomb shelters were constructed throughout the country when Americans learned that the Soviet Union had developed its own nuclear weapons. If they could survive the initial blast, many believed, it would be a simple

task to re-emerge from their shelters to rebuild. Little attention was paid to the fact that plutonium retains its radioactivity for 250,000 years. Nuclear contamination could affect life on earth far longer than anyone imagined. Silkwood would challenge conventional wisdom, warning of the dark side of nuclear energy.

By the fall of 1974, she was locked into a fierce battle with the management of Kerr-McGee, and the OCAW union contract was coming up for renewal on December 1. There had already been a bitter battle waged between the OCAW and Kerr-McGee at its New Mexico uranium mines the year before, culminating in a six-month strike. On October 16, Kerr-McGee gave its employees the opportunity to determine whether or not the OCAW would continue to represent them. If the union were decertified, company managers believed that labor relations would improve. It was precisely during this time that Silkwood arrived at union headquarters in Washington, D.C., with allegations that health and safety conditions at the Cimarron plant imperiled the workers, and that quality-control information had been falsified. Officials in Washington were alarmed by these allegations. A member of the Washington staff, Steve Wodka, recalled, "The consequences here were very deep and very grave, not only for the people in the plant, but for the entire atomic industry and the welfare of the country. If badly made pins were placed into the reactor without deficiencies being caught, there could be an incident exposing thousands of people to radiation."

When the vote was taken in mid-October, the OCAW won the right to represent Kerr-McGee employees, 80 to 61. Silkwood continued taking notes on the job. At this point, she was regarded as a threat by the Kerr-McGee management, a troublemaker who could cost the corporation dearly. After four days off at the beginning of November, Silkwood checked in at the Metallography Lab on November 5 at 1:20 pm. She worked in a glovebox, a sealed box in which radioactive materials are handled, until 6:30 that evening. When she inspected her hands on monitoring instruments, she discovered she was contaminated. An analysis of her coveralls determined that Silkwood had up to 20,000 disintegrations per minute; the Kerr-McGee limit was 500 disintegrations per minute. Silkwood was taken to a shower to be decontaminated, which required scrubbing three times with a mixture of Tide and Clorox. Urine and fecal samples were taken and left on a rack outside the shower, but they were unattended for an hour. When the levels of radiation on her person were shown to be safe again, she returned to work until 1 am.

Silkwood reported to the plant for a contract negotiating meeting before 8 am the following morning. When a check with a monitor revealed contamination, she returned for three more scrubbings of Tide and Clorox which burned her skin. Fecal and urine samples showed extremely high levels of radiation. Silkwood brought in new samples on November 7 for additional testing. When these proved heavily contaminated, inspectors from Kerr-McGee swarmed her apartment, which also showed high concentrations of radiation. The highest levels were in the bathroom and kitchen, but clothes, cosmetics, personal effects, carpet, appliances, kitchen cabinets, and the ventilation system were all removed for burial. Extremely distraught, Silkwood had no explanation for the contamination. Drew Stephens was checked for radiation, but he had none on his person or in his home. Said Stephens:

She was hysterical over the telephone. When she got [to my house], she was a crying, shaking nervous wreck, wondering where all the people had gone. It's the kind of thing where you go back to the apartment and you wonder if it all really happened. There was nobody there, compared to 20 people and this whole splendid show going on when she left. She was convinced at that point that she was going to die of plutonium contamination. She just sat and shook.

Soon after, charges surfaced that Silkwood had contaminated herself, or that the union had adulterated urine and fecal samples given to the AEC.

The final six days of Karen Silkwood's life were spent in consultation with officials trying to determine the extent of contamination she had suffered. She worked on November 13, 1974, reporting in for the 8 am shift. At 6 pm, she made arrangements to meet with David Burnham, a reporter from The New York Times, at a Holiday Inn on the northwest edge of Oklahoma City. While Silkwood was driving at 50 to 55 mph on Highway 74, on a straight stretch of desolate road, her 1973 Honda went onto the shoulder and over the edge of a culvert, slamming into a southern wall. She died instantly; she was 28.

When Karen Silkwood's body was found, there were no notebooks or manila folders, though friends were certain she had taken specific information to her meeting with The New York Times' reporter. Her death was ruled an accident: the highway patrol determined she had fallen asleep at the wheel, and an autopsy showed a small amount of methaqualone in her body which could have impaired her reactions. Silkwood had been understandably anxious and sleep deprived, everyone knew that, but some were not willing to accept this version of her death. An examination of the auto supported their theory that she had been bumped from behind and forced off the road, causing the fatal crash. Bill Silkwood, Karen's father, was immediately suspicious and ordered an autopsy, and the family took Kerr-McGee to court asking for $10 million in damages. The case dragged on for years before finally being settled out of court.

Karen Silkwood did not die quietly. Magazine articles, books, television shows, and a movie explored her life. In the months and years after her car went off the road, she became a symbol of all that was wrong with the nuclear-power industry. Health and safety rules were found to be wanting, and Kerr-McGee was forced to close the Cimarron river plant a year after her death. The death of Karen Silkwood ended America's naivete about nuclear weapons and nuclear power, long before Chernobyl. Protests against nuclear power plants were followed by protests against the use of nuclear weapons. It remains her legacy.


"Editorials. The Real Stuff?" in The Nation. Vol. 238, no. 1. January 14, 1984, pp. 3–4.

"Karen Silkwood," in Contemporary Heroes and Heroines. Ray B. Browne, ed. NY: Gale Research, 1990, pp. 376–379.

"Karen Silkwood," in The Progressive. Vol. 43. April 1979, p. 9.

"Karen Silkwood: From Activist to Protest Symbol," in The New York Times Biographical Service. May 1979, p. 705.

Keerdoja, Eileen, and Lucy Howard. "The Silkwood Case," in Newsweek. Vol. 92, no. 15. October 9, 1978, p. 26.

Kohn, Howard. Who Killed Karen Silkwood? NY: Summit Books, 1981.

Nocera, Joseph. "Brief Reviews: The Killing of Karen Silkwood," in The New Republic. May 16, 1981, pp. 39–40.

Phillips, B.J. "The Case of Karen Silkwood," in Ms. Vol. 3, no. 10. April 1975, pp. 59–66.

"Poisoned by Plutonium," in Time. Vol. 113, no. 12. March 19, 1979, p. 35.

Raloff, Janet. "Silkwood—The Legal Fallout," in Science News. Vol. 125, no. 5. February 5, 1984, pp. 74–75, 79.

Rashke, Richard. The Killing of Karen Silkwood: The Story Behind the Kerr-McGee Plutonium Case. NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

"Silkwood Case Laid to Rest," in Science News. Vol. 130, no. 9. August 30, 1986, p. 134.

"Silkwood: End of the Fantasy Road," in National Review. Vol. 36, no. 1. January 27, 1984, pp. 20–21.

"The Silkwood Mystery," in Time. Vol. 105, no. 3. January 20, 1975, pp. 47–48.

Starr, Mark, and Nancy Cooper. "Silkwood: No Easy Answers," in Newsweek. Vol. 102, no. 26. December 26, 1983, p. 23.

Stein, Jeffrey. "Karen Silkwood: The Deepening Mystery," in The Progressive. Vol. 45. January 1981, pp. 14–21.

Williams, Dennis A., and Pamela Ellis Simons. "Silkwood 'Vindicated,'" in Newsweek. Vol. 93, no. 22. May 28, 1979, p. 40.

related media:

Silkwood (128 min. film), starring Meryl Streep , Kurt Russell, and Cher (nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress), screenplay by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen , directed by Mike Nichols, released by 20th Century-Fox in 1983.

Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia