Remember Erin Brockovich? She’s the file clerk who famously uncovered evidence that a huge Californian gas and electric company was poisoning people. Karen Silkwood’s story is similar, but the big difference is that Erin Brockovich’s story had a happy ending and Karen Silkwood’s… didn’t.
Karen Silkwood was hired to work for the powerful Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site plant in Crescent, Oklahoma in 1972, where she made plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. There she met her boyfriend, co-worker Drew Stephens, who expressed concerns about working conditions at the plant, putting health and safety on Silkwood’s radar.
Just 3 months into her employment, she joined the local Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union and took part in a strike at Kerr-McGee calling for better wages and safer working conditions. After the strike ended, she was elected to the union’s bargaining committee — the first woman at Kerr-McGee to achieve such a position — and was charged with investigating health and safety issues.
In 1974, Silkwood found numerous violations of health and safety regulations, including faulty fuel rods, exposure of workers to contamination, improper storage of samples, falsified inspection records, and more than 40 pounds of missing plutonium.
That’s when strange things started happening.
Was somebody poisoning Karen Silkwood?
On November 5th 1974, Silkwood performed a routine self-check and discovered that her body contained nearly 400 times the legal limit of plutonium. She was decontaminated at the plant and sent home with a testing kit. The following morning, she again tested positive for plutonium and was given a more intensive decontamination. But on November 7th, dangerous levels of plutonium were found in her lungs, and following an inspection, plutonium traces were found all over her home.
Questions arose over how she’d been contaminated. She believed Kerr-McGee was poisoning her because of her whistle-blowing efforts, while Kerr-McGee accused her of poisoning herself to add fuel to her accusations. What’s disturbing is that the soluble plutonium in her body came from an area of the plant she hadn’t been in for 4 months…
The meeting that didn’t happen
Silkwood decided it was time to go public with her evidence and contacted David Burnham, a journalist at the New York Times. On November 13th 1974, witnesses said Silkwood left a union meeting at the Hub Cafe in Crescent with a binder and a packet of documents and headed for Oklahoma City for her meeting with Burnham.
She didn’t make it.