Karen Silkwood

Anniversary of the death of Karen Silkwood, Nov. 13, 1974

Karen Silkwood, (born February 19, 1946, Longview, Texas, U.S.—died November 13, 1974, near Crescent, Oklahoma), American laboratory technician and activist who attempted to expose the safety violations and negligence at Kerr-McGee’s Cimarron River nuclear facility and died in a car crash before she was able to present her evidence.

The circumstances of her death brought attention to bear on the dangers and wide-ranging and previously little-known influence of the nuclear power industry. She subsequently became a heroine to antinuclear activists and whistle-blowers alike.

Silkwood grew up in Nederland, Texas, the oldest of three daughters. In high school she developed an interest in chemistry, and after graduation she enrolled at Lamar College in Beaumont, Texas, with a full scholarship to study medical technology. She left school, however, after her first year, married, and had three children.

In 1972 she and her husband separated. Silkwood left custody of the children to her husband and took a job with Kerr-McGee, working at the company’s plant near Crescent, Oklahoma, where she helped make plutonium fuel rods for nuclear reactors. (A major firm dealing in inorganic chemicals and petroleum and natural gas exploration, Kerr-McGee was also, until 1989, a leader in Oklahoma’s nuclear power industry. One of its founders, Robert Kerr, had been a powerful U.S. senator [1949–63].)

Silkwood joined the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) and, shortly after starting her job, participated in a nine-week union strike. As a member of the union’s bargaining committee, Silkwood began to monitor the plant’s health and safety practices, which she found lacking; spills, falsification of records, inadequate training, health-regulation violations, and even some missing amounts of plutonium, a highly radioactive material, were among the problems she identified.

Silkwood and two other local union members testified before the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in Washington, D.C., about the plant. Like many whistle-blowers before and since, Silkwood was deemed a troublemaker and was subject to ongoing harassment.

Silkwood joined the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) and, shortly after starting her job, participated in a nine-week union strike. As a member of the union’s bargaining committee, Silkwood began to monitor the plant’s health and safety practices, which she found lacking; spills, falsification of records, inadequate training, health-regulation violations, and even some missing amounts of plutonium, a highly radioactive material, were among the problems she identified.

Silkwood and two other local union members testified before the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in Washington, D.C., about the plant. Like many whistle-blowers before and since, Silkwood was deemed a troublemaker and was subject to ongoing harassment.

After her death Silkwood was discredited by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the AEC, and Kerr-McGee. The Silkwood estate was awarded $10.5 million in 1979, but that amount was reduced to $5,000 upon appeal.

The case was not closed until 1986 when an out-of-court settlement awarded the estate $1.38 million. The Kerr-McGee plant at Cimarron River was deaccessioned in 1976. commons

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