Karen Silkwood significantly changed the lives of workers in the nuclear power industry, but lost her life in the process. As one of the first women whistleblowers, she’s legendary.
Born in Texas, Silkwood was the oldest of three daughters. In high school, she became interested in chemistry. She received a full college scholarship to study medical technology. After a year, she left school to marry and have three children.
In 1972, she separated, leaving custody of the children to her husband. She took a job with Kerr-McGee’s Cimarron River nuclear facility near Crescent, Oklahoma making plutonium fuel rods for nuclear reactors.
Shortly after, she joined the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) and participated in a nine-week union strike. She was the first woman ever elected to the local union’s three-person bargaining committee. Subsequently, she was assigned to health and safety matters.
In her investigations, Silkwood found a treasure trove of problems: Spills, falsification of records, poor training, health-regulation violations, and even some missing plutonium – a highly radioactive material. Not good, unless becoming a Marvel superhero is a career goal.
The OCAW’s legislative director at the time, Tony Mazzocchi, recalled a September 1974 meeting in which he explained to her the connection between plutonium exposure and cancer. “It took Karen by surprise,” he said. “She was angered at how Kerr-McGee was taking workers’ lives into its own hands. She herself had been in a contaminated room without a respirator just two months before.”
In the same meeting, Silkwood reported that the company was altering the inspection records of plutonium fuel rods – an act with dire repercussions.
Along with two other union members, Silkwood testified before the Atomic Energy Commission in Washington, DC about Kerr-McGee. This action classified her as a troublemaker, and she experienced harassment from then on, but this didn’t stop her.
When she was repeatedly exposed to plutonium radiation, she was accused of stealing the substance because traces of it were found in her apartment. The Los Alamos National Laboratory tested her radiation levels and deemed them acceptable. This is important information – file away for later.
Silkwood began sneaking Kerr-McGee documents to collect as evidence. The stress of her activism affected her sleep, so her doctor prescribed Quaaludes. Friends told Rolling Stone that she was taking the pills during the day too. Her mother said she called home every night scared and crying. “She thought she was dying,” her mother recalled. “I told her to quit and come home, but she felt she had to stay and clean that plant up.”
On November 13, 1974, with the evidence in hand, Silkwood was en route to Oklahoma City to meet her boyfriend Drew Stephens, and a New York Times reporter, when she was in a one-car crash and died at age 28.
State troopers initially claimed she fell asleep at the wheel. Her mother disagreed with this assessment, saying Silkwood called her boyfriend 15 minutes before she was killed to say she was coming with the evidence. “If she was so excited, she couldn’t have fallen asleep at the wheel,” her mom said. “And she was too good a driver.”
There was proof to back this up. Marks on her bumper indicated that she was forced off the road. Her autopsy showed that she was exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation, disproving the Los Alamos report. No wonder Silkwood thought she was dying.
Her parents sued Kerr-McGee, seeking $11.5 million in damages. The case included testimony by Dr. John Gofman, a scientist who worked with plutonium. He testified that Silkwood’s lungs had contained almost twice as much of the dangerous metal as the amount that can induce cancer. “Anyone exposed to that amount of plutonium is married to lung cancer,” he said. “It is then an inevitable process.”
How she ended up with plutonium on her skin and in her digestive system a week before her death was peculiar. Between 40-60 pounds of plutonium — considered highly valued contraband — went missing. Oh, and the folder with evidence she’d told her boyfriend about was never found.
Kerr-McGee actually blamed Silkwood for her contamination, saying she did it to herself to embarrass the company. The jury didn’t believe them either and awarded $10.5 million to the motherless children. This was newsworthy because the civil trial was the longest in Oklahoma history, and the award was the largest for punitive damages ever made. Unfortunately, this amount was reduced to $5,000 upon appeal. The case wasn’t closed until 1986 when an out-of-court settlement awarded the estate $1.38 million.
There was a federal investigation of the plant, which was shut down in 1976. Naturally, Silkwood’s remarkable story was made into an Academy-award nominated film starring Meryl Streep.
“Karen Silkwood risked her life because she cared about her fellow workers,” former OCAW president Bob Wages said. “Because of what she did, the [nuclear] companies were forced to make many changes that protect workers’ lives and health to this day.”