vs. the nuclear industry
by Barbara Farrar Karkabi
Environmentalists, feminists and anti-nuclear groups all over the country are anxiously awaiting the outcome of a trial in
Oklahoma City that has been called, "the
trial of the century."
It is the $11.5 million suit by the estate
of the late Karen Silkwood against the
Kerr-McGee Corporation of Oklahoma.
Supporters of the Silkwood case feel that
the outcome will affect the development
of the nuclear industry in the U.S. The decision will be handed down in a matter of
weeks,,if not days.
As Judge Frank Theis said, when he
was introducing himself to the opposing
lawyers in a February 1978 hearing,
"There are a lot of ghosts in this case and
I'm either going to bury them once and
for all, or they're going to get up and walk."
The "ghost" in question is Karen Silkwood, a factory employee at Kerr-McGee's
plant. She died almost five years ago on
Oklahoma State Highway 74 when her
1973 Honda went off the road into a culvert killing the 28-year old driver instantly.
Silkwood was on her way to an interview with a New York Times reporter and
was allegedly carrying documents concerning the health and safety conditions of the
Kerr-McGee Corp.'s Cimarron River plant,
almost 30 miles north of Oklahoma City.
She was also carrying proof of the production of defective nuclear fuel rods at the
The documents Silkwood was carrying
were never found, although the last people to see Silkwood alive recounted in a
sworn affadavit that she was carrying a
brown manila folder and a large notebook.
There is no substance more dangerous
to humans than plutonium. Exposure to
high doses can sicken and kill and even
small doses can lie dormant for years and
produce cancer as much as 20 years later.
The lack of safeguards at the Kerr-McGee
plant was the cause of Silkwood's concern.
According to reports by the Oklahoma
State Police, Silkwood fell asleep at the
wheel and her car veered off the road accidentally. Silkwood supporters and many
other people around the country believe
she was forced off the road.
After the accident, nationally known
auto-crash expert A.O. Pipkin Jr., of Dallas
was hired by the union of Oil, Chemical
and Atomic Workers International (OCAW)
to investigate the crash. Pipkin, an accident investigator, has done more than
2000 investigations and has testified in
300 court trials.
Pipkin's report says that a small, fresh
dent on the rear bumper, indicated to him
conclusively that the car had been struck
from behind by another vehicle.
The highway patrol disagrees and says
that the dent and scratches occurred when
the car struck the concrete culvert while
it was being moved by a wrecker. Pipkin
says that is not possible.
Although the mystery of Silkwood's
death may never be solved, many other
questions will soon be answered when the
KAREN SILKWOOD February 19,1946 - November 13, 1974
trial comes to an end. It is not a question
Silkwood supporters say, of Silkwood vs.
Kerr-McGee, rather, the whole nuclear
industry is on trial.
The story began many years ago, in
Nederland, Texas, where young Karen
Silkwood grew up surrounded by the giant
Texaco, Mobil and Gulf oil refineries that
produce 10 percent of the nation's oil
It is the story of a family's fight to prove
that their daughter's death was more than
just bad luck. It is a story of a small core
of supporters that resolutely refused to
give up and over the years gained nationwide support. And lastly, it is the story of
a brave young woman who had the courage to take on Kerr-McGee, one of the
leaders in the nuclear industry.
ation than anyone at the plant," Merle
Silkwood recalls. "He also said that he
wouldn't work at a nuclear plant for a
million dollars, because the government
just didn't have enough controls."
Karen was also placed in an accelerated chemistry class, one of three girls
among 32 boys. The other two girls could
not keep up their grades and dropped out
causing Merle Silkwood to feel that "it
wasn't right" for Karen to stay alone with
the boys. But Merle says she was persuaded
by the chemistry teacher to let Karen
Silkwood went on to college and studied medical technology, but after her first
year, eloped with Bill Meadows, a young
man she had met in Kilgore, Texas. They
subsequently had three children and di-
'There are a lot of ghosts in this case and I'm
either going to bury them once and for all, or
they're going to sit up and walk."
According to Merle Silkwood, Karen's
mother, you can smell the chemicals in the
air when you wake up in Nederland. Over
the years they cause the paint to peel on
houses and cars.
"The other day," she says, "one of our
neighbors was telling us that we were polluting the atmosphere because we had a
small fire behind our house and I told her
it couldn't possibly make any difference
to our air, it's already so bad."
Nederland is the kind of place that
would create both a belief in technology
and the potential for later disillusionment.
Silkwood was a serious student in high
school and excelled in science. Merle Silkwood adds that she took a course in physics her senior year in high school and was
especially interested in nuclear physics.
"I was talking to her high school radiation teacher recently and he was saying
that she probably knew more about radi-
vorced six years later.
Silkwood gave her husband custody of
the three children, saying they would have
much more security in her husband!s new
marriage. In 1972, she moved to Oklahoma
City and began to work at the Kerr-McGee
plant. Her parents and friends remember
that she was determined to make the plant
her career and all appeared to go well for
the first 20 months.
Shortly after, she was employed
Silkwood joined the union, unlike the
majority of the plant workers. Her mother
feels she may have done this out of the
memory of her grandfather's stories about
the early organizing days of the OCAW in
the Nederland-Beaumont area.
In the late spring of 1974, Karen was
elected one of three governing committee
members of the OCAW local. It was at this
point, her friends say, that her life changed
and would never be the same again.
She became concerned gradually and
then completely with the health and safety of the workers at the Kerr-McGee plant,,
"She was just like that," her mother recalls, "even as a young girl, she was the
type of person that was trying to help
One of her concerns was the fact that
Kerr-McGee would hire high school students with no training and send them to
work at the labs. "I'm sure that must have
upset Karen," her mother says, "she was
such a hard worker and perfectionist herself. She wouldn't like to have anyone
working with her that didn't know what
they were doing."
In the four years that the Kerr-McGee
plutonium plant had been in operation,
there were 17 contamination incidents involving 77 employees. According to a member of the Silkwood investigation team,
the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has 75
violations listed in their files.
The Silkwood trial revealed that, although the link between plutonium and
cancer has been known for years, the
word cancer was mentioned only once in
the plant's handbook. Most of the workers
at the trial testified that they were unaware of the dangers.
Holes in workers' gloves were not uncommon and on several occasions contaminated workers left the plant without
going through the process of decontamination.
In the summer of 1974, Silkwood and
others began to notice a production speedup and a lowering of safety standards. She
also noticed a rapid personnel turnover,
which was attributed to long (12 hour)
shifts. It was at this point that she began to
take notes on various incidents inside the
But, it is specifically the last nine days
of Silkwood's life, from November 5 to 14,
that concerns the Silkwood-Kerr-McGee
trial. Sometime during that period, she
was contaminated by, what the Silkwood
lawyers claim, was enough plutonium to
have made her death by cancer inevitable.
Silkwood had already received a small
amount of contamination on the night'