AKA Karen Gay Silkwood
Birthplace: Longview, TX
Location of death: Crescent, OK
Cause of death: Accident - Automobile
Remains: Buried, Danville Cemetery, Kilgore, TX
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Victim, Activist
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Nuclear whistleblower
Karen Silkwood was hired in 1972 as a lab technician at Kerr-McGee's Cimmaron River plutonium processing plant in Crescent, Oklahoma, just north of Oklahoma City. For $4 an hour, her work involved polishing plutonium-packed fuel rods and checking the rods for safety and quality control, but she had no background in this industry, and the company provided only minimal training. Silkwood later said that she had not understood until October 1974 — after two years on the job, and just a month before her death — that handling plutonium could cause cancer.
She spotted and reported hairline cracks in the nuclear fuel rods — defects which could cause a nuclear accident — but complained that the evidence had been altered, allowing the imperfect rods to pass inspection. In the summer of 1974 she turned whistleblower, collecting evidence of the company's manipulation of safety and quality data and testifying at Atomic Energy Commission hearings. She claimed that numerous leaks and spills had occurred at the plant, and that enough weapons-grade plutonium was missing from the facility to construct several nuclear bombs.
Weeks after offering her testimony, Silkwood was shocked when her body triggered a radiation alarm, indicating plutonium contamination, as she tried to leave the facility after working a shift. Over subsequent days her body triggered the radiation alarm twice more, at higher levels, and an investigation revealed that her residence had been contaminated with high-level radioactivity. Of course, it would be illegal, unwise, and extremely difficult to smuggle plutonium out of the plant, so Silkwood said she believed she had been intentionally contaminated as retribution for her testimony and union activism. Kerr-McGee officials maintained that she must have contaminated her home herself, to discredit the firm.
On 13 November 1974, Silkwood attended a union meeting, carrying a thick folder full of documents she had compiled, which, she said, could incriminate Kerr-McGee on health and safety violations. She said that later that night she would deliver these documents to a New York Times reporter in Oklahoma City, a thirty mile drive from the town of Crescent, but she never arrived there. Her body was found inside her battered Honda, crumpled at the side of the highway. Curiously, officials from both Kerr-McGee and the Atomic Energy Commission arrived within hours and searched the wreckage of her vehicle, but her folder full of documents was never found, according to investigators.
The state medical examiner ruled Silkwood's death a "one-car sleeping-driver accident", and the Quaaludes she had been prescribed to deal with depression were deemed a contributing factor, but dents on the back of the vehicle have led some observers to theorize that foul play was involved. An AEC report later found that Kerr-McGee had indeed falsified quality inspection reports, as Silkwood had alleged, and that her plutonium contamination could not have been self-inflicted, because the specific atomic makeup of the plutonium in her body identified it as material that had been available only in restricted areas of the plant — areas she did not have access to.
Three years after her death, Silkwood's family won a lawsuit against Kerr-McGee, and the company was ordered to pay $10.5M in damages. Kerr-McGee (which has since been absorbed into Anadarko Petroleum) appealed and eventually paid $1.38M in an out-of-court settlement, while admitting no wrongdoing. In Silkwood, the 1983 film dramatizing the last months of Karen Silkwood's life, the doomed whistleblower was played by Meryl Streep.
Father: William Silkwood (house painter)
Mother: Merle Biggs (bank teller)
Sister: Rose Mary
Husband: William Meadows (mechanic, b. circa 1947, common law m. 1965-72, three children)
Daughter: Kristi (b. Nov-1966)
Son: Michael (b. circa 1968)
Daughter: Dawn Lipsey (b. 1970)
Boyfriend: Drew Stephens (Kerr-McGee co-worker)
High School: Nederland High School, Nederland, TX (1964)
University: Lamar University (attended, 1964-65)
Kerr-McGee Plutonium lab technician (1972-74)
AFL-CIO Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union
Suicide Attempt Sep-1973
Drug Overdose Sep-1973
Risk Factors: Smoking, Marijuana, Depression
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