“The humanities teach us the value, even for business, of criticism and dissent. When there’s a culture of going along to get along, where whistleblowers are discouraged, bad things happen and businesses implode.” ~ Martha C. Nussbaum
Karen Silkwood was born in Texas in 1946, and it was obvious at a young age she was a mold-breaker. She was a straight-A student all through school who loved and excelled in science, which was unheard of for a girl at that time. By high school, Karen opted out of home-ec and threw herself into her passion for chemistry. Even more unlike women in the ’60s and ’70s, Karen was granted a full-ride scholarship to Lamar University in Beaumont Texas.
When Karen came home for the summer from college, she met a man named William Meadows and her life started to veer in a different coarse. Meadows had a job with an oil company and quickly swept Karen off her feet. The two were married in 1965, and Karen dropped out of school. Kids followed shortly after. The marriage wasn’t all Karen hoped. Meadows was known for being an excessive drinker and verbally abusive. He eventually bankrupted them with his outrageous spending habits. Karen’s breaking point in the marriage was in 1972 when she found out about one of his many affairs and he refused to call it off. Karen demanded a divorce, but Meadows would only comply if she agreed to give up custody of the three children. It took a while, but she eventually did.
Karen moved to Oklahoma City to start over. She worked for a short time as a clerk at a local hospital before taking a job at The Kerr-McGee Nuclear Power Plant in nearby Crescent, Oklahoma. The power plant began as Anderson and Kerr Drilling Company in 1929, and then in 1946 when geologist Dean McGee joined the company, it was changed to Kerr-Mcgee. The company had many branches throughout other than nuclear power.
Karen’s job was as a metallography technician at the plutonium plant working on the fuel rods. She was proud to have a job where she could use her knowledge and background in chemistry. Not long after Karen started work, a strike began and she joined the workers union. The strike was unsuccessful and many of the workers at Kerr-McGee left the union, but Karen stayed. She was elected to the bargaining committee and became the first woman in the company’s history to hold that position.
Karen took her new role of overseeing the health and safety of the plant seriously and immediately started finding unsafe work conditions and multiple regulation violations. She discovered faulty respiratory equipment, inadequate training as they mostly hired untrained transients and students, falsification of documents, health regulation violations, improper storage of samples, and 40lbs of missing plutonium. So it’s safe to say the plant was very lax about everything. How do you not notice a small child size amount of plutonium missing? Regulations and violations within the plant were so common that between 1970-1975 there were 574 accidental exposures to radiation. In the company’s handbook in bold capital letters, it said: “RADIATION IS SAFE”.
In the summer of 1974, Karen, as part of her new role as bargaining committee, was called to testify before the Atomic Energy Commission in Washington, D.C. about the compliance issues within the plant. She surmised that safety regulations had slipped to keep up with increased production.
Needless to say by this time, Karen had placed herself on a few peoples bad side. Karen had gone from being a well-liked employee and co-worker to being enemy number one. She had pissed off the workers who were fed up and left the union, the higher up’s at Kerr-McGee were wanting her to stop talking, and a lot of workers were scared she would get the plant shutdown and they would be out of a job.
On November 5th, 1974 as Karen finished up her work and was getting ready to leave for the day, she performed a routine check for plutonium exposure. To her shock she tested positive. Not only did she test positive, but she tested positive for over 400x the legal limit. Karen was immediately stripped naked and put into a decontamination shower.
In a decontamination shower, the person is scrubbed, naked, with tough brushes. The skin is rubbed raw to make sure all the contaminant is removed. The person is also instructed not to cry because the salt from tears will burn the raw skin and make the pain worse.
The gloves she was wearing tested positive for plutonium, but only on the inside and there were no holes or tears in the gloves. The room Karen was working in was tested, and nothing, not even the air filters, showed any exposure. Neither did Karen’s car or locker. After the shower, Karen was sent home with a 5-day collection kit for her urine and stool.
The following day, Karen went to her office to work on paperwork and attend a union meeting. She tested herself on the way to the meeting and again, tested positive for exposure to plutonium. It was primarily on her hands and the right upper side of her body. She was again stripped naked and put into the decontamination shower and her car and locker were tested. Both her car and locker were still negative.
On November 7th Karen dropped off her urine and stool samples she had collected thus far, and the lab also took a nasal swab. Both the nasal swab and a stool sample showed high levels of alpha radiation activity. The plant sent a health team to search her locker, her car, and her apartment. At her apartment, which she shared with a fellow Kerr-McGee employee, they found significant levels of plutonium in the bathroom and kitchen. Small traces were found throughout the rest of the apartment. In the bathroom, the main areas were the toilet seat, the bath mat, and a spot on the floor. In the kitchen, it was found inside the fridge on a pack of bologna and a package of cheese. Other areas in the kitchen were the floor and the side of the stove. Karen said that she spilled a little of her urine sample which explained the floor, but for some insane reason she also said she got the pack of bologna out of the fridge because she was going to make a sandwich and she took it to the bathroom and sat it on the toilet seat. Then she said she remembered she had leftovers at the office and returned the bologna to the fridge. That’s all the explanation I have. I feel like she would have been better off just saying she didn’t wash her hands. The team left her apartment ransacked.
The type of plutonium found inside Karen came from an area of the plant she had not accessed for over four months. The plutonium pellets were also inside a vault. It seemed like the type of contamination and the levels she was emitting were caused by ingestion. Mark Jenson of the Argonne National Lab stated, “it is (plutonium) strongly retained by humans when ingested primarily lodging in bone and liver cells where it releases alpha radiation”. When alpha radiation is released it is basically a bunch of tiny bullets being shot off inside the body.
This was the ’70s though, and Karen was told she would be just fine. A physician even told her she could still have more children.
Throughout her time dealing with the inadequacies in the plant, she sought help from a doctor for anxiety, depression, and difficulty sleeping. She was prescribed the most popular pill of the time, Quaalude. Over time, and the longer the contamination breaches continued, the more Karen took the Quaaludes. Understandably so, she had quite a lot on her plate.
November 13th, 1974 Karen decided to go public with her information against Kerr-Mcgee. She contacted a journalist for the New York Times, and the National Union Representative to meet her in Oklahoma City. Later that day, she attended a union meeting where two witnesses said Karen had a huge stack of documents and photos in a binder that she said would prove everything.
Karen left Crescent in her Honda Civic, headed to Oklahoma City. Seven miles later, on State Highway 74, Karen’s car went off the road and straight into a concrete culvert. The impact killed her. When State Police drove up on the scene they noticed her Quaaludes in the car and concluded she fell asleep at the wheel since the main side effect was drowsiness. The documents were never found.
There were skid marks on the road, showing she may have slammed on her brakes before veering off into the culvert. There were also dents and small specks of paint on the rear bumper on Karen’s Civic. Her family adamantly stated she was never in an accident before that night. Was she intentionally ran off the road? Did the documents really exist?
Karen’s toxicity report from her autopsy showed a level twice the prescribed amount of her Qualoodes, she also tested positive for marijuana and a small amount of alcohol, about the level of one shot or one beer. Her autopsy also showed most of her contamination was in her GI tract, further confirming the ingestion theory.
Karen’s death and a subsequent lawsuit for negligence brought against Kerr-McGee by her family initiated a massive investigation into the plant where it was discovered that in fact 20-30 kilos of plutonium had been “misplaced”. This is enough to produce four nuclear bombs. The nuclear power branch of Kerr McGee shut down in 1975.
Following Karen’s death strange events continued, an investigator disappeared, and one of the witnesses to see her last committed suicide. Simple Coincidence?
Kerr-McGee settled the negligence lawsuit with Karen’s father and children outside of court for 1.3 million dollars and would not accept any liability. In 2006 Kerr-McGee was purchased by Anadarko.
In 1983 a movie was made starring Meryl Streep and Cher called “Silkwood” about the events surrounding Karen’s death and all of the strange occurrences leading up to it.
Some people still say Karen poisoned herself to prove the unsafe conditions, others say it was someone from Kerr-McGee trying to keep her quiet. Some people even think she was on to a conspiracy of who the missing plutonium went to and was silenced. No matter what thought group you belong to, you still can’t give me a valid reason she put the bologna on the toilet seat.