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 plan