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Karen Silkwood

Few Oklahomans have even heard the name Karen Silkwood from late-20th century state history. Yet, as afore-mentioned historical author and legislator Kent Frates chronicled:

“Her life and death triggered investigations by Congress and the FBI, a lengthy contentious trial, and a public relations nightmare for Kerr-McGee and the entire nuclear energy industry. Her story would also go on to be immortalized in the hit motion picture, Silkwood.”

Like many bright young women, Silkwood’s promising academic career had been short-circuited by an early, eventually miserable marriage. With the couple living in Duncan, she left her blue collar husband in 1972 after three children and eight years when he refused her demand either to end an ongoing affair or grant her a divorce without her surrendering custody of their three children. She finally did the latter, and stayed with a female friend from Duncan in Oklahoma City.

Having thus lost custody of her children she periodically managed to keep them overnight. While in Oklahoma City, she went to work in the metallography laboratory in the Kerr McGee (KM) Nuclear Corporation’s Cimarron plutonium plant near Crescent. The plant overlooked its namesake river, about thirty miles north on state highway 74 from Oklahoma City. The job parlayed Silkwood’s natural interest and aptitude in science and especially chemistry into a job testing and evaluating plutonium pellets and reactor rods.

Plutonium emerged from uranium as a crucial element in the production of atomic bombs during America’s grim post-World War II Cold War with the Soviet Union (OKLAHOMANS 2, Chapter 7). That struggle continued in the early 1970s. Thirteen pounds of plutonium or less could produce a nuclear bomb.

Life’s blows and her own mistakes had conspired to transform the once “good girl” who didn’t date much and was devoted to straight-A studies, playing musical instruments, and team sports participation. Still bright and passionate, she had grown increasingly nervous and now possessed suspect standards regarding alcohol, drugs, and sexual promiscuity. This led to an emotional relationship with Kerr McGee co-worker Drew Stephens and an attempted suicide in 1973 when they temporarily broke up.

Plutonium—Misunderstood and Missing

By 1974, however, Silkwood had overcome her emotional devastation and established an ongoing friendship and sometime relationship with Stephens. She had also proven a capable and energetic worker for Kerr McGee. At the same time, however, she grew increasingly concerned over serious problems she perceived stemming from management malfeasance at the Cimarron plant. These included:

  • Falsifying quality control evaluations and shipping defective (nuclear-related) products, which could lead to catastrophic accidents

  • Failing to adequately train or warn plant workers of the life-threatening nature of plutonium, even as many of them worked with it daily, in often miserable conditions

  • Operational security so poor that plutonium—a few pounds of which could form a nuclear bomb—could be, and in fact was, smuggled out of the plant, to who knows where

  • Dismissal of numerous important Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) recommendations and orders

Silkwood’s concerns coalesced with those of the Cimarron chapter of the international Oilfield, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) union, with whom she had not previously participated. KM management was now moving to eliminate the chapter. “In the laboratory, we’ve got eighteen and nineteen-year-old boys, you know, twenty and twenty-one,” she told a union attorney. “And they didn’t have the schooling, so they don’t understand what radiation is. They don’t understand.” They had “tractor grease under their fingernails,” one author described her as saying, “treating plutonium like fertilizer.”

Kerr McGee Nuclear was a closely-held subsidiary of parent corporation Kerr McGee, the giant that had helped build twentieth-century Oklahoma. The AEC was its regulating organization as well as its only customer. This unusual compact grew increasingly dubious as KM claimed that it strictly adhered to questionable operational standards set by the AEC. Still, the AEC twice shut down the Cimarron plant due to missing plutonium. In each case, the amount represented about one-third the plutonium required to make an atomic bomb.

After KM declared that only “insignificant’ amounts of plutonium had disappeared, according to Frates, the AEC, generally friendly and accommodating with the Oklahoma company, encountered its own misgivings about its giant corporate colleague:

“It had held a prior meeting with Kerr-McGee management urging the company to improve the safety and security at the plant, and had been disappointed in management’s lack of both cooperation and corrective action.”

By November 1974, fueled by bitterness, suspicion, and fear, events had spiraled beyond anyone’s ability to control.

Danger and Death

With Cimarron union members, the national OCAW leadership, and Silkwood and some of her fellow workers convinced of widespread KM wrongdoing, she set about the dangerous task of securing irrefutable physical evidence they all hoped would solidify the local union. Even more importantly, they hoped not to punish KM, but to persuade it to improve its Cimarron operations and better protect its workers. No one sought any redress for past actions.

By the first week of November, Silkwood was (correctly) convinced that at least forty pounds of plutonium were missing from the plant—enough to produce three atomic bombs. Then, while experiencing growing pressure and hostility from the company, she herself tested positive for radioactive contamination—repeatedly. The final time, much of her house was also contaminated, and her personal readings registered so high, KM and the OCAW split the cost of flying her to the enormous Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico for more comprehensive testing. American scientists developed the atomic bomb there in the 1940s.

By now, emotions raged on all sides. KM workers, nervous and suspicious—some about their health, some about their job security, some about both—split into pro and anti-Silkwood camps. The company accused her of contaminating herself. Silkwood felt certain someone with KM was contaminating her, intending to intimidate and even eventually kill her with cancer. She believed that the unusual nature of her readings indicated she was internally affected in her lungs.

But she forged ahead, through illness, fear, and management intimidation. Friend and co-worker Wanda Jean Jung swore in an affidavit that Silkwood told her following an OCAW meeting in Crescent the evening of Nov. 13, 1974:

“She said…she had all the proof concerning falsification (by KM) of records. As she said this, she clenched her hand more firmly on the folder and notebook she was holding. She told me she was on her way to meet (OCAW attorney) Steve Wodka and a New York Times reporter…to give them this material.”

Seven miles south of Crescent, however, on smooth, straight, barren Highway 74, Silkwood’s small car mysteriously crossed the highway, traveled straight down the opposite shoulder for a couple hundred feet, then crashed directly into a concrete culvert. She died instantly. Neither the folder nor the envelope were ever found.

Karen Silkwood vs. Kerr McGee

If high drama had gathered about Karen Silkwood during the final weeks of her life, historic conflict erupted in the weeks, months, and years following it. Her father Bill Silkwood hailed from Temple, Oklahoma. He had completed two combat tours as a B-17 Flying Fortress bombardier in Europe during World War II. He filed a personal injury suit, on behalf of his daughter’s children, in the U.S. District court in Oklahoma City in 1977.

Bill Silkwood’s suit alleged: 1) that his daughter’s Supreme Court-established civil right to freely travel on public highways had been violated when Silkwood was supposedly run off the road and killed—whether intentionally or accidentally, and 2) that KM negligence (at the very least) caused his daughter’s contamination, and 3) that KM officers, including McGee, as well as the FBI had violated hers and other Cimarron employees’ free speech rights and used unwarranted listening devices and wiretaps against them.

A variety of activist liberal individuals and organizations, including the National Organization for Women, anti-nuclear groups, and Washington, D.C. attorney Dan Sheehan, had breathed life into Karen Silkwood’s posthumous cause and brought about the suit. They had previously triggered a Congressional investigation that escalated the suspicion and hostility between KM and its growing number of detractors. Following Silkwood’s death, the company had taken some steps to address her concerns, including the dangerous chemical leaks. The Cimarron plant’s troubles had continued, however, and KM shuttered it for good just over a year after her death, with enough plutonium arguably still missing to construct several nuclear bombs.

A contentious debate ensued over whether Silkwood had gone to sleep at the wheel while under the influence of drugs. The official Oklahoma Highway Patrol and State Medical Examiner reports of the episode grew so threadbare under scrutiny that an alternate theory gradually gained traction.

First, as articulated by prominent Oklahoma City defense attorney and Silkwood estate counsel Jim Ikard, it indicated that the chemicals present in Silkwood’s blood at the time of her death would not have affected her driving. Second, a former police officer and veteran Dallas, Texas accident investigator hired by the OCAW announced that his meticulous investigation of the crash indicated another vehicle had forced Silkwood off the road.

District court judges in Oklahoma City, however, refused to allow either the death-related civil rights case or the conspiracy accusation to advance to trial. Nonetheless, the contrary theory of the accident, coupled with the high stakes that had mounted over the entire affair, and separate intelligence gathered by the estate’s private investigators suggesting that the FBI was suppressing information related to the accident, produced an enduring cloud of suspicion over the “official” story.

Epic Courtroom Battle

The real and lasting battle commenced over the one plank of the personal injury suit that did advance to trial: KM’s treatment of Silkwood and her fellow workers.

The trial spawned headlines around the world. It was the longest civil court battle Oklahoma had ever witnessed, and one of the most dramatic. Sheehan recruited Ikard, Harvard-educated attorney Arthur Angel, who was passing through Oklahoma City on a cross-country trip home, and legendary criminal attorney Gerry Spence for the plaintiff team. The latter, a hulking Wyoming rancher who wore his cowboy hat, boots, and buckskin jacket to court each day, proved one of the few men who could have stood toe to toe with the KM colussus and its legion of operatives and dished out as good, and probably better, than he got back.

Spence had few peers as a rhetorician—or raconteur. “He had the unique ability to make complicated facts seem understandable to a jury,” Ikard recalled. He repeatedly thundered to the jury, “If the (plutonium) lion gets away, Kerr-McGee must pay.” He vulgarly cursed KM attorneys to their face in private. He painted in epic fashion the saga of a poor, imperfect, small town girl standing up for others against one of America’s greatest—and most corrupt—corporate giants.

Crowe & Dunlevy partner and former Oklahoma Bar Association President (and future American Bar Association President) Bill Paul led KM’s accomplished legal defense team. Indicative of the vast gulf between Silkwood and her supporters and the company, they pursued a three-pronged strategy: 1) Silkwood contaminated herself, 2) plutonium wasn’t dangerous, and thus her self-contamination was not, 3) the Cimarron plant was well run and safe for its employees.

Silkwood’s team—Ikard and Angell gathering supportive data and evidence and guiding the strategic direction, and Spence speaking—crucially lasered in on the legal precedent of “strict liability” regarding the plutonium. Ikard explained:

“With “strict liability,” something is considered abnormally dangerous, meaning that no matter how hard you try, you can’t really avoid problems with it. As Gerry Spence put it, “When the lion gets away, Kerr McGee has to pay.” Strict liability means that you have to prove injury, but you don’t have to prove negligence…if someone is injured by it, they’re—Kerr McGee in this case—(automatically) liable.”

Thus, if the jury agreed that plutonium possessed such inherent danger to humans—which KM denied that it did—corporate negligence would not be necessary to decide in favor of the Silkwood estate, only that Karen had ingested it.

Regarding KM’s accusation that she contaminated herself, Ikard said that the fearsome, insoluble form that which registered in Silkwood’s contamination checks, but was insoluble and could not come out in her urine, could only be taken into one’s body by inhaling it. Having just attended union training on that subject, “Silkwood knew that if she inhaled it (contaminated herself), she—not Kerr McGee—would be the immediate suspect. Thus, she wouldn’t have done it to herself, because she would have known she would be discovered immediately, and would be signing a confession of her guilt.” Ikard still believes that someone within the KM organization purposely contaminated Silkwood.

Why? “She got hold of doctored micrographs, pictures,” Ikard said, that Silkwood and the OCAW believe revealed KM was illegally hiding flaws in the dangerous radioactive plutonium-containing rods that it was forwarding to a Westinghouse-managed AEC nuclear testing facility in Washington. “She was on her way to meet New York Times reporter David Burnham in Oklahoma City with these pictures when she died.”

“One Big Pigpen”

Regarding the third pillar of the Silkwood suit, Cimarron plant safety and efficiency, high KM management, up to owner Dean McGee, had consistently defended the company, its policies, and its practices. Two of the Cimarron plant’s four department heads did not. One of those, Korean War veteran James V. Smith, had worked in the industry for over twenty years. He remained a proponent of nuclear energy, and spoke positively of his previous experience at the Rocky Flats, Colorado nuclear facility. He held his peace about Silkwood and KM for a long time. When he finally spoke up, though—including at the trial—he pulled no punches:

“I never saw anything so filthy in all my life. It was one big pigpen. If you ever walked past the door, you couldn’t hardly breathe from the ammonia fumes and the uranium…I personally read temperatures at a hundred-and-thirty-five degrees.”

Smith, as well as fellow department head Jerry Cooper, confirmed most of Silkwood’s claims. In addition, they recounted many other actions that constituted a deplorable and long running litany of irresponsibility and even potential criminality by KM at its Cimarron plant. These included dumping contaminated water into the Cimarron River, exposing workers to continual leaks of harmful gases amidst miserable working conditions, and losing track of enough plutonium to make several atomic bombs.

In fact, they exposed the plant security force as so incompetent that it allowed not only that, but everything from thousands of dollars’ worth of platinum to a large stereo to be hauled off the property without detection. “Those guards couldn’t track an elephant in forty feet of snow,” Smith thundered.

In addition, a parade of Silkwood’s fellow Cimarron employees testified they had never received meaningful training, nor been warned of any danger in working with plutonium. Former health physics technician Ken Plowman said:

“There was hardly any controls…The contamination was everywhere…especially in the lunch room….The equipment leaked….There was no real effort (by management)…to control it….Bags of uranium taken to the burial ground and hid while the (AEC) inspectors were there.”

All-Star Nuclear Authorities

Besides all of this, and Spence’s larger-than-life persona and talent, Bill Silkwood’s team unleashed an all-star cast of nuclear authorities as unpaid witnesses to establish what Ikard termed “the ultrahazardous nature of the activity and what would happen to someone who inhaled plutonium, especially because…It just stays in your lungs.” KM produced a couple of authoritative witnesses of its own, in particular Los Alamos chieftain George Voelz, who had conducted the comprehensive exam of Silkwood. Spence’s A-team, though, proved commanding.

First up was John Gofman, the third person ever to work with plutonium. He also pioneered separating tiny quantities of it during America’s World War II Manhattan project that produced the atomic bombs which finished off Japan. Also a continuing advocate of nuclear deterrence, Gofman declared that Silkwood had ingested “1.3 times as much plutonium as was required to give her lung cancer,” and that she was “unequivocally married to cancer.” He concluded a devastating denunciation of KM and its Cimarron plant with the valedictory of, “Such a plant should never have been allowed to open.”

Next, West Point graduate, retired Army Lt. Colonel, and National Center for Atmospheric Research radiochemist Edward Martell denounced the AEC’s contamination standards. He echoed Gofman’s contention that Karen Silkwood was doomed to cancer had she lived. The third leg of the imposing Silkwood witness triumvirate was Karl Z. Morgan, the “father” of health physics. For three decades, he had helmed health and safety at the AEC’s historic Oak Ridge, Tennessee laboratory.

Under Paul’s cross-examination, Morgan unsheathed a key challenge to KM’s case. He forthrightly disputed Voelz’s contention that Silkwood was not at risk: “The employee isn’t going to fall over dead, or scream from anguish because of injury, but it does present…an increased risk of cancer in the remaining years of her life.” Morgan also pronounced a stirring valedictory for Karen Silkwood:

“I think Karen—I never knew the young lady—had a terrific insight and realized that plutonium was an extremely hazardous material. It was very much to her credit that she did all she could to bring this to the attention of the authorities, not only for her own protection but for her fellow employees.”

He tore into both KM and its Cimarron plant, calling the former’s regard “inexcusable…irresponsible…and callous,” and the latter, “one of the worst operations I have ever studied.”


The trouble is, if you inhale plutonium, you don’t get lung cancer and collapse in two days or three days or ten days. You may not get lung cancer for ten years, or fifteen years. But as the expert testimony revealed…if you take a fine watch and put an ice pick through it, you destroy the mechanism. That’s what happens to your lungs. These are ionized (plutonium) particles. They start to damage your lungs, and it leads to lung cancer.

—James A. Ikard


Courtroom Decisions—and Reverses

The Oklahoma jury deliberated for nearly four days. Then it awarded the Silkwood estate many millions of dollars in combined judgments and damages. The decision came more than 4 ½ years after Silkwood’s death. Ikard summarized the result:

“It was determined in our trial that that activity (plutonium) was ultrahazardous, and therefore, Kerr McGee was strictly liable for the damages inflicted on Karen Silkwood. They argued that she did it to herself, we argued that they did it to her.”

A stunned KM appealed to the 10th Circuit Court, which by a narrow 2-1 margin largely reversed the multi-faceted decision. The Silkwood estate then appealed to the Supreme Court. In 1984—a full decade after Karen Silkwood’s death—these justices largely reversed the 10th Circuit, in favor of the estate, again by a razor-thin 5-4 count.

The Supremes, however, punted back to the 10th the right to reconsider issues in the case that included the Oklahoma jury’s $10 million punitive damage award. Again by a 2-1 margin, the 10th itself punted the legal ball back to the district level. In 1985, it ordered a new trial to reargue the punitive damage award, as well as the original question of KM’s negligence!

The company had long since shuttered its much-maligned Cimarron plant after the government refused to renew its plutonium-processing contract, and exited the business. Weary of its opponents’ ability to fund an apparently ceaseless legal battle, and beginning to realize the enormity of the public relations disaster it had crafted for itself, KM offered a $1.38 million out-of-court settlement to the estate. An elderly, seriously ill Bill Silkwood accepted the offer and the vindication for his daughter that it suggested. KM admitted no wrong doing.

Ghosts of Karen Silkwood and Bob Kerr

Kerr McGee’s involvement in the nuclear industry began during that great morning in America, the years following World War II, when nearly anything seemed possible. Robert S. Kerr (Chapter 7), born in an Oklahoma prairie log cabin, had already used his frontier-style bravado, smarts, and determination to forge one of the nation’s greatest financial fortunes. Now he parlayed them into becoming the most powerful politician ever to come from the Sooner State. Not only state leaders and U.S. senators deferred to him, so did Presidents.

Perceiving both economic opportunity and his nation’s need for safe, independent, financially sensible energy, Kerr shouldered his namesake company into the foremost place in American uranium, helium, and other energy industries. His friends and political allies chaired the AEC, related Congressional committees and subcommittees, and other entities. Kerr himself had arranged their plum positions for more than a few of these colleagues.

Political collusion, anti-trust, and other accusations rang out from many directions, including from people and organizations with national platforms. But when someone could generate the jobs, revenue, and national projects that Kerr could, and make Presidents like John F. Kennedy come to a remote Oklahoma highway ribbon cutting to, in JFK’s own words, “Kiss Bob Kerr’s ---”—this was a man who got what he wanted.

Unfortunately, the wheeler-dealer that brought about so much good and opportunity eventually left a tawdry legacy in the nuclear industry, long after his death, of managerial incompetence, environmental disaster, and damage to many human lives in places like Crescent and Gore in Oklahoma, West Chicago in Illinois, and among the Navajo Indian tribe in New Mexico. If not for a wispy little Duncan resident from Texas who drank and smoked too much and had left her three children because of her womanizing husband, perhaps these would have been isolated incidents, lost in the dusty mist of history.

As it was, when this author interviewed with Kerr McGee his senior year at the University of Oklahoma in 1978—years after Karen Silkwood’s death, but years before the Oscar-winning motion picture that immortalized her—he experienced the most memorable interview of his college career. The handsome, tweed coat-sporting KM engineer-interviewer wanted to discuss—exclusively—what a malcontent and troublemaker Karen Silkwood was, and how wrongly KM had been characterized by the national media. The company, he protested, far too much, was nothing like its vicious image.

Like numerous of my peers, I knew and cared little about the Silkwood affair and had entered my KM interview excited to learn more about a company I held in awe, and whose gas stations had graced many an Oklahoma street corner from my earliest remembrance. We all left our interviews, however, with one thought: “What did these people do so bad, that they are trying so hard to cover it up?”

The ghosts of Karen Silkwood and Bob Kerr both conjure good and bad images for us, even today, long after their passings. In a positive manner, they inspire us to make the most of the opportunities and responsibilities bequeathed to us, yet in a negative way, they warn about making the most of the opportunities and responsibilities bequeathed to us.


Where Kerr McGee Went Wrong

Jim Ikard is a lifelong Oklahoman, respected attorney and civic leader, and a driving force of the Karen Silkwood Estate legal team in the 1970s and 1980s. As a man who deeply loves his state, he shared some lessons he drew from the historic events involving Silkwood and Kerr McGee.

Kerr McGee’s difficulty stemmed from money. They had a contract to provide plutonium fuel rods to a major nuclear facility in Hanford, Washington. They were running behind in their contract. That was going to cost them money, because there were provisions in their contract for not meeting deadlines. So, they accelerated production. This led to some industrial accidents. This in turn prompted them to put their workers in full face respirators and double hazmat suits and require them to continue to work for long periods in a contaminated environment.

* * *

They worked with eight-foot-long, pencil-thin rods. You had to make sure those rods were welded properly and didn’t breach, because if they did, they could release plutonium. They were supposed to take micrograph pictures of both ends of the rods to pass them. On some of the rods, however, the welds weren’t done properly, so when they got the photo micrographs to send to Hanford, they just covered over some of the flaws because of their concern for getting production out the door. So they cut corners. Karen Silkwood then got hold of these doctored micrographs, and was on her way to deliver copies of them to a New York Times reporter when she died.

* * *

Worst of all, we knew how much plutonium they took into their inventory, and we knew how much they sent out in their rods. There was about 20 kilograms of plutonium they could not account for, enough to construct several atomic bombs. Their argument was that it was caught up through all their piping and glove boxes and those kinds of things that they had been using in their production…that it didn’t end up someplace it shouldn’t have been. That was their explanation regarding inventory in, product out, and, supposedly, why there was a difference.

* * *

The lesson in all of this is: money talks. Everything that happened in the Silkwood case was about money. It was about forcing the workers to work extra hours to get fuel rods done. It was about doctoring up the photo micrographs so they could pass muster and be shipped out. After all this, the last thing they wanted was the union to get involved in the whole thing. And so Karen Silkwood’s death could be viewed as trying to silence her as a source of bad information about Kerr McGee.


The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book

Oklahomans Vol 2 :

Statehood - 2020s

which can be purchased HERE.

View the inspiring 2-minute preview video HERE.

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