Karen Silkwood Was Right in Plutonium Scandal

Plant managers add fuel to the fire

Confidential stamp on an envelope. Credit: Melinda Podor/Getty

The Karen Silkwood mystery began three years ago on her last night alive. She was on her way to meet a newspaper reporter and deliver a manila folder of documents about conditions at the Oklahoma plutonium factory where she worked. But she was killed in a suspicious car accident en route and the folder disappeared. Ever since there has been a dispute over the circumstances of her death and what the folder contained.

Just before her death Silkwood had charged that the plant had strayed so far from the federal nuclear code that it posed a danger to its workers and the public, and she allegedly had been collecting proof of that. Some investigators later theorized that Silkwood had also unwittingly uncovered a smuggling ring at the plant and that her documents held information about missing plutonium.

Kerr-McGee Corporation, the plant owner, argued that neither suggestion was true. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the government agency that then regulated the nuclear industry, investigated the company but disregarded any trace of scandal.

Now, however, two former members of the Kerr-McGee plant management—department heads Jim Smith and Jerry Cooper—have corroborated most of Silkwood's original allegations about the company's disregard for safety. In addition, Smith has challenged Kerr-McGee's explanation of what happened to substantial amounts of plutonium which were missing from its inventory.

According to Smith and Cooper, the plant operation was often dangerously sloppy and in conflict with AEC guidelines. Leaking pipes and defective equipment regularly contaminated workers with plutonium, a deadly radioactive substance that can cause cancer. Instead of stopping production, Kerr-McGee ordered its employees to continue working and did not repair the leaks until slack production periods.

At the same time, the two men claim, Kerr-McGee routinely shipped plutonium waste in unsafe leaking containers that sometimes spilled on the plant grounds and may have been responsible for contaminating an area in Kentucky where the waste was buried. An even more alarming problem is the possibility that plutonium was diverted from the plant. On two occasions, Smith says, Kerr-McGee did not recover plutonium that the company had originally reported missing to the AEC. As many as fifty pounds, enough for four nuclear bombs, could be lost if Smith is correct.

A spokesman for Kerr-McGee, which has refused to talk to reporters about the Silkwood controversy since it began, told Rolling Stone the company has no comment about Smith and Cooper's allegations.

In July, Rolling Stone interviewed Smith and Cooper separately in two small towns north of Oklahoma City where they now live. Neither has worked for Kerr-McGee since the Oklahoma City plant closed in December 1975 (the government did not renew its contract). Smith and Cooper were two of the plant's four department heads—Smith in the liquid process of production and Cooper in scrap reprocessing.

The most complete description of the plant operations comes from Smith, 45, a Korean War veteran who spent eighteen years helping make nuclear weapons at the government facility in Rocky Flats, Colorado. Kerr-McGee recruited him in 1969 to assist in setting up its plutonium factory, the second privately owned plant in the country licensed to produce plutonium fuel.

The plant was built twenty miles outside Oklahoma City on a 900-acre site next to an existing uranium plant. Smith says he never would have joined Kerr-McGee if he had known then about what he calls the company's "devil-may-care" attitude toward nuclear safety. He did not learn until later, for instance, that the uranium plant had been dumping contaminated water into the Cimarron river that is used for swimming, fishing and drinking. Though the procedure conformed technically to AEC rules, it created the risk of a major health hazard.

Smith traces the plutonium plant's problems to a $9.6 million AEC contract that Kerr-McGee was awarded in 1972 to produce fuel rods for the government's experimental fast-breeder reactor. Unlike conventional nuclear reactors that are fired with uranium, fast-breeders are designed to use a volatile plutonium fuel. Smith was in charge of processing liquid plutonium into powder A second department turned the powder into small pellets that were inserted in six-foot, pencil-thin fuel rods.

"I think they underbid the job because after that it was just push, push, push," Smith says. Transients and students were often hired to work in the plant, he explains, and most workers were generally unaware of the menace of plutonium because they were improperly trained. Despite the warning alarm, they did not object when they were forced to work in contaminated air for days at a time. According to Smith, several workers quit or were fired without ever realizing that their health may have been jeopardized. The turnover rate was high; during a ten-month period in 1974, 99 out of 287 employees had to be replaced.

Smith estimates that at least 200 workers were contaminated with airborne plutonium during the six years the plant operated, over twice as many as Kerr-McGee reported to the AEC. Under AEC rules, all contamination incidents should have been reported and, except in minor cases, production should have halted while leaks were fixed. But Smith says the company frequently ignored these guidelines.

"We were told to operate or else," he explains. "We didn't have a choice." At one point in early 1973, after a fire filled the air with radioactive dust, Smith says he confronted his superior. "The place was highly contaminated, highly. There was no way the place should have been allowed to run. So I told him, 'No,' and he said, 'Let's go out front'—which meant I was done. So I just put the people back in there. Of course they put the people in protective gear, but protective gear is only X-efficiency. It was production first and to hell with the rest."

Karen Silkwood, who was hired at the plant in 1972, did not initially realize the scope of the problem because her job was in the laboratory, away from the production departments. But after hearing other workers tell about the chronic contaminations she grew outraged and embarked on a campaign to have the plant cleaned up or shut down. In September 1974 she journeyed to Washington D.C. to enlist help from top officials of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International (OCAW). They asked her to return to the plant and gather evidence that could be used in a formal grievance against Kerr-McGee.

Silkwood's detective work ended abruptly on November 13th, 1974, at about 7:30 p.m. when her car smashed into a concrete culvert. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol called it an accident, but OCAW's investigation concluded another car deliberately forced her off the road. The AEC subsequently produced a twenty-page report about conditions at the plant which conceded Kerr-McGee was guilty of some safety violations but dismissed them as technicalities and aberrations.

Both Smith and Cooper, however, say that appraisal was wrong. "Kerr-McGee and the AEC put on rose-colored glasses and said everything was smooth when it actually was screwing up by the numbers," Cooper declares. Cooper, 35, had been with the company eleven years when he was transferred from the uranium plant to the plutonium factory a month after Silkwood's death. Like Smith, Cooper says he was surprised by Kerr-McGee's lack of commitment to specialized handling of plutonium. "They thought of plutonium as if it were no different than oil," he says. "It was hard to believe but I guess it's due to the fact the company's top management is made up of a bunch of old-time oil-field roughnecks who are out of their depth in a space-age industry."

In the previous two years, according to Smith, the plant suffered one near-disaster and more serious contamination incidents than he'd seen in nearly two decades at Rocky Flats. One time a tank overflowed and spilled a plutonium solution a foot deep in certain areas. One leak required thirty days to clean up, Smith says; and another was so massive it contaminated five rooms: "Everyone came out of there hotter than little red wagons," Smith says. After yet another spill, Smith was sent to buy a hundred gallons of white paint to brush over walls and pipes to seal in plutonium flakes that couldn't be washed off.

"The whole place was one big leak," Smith says. "Every time you turned around there was another leak." Kerr-McGee's handling of plutonium outside the plant was equally haphazard, and this created a danger that could still affect thousands of people as far as three states away. The problem arose in the disposal of hundreds of barrels of left-over liquid plutonium.

Kerr-McGee converted the liquid to a solid by mixing twelve gallons of an acid with thirty-three gallons of plutonium waste and then shipped the mixture about 500 miles away to the Maxey Flats Disposal Site near Morehead, Kentucky.

Because of the particular low-cost processing the mixture sometimes became unstable. "It'd start going back to a liquid and then it looked like a big ice cube floating in a barrel," Smith says. When that happened, the acid in the solution began to eat away at the black iron barrels. Truck drivers had to race to Kentucky and unload the drums before holes spouted. Sometimes they didn't make it.

"They had a hell of a problem," Cooper says. "It sometimes leaked out of the barrels before the trucks pulled out of the plant." Once, the radioactive liquid burned through the floorboards of a semi-trailer and the whole truck had to be destroyed. "They took the wheels off and hauled the semi out and buried it," Smith says. On at least three other occasions the waste material leaked from the drums onto the plant grounds and the soil had to be excavated and removed. Some plutonium, Smith says, was never retrieved.

But it is the residents of Morehead, Kentucky, who may have cause for the most concern. The Kerr-McGee drums were buried outside Morehead in a divonian shell, a natural rock formation that usually is nonporous. In 1972, however, state inspectors found that some radioactive waste had escaped the site and washed into nearby streams. At the time Kentucky officials were not certain of the cause of the problem and state inspectors are now examining the divonian shell to see if waste is seeping through fissures in the rock.

Charles Hardin, Kentucky's manager of radiation control, refuses to single out Kert-McGee as the sole culprit. But some circumstantial evidence points to the Oklahoma company. The leaks were discovered in 1972—about the time Kerr-McGee started sending its waste to Morehead—and began to abate in 1975 after the plant closed down.

Shortly after Silkwood's death, Kerr-McGee abandoned its acid-mix process and switched to a more expensive and superior system which eliminated the leakage problem. That change, along with Cooper's transfer into the plutonium plant, was part of a reform move that followed embarrassing national publicity about Silkwood's death. "I was sent in to be part of the solution," Cooper says. "But nothing would ever have been done at that point if the Silkwood case hadn't called attention to the plant."

Kerr-McGee workers were no longer obliged to stay on the job if the contamination alarm sounded, but it took several months to reverse the pattern. "Workers had gotten so used to doing it the other way that we had to train them all over again," Cooper says.

Even with the improvements, other problems remained. Among them was the worrisome question of missing plutonium. Twice in 1974 the plant had to close temporarily when the company could not account for large amounts of plutonium—twenty-two pounds in March and eighteen in September. Both times Kerr-McGee rechecked its inventory and convinced the AEC it had found the nuclear material stuck in the pipes and other equipment.

In each instance, according to AEC records, Kerr-McGee supposedly flushed the pipes with acid. But Smith says that in one case —he does not remember which month—the pipes were never flushed. "We were told to shut down because we were going for a pipe cleaning to find the MUF [material unaccounted for]," he says. "Then, three days later we were told, 'Forget it,' and we were back in operation. It seems to me that somebody must have pulled some strings."

Smith also disputes Kerr-McGee's claim that twenty-two pounds of plutonium were left in the plant's system when it shut down permanently in 1975. That time, he says, he supervised the flushing of the pipes with boiling-hot nitric acid. "We could have flushed for another month," he explains, "and we couldn't have gotten another three ounces out of the sonofabitch. There's no way twenty-two pounds could still be in there."

Federal inspectors accepted Kerr-McGee's accounting of the missing plutonium and ridiculed suggestions that the material could have been lost to thieves. (Besides the twenty-two pounds allegedly still in the plant, another sixteen pounds of plutonium remain unaccounted for in a cumulative Kerr-McGee inventory. The government attributes this to "statistical variations.") But Smith says security at the plant was unaccountably lax. More than $5000 worth of platinum used in the plant laboratory was stolen, he says, and a stereo in a five-foot case was smuggled past guards at the front gate. In his opinion, "those guards couldn't track an elephant in forty feet of snow."

Smith is similarly skeptical of the AEC men who periodically visited the plant for what were supposed to be unannounced, on-the-spot inspections. "There wasn't one time we didn't know about an inspection three days ahead of time," he says. "Somebody at Kerr-McGee had a connection somewhere because we'd always be told about the inspections in the morning management meeting."

Both Smith and Cooper, however, place most of the blame for the plant's problems on the executives at Kerr-McGee headquarters in downtown Oklahoma City. "I didn't have any respect for the way they ran things," Cooper says. "I felt the people at the top of the pile were totally incompetent."

In September 1975, after spending his entire career with the company, Cooper took a radical step. He resigned and bought a service station in Cushing, Oklahoma. His resignation letter was a six-page outpouring of criticism about Kerr-McGee's management policies. "I was told the letter would prevent me from ever getting another job with Kerr-McGee or with any other nuclear facility," he says. "I told them that's why I wrote it. I never want to work for Kerr-McGee or any other big corporation again."

Three months later the last fuel rods were assembled and the front gates of the plant were locked. The Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), which inherited partial jurisdiction over the nuclear industry when the AEC was abolished in January 1975, had decided not to renew Kerr-McGee's contract. Some feel this was due to lingering doubts about the Silkwood controversy.

Smith stayed until the end. During his six years there, he says, he was constantly torn between his anger at the way the plant was run and his obligations to his family. After the plant closed, though, he refused offers to transfer to Kerr-McGee plants in other states because he did not want to uproot his family again, and he settled into semiretirement in Shawnee, Oklahoma, where his wife is a cosmetics executive. "I finally told those bastards what I thought of them when I left," he says. "Maybe I shouldn't have, because now I can't get a job in Oklahoma. I think they've got me blacklisted."

Neither Smith nor Cooper, however, made any public statements about Kerr-McGee until Rolling Stone contacted them. By training and temperament, they are uncomfortable as public figures, and both hesitated to talk on the record. But the intervening two years had given them a long opportunity to reflect.

Despite his Kerr-McGee experience and the questions it raised about nuclear safety, Smith says he believes nuclear power should remain an integral part of the U.S. energy program. Cooper, on the other hand, is less sure. "Since the Silkwood thing, I've done a lot of thinking," he says. "I used to believe totally in nuclear power. Now I don't know. Some incompetent dumb-ass could end up running a nuclear reactor next door to me. I guess maybe I've decided nuclear power is a bad thing, simply because of some of the yo-yos who are running it."

In January 1977, following the publication of an article about the Silkwood case in Rolling Stone, a minority stockholder's resolution was filed asking Kerr-McGee to turn over its records on safety and security at the plutonium plant. The resolution was brought by a Franciscan order in Garrison, New York, which owns 2400 shares of Kerr-McGee stock and which has long been affiliated with the Institute for Corporate Responsibility. In bringing the resolution, the Franciscans cited congressional testimony about the plant's "inconceivable" disregard for safety and allegations in the Rolling Stone article that Kerr-McGee board chairman Dean McGee had intervened to halt the congressional investigation.

But the company successfully appealed to the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) to keep the resolution off the agenda of its annual stockholders meeting and refused to include it in the proxy statement sent to all stockholders. "We've dealt with many corporations concerning many issues in the past," says Brother Robert Taylor, associate treasurer for the Franciscan order. "This is the first time we ran into a company which did not wish to discuss our concerns and which was willing to go to such great lengths to keep the resolution off the proxy." According to Taylor, Kerr-McGee put considerable pressure on the Franciscans to drop its inquiry and, when that failed, it hired an outside law firm, one of whose partners was a former SEC official, to fight the resolution.

With the quashing of the stockholders' resolution, and the failure of a 1976 congressional investigation of security and safety at nuclear plants, the only likely way Kerr-McGee may be held accountable for its plutonium plant operation will be through a lawsuit filed by Karen Silkwood's estate. The suit charges Kerr-McGee with violating Silkwood's civil rights and claims that her fate was an outgrowth of company negligence.

The case should go to trial in Oklahoma next spring. So far, however, few potential witnesses seem eager to get involved, a reluctance that lawyers for the Silkwood estate blame on a continuing pattern of intimidation in the case.

Until September 1977 the only former Kerr-McGee employee identified as a probable witness was Jean Jung, one of Silkwood's co-workers who saw her carrying a folder of Kerr-McGee documents minutes before her death. A few days after Jung's name surfaced in a pretrial deposition she returned to her home in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, and found it ransacked. Nothing of value was missing, but personal papers had been searched and left in disarray. Since then, Jung says, she has been chased by a car while driving home from work and has received several anonymous phone calls that she interprets as warnings for her not to testify.

Jerry Cooper says he also got a phone call—shortly after talking to Rolling Stone in July—informing him that he could lose his service station if he cooperates with the Silkwood lawyers. But both Cooper and Jim Smith say that, if subpoenaed, they will describe under oath what they know of the conditions Silkwood was trying to document. If that happens, their testimony could have serious consequences for their former employer.