Controversy Was Karen Silkwood Murdered Part 1

About the controversy surrounding the death of Karen Silkwood, history and exploration of whether or not her death was murder.




Victim: Karen Gay Silkwood was a 28-year-old laboratory worker in the Kerr-McGee Corporation's Cimarron facility, a plant near Oklahoma City which manufactures highly radioactive plutonium fuel for nuclear reactors. She had begun work at the plant in the fall of 1972, after her six-year marriage had broken up. Her three children were left in the custody of their father after he remarried.

Silkwood joined the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers' Union (OCAW) and was elected to the union's governing committee in the spring of 1974. Throughout that summer she noticed a rapid decline in safety standards at the plant after a production speed-up caused a high worker turnover. As a result, newly hired employees assumed positions for which they had received little training. She started taking notes on what she saw and interviewing workers who had become contaminated or who had reported safety violations. Silkwood herself became contaminated by airborne particles and had to go through the decontamination process. She and two other members of the union's steering committee were invited to Washington to the OCAW national offices, where she told union legislative officials that the plant's procedures were sloppy and unsafe. These officials were the first to inform her that plutonium, one of the most toxic substances known, was believed to cause cancer. The officials asked her to work undercover to gather company files as corroborating evidence of mismanagement. She continued to take notes at the lab and relayed her findings to union official Steve Wodka in Washington when she had collected contamination reports and information on defective rods. After she again became contaminated and no source at the plant was discovered, inspectors went to her apartment, where both her bathroom and kitchen were found to be extremely "hot." Since plutonium by law has to be kept under the strictest security, questions arose as to how any had escaped from the nuclear facility.

During the six days before she died Silkwood spoke to investigators from the Atomic Energy Commission and the Oklahoma State Health Dept., attempting to explain how she had gotten contaminated in her own home. Silkwood supporters later claimed that Kerr-McGee had planted the plutonium in her apartment to scare her off her union activities, while Kerr-McGee maintained that Silkwood herself had carried it back to her apartment in order to make the company look bad. When doctors informed her that she was infected with "less than one-half of the maximum permissible body burden" of plutonium, her fears were assuaged somewhat. She returned to work at the lab and went through with her plans on the night of Nov. 13 to meet with a New York Times reporter and Steve Wodka and give them the documents she had collected.

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