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Karen Silkwood: The Case of the Activist’s Death

Two years after the death of a young plutonium worker, investigators face frightening questions and a curtain of silence

Nuclear fuel rod

Nuclear fuel rod. Circa 1998.

SSPL/Getty

A year had passed. The fall of 1975 came and went on the bleak Oklahoma prairie. Karen Silkwood’s death remained a mystery.

On a warm and gentle day in Texas, the first anniversary of the car crash, her parents were comforted by a small phenomenon. The chrysanthemums they had transplanted from her grave to their backyard suddenly bloomed bright yellow and lavender, as if to remind them that their daughter’s spirit was still alive.

In Washington D.C., an ad hoc group of feminists, unionists and nuclear critics were printing a commemorative poster. They had trouble getting a picture of her because her photographs, along with most of her other belongings, had been soiled with plutonium and buried by a nuclear sanitation team. Finally a friend donated a slightly blurred snapshot. The face was tiny and intense, shadowed by dark hair and lit only by the suggestion of a girlish smile.

Under the picture stark lettering was emblazoned: “Karen Silkwood — Dead Because She Knew Too Much?”

The FBI had closed the case, leaving many questions officially unanswered. Then the top executive of the company that employed Silkwood interfered with a congressional reopening of the case, and the Justice Department joined in hamstringing that inquiry.

In the opinion of a congressional investigator, the official handling of the case amounted to a cover-up.

Karen Silkwood, 28 years old, a laboratory analyst at one of ten plutonium plants in the country, died on a lonely stretch of Highway 74 in the early-evening darkness on November 13th, 1974, when her tiny Honda Civic Hatchback ran off the road and smashed into the wing wall of a concrete culvert.

Until 1972 Silkwood had been an unassuming housewife who had dropped out of college and sacrificed a career in science for seven years of marriage. Then she got a divorce, moved to Oklahoma City, headquarters for Kerr-McGee Corporation’s oil and nuclear complex, and found a job at its plutonium plant 20 miles away.

For a quarter-century Kerr-McGee, with assets approaching $1.5 billion, has been a leader in the nuclear industry. In 1951 the company became the first oil producer to decide that nuclear power could be a profitable supplement to petroleum and Kerr-McGee soon ranked as the country’s largest uranium supplier. In the early Seventies it helped pioneer the move to plutonium, a rare substance that is more dangerous and valuable than uranium. The late Robert Kerr, the company founder, was governor of Oklahoma, ran for president as a Democrat in 1952 and, at the time of his death in 1963, was one of the most powerful men in the Senate. Dean McGee, his protégé and successor as head of the corporation, advised President Kennedy on defense policies and President Ford on energy.

Silkwood believed in nuclear power and planned a future at Kerr-McGee when she first arrived in 1972. But as she learned about plutonium’s hazards she slowly turned into a critic of management. Her coworkers respected her candor, and in 1974 they elected her to the local steering committee of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW).

On September 26th, 1974, a few months after her election, Silkwood was invited to the OCAW’s Washington offices where she told the union’s legislative officials that Kerr-McGee’s plant was sloppy, dishonest and unsafe. Steve Wodka, a young OCAW occupational health expert, helped persuade Silkwood to work undercover and gather company files which would corroborate her allegations. News of her spying soon leaked out, however. During the first week of November she was contaminated with plutonium on three consecutive days in what she felt was an attempt by Kerr-McGee to intimidate her.

But she refused to quit, and on November 13th she collected the results of her snooping in a manila folder and headed for a Holiday Inn in Oklahoma City to meet Wodka, her boyfriend Drew Stephens and New York Times reporter David Burnham.

The highway patrolman who helped recover Silkwood’s body from a Highway 74 culvert a short distance from the plant says he noticed several documents scattered in the mud and tossed them in the back of her wrecked Honda. But by the time Wodka, Stephens and Burnham retrieved the car from a garage the next day, the manila folder and documents were gone.

Because an autopsy showed traces of alcohol and a sedative in her bloodstream, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol ruled that Silkwood had fallen asleep and drifted off the road to her death. When the OCAW learned of the missing folder, however, it hired auto accident specialist A.O. Pipkin, a former Albuquerque, New Mexico, policeman, to check for foul play. On November 19th Pipkin announced he had discovered substantial evidence — a fresh dent in the Honda’s rear bumper, inconsistencies with the highway’s contour and skid marks at the scene — that indicated a hit-and-run assailant had forced Silkwood off the road.

That same day Kerr-McGee security chief James Reading began compiling a dossier on Pipkin. Reading phoned a cooperative captain in the New Mexico state police intelligence division and hired Pinkerton Security to investigate him. The only innuendo they dredged up, however, was an unsubstantiated report that Pipkin had “IRS problems” in 1955.

Reading later claimed Kerr-McGee needed the dossier for a lawsuit the company expected to be filed on behalf of Silkwood. Kerr-McGee did not want Silkwood’s death turned into an anticompany rallying point.

But that did not explain why the company should worry about a lawsuit, assuming it had no complicity in Silkwood’s death.

A year and a half later Jacque Srouji, a sometime journalist from Nashville, supplied an answer. The key to the mystery, she said, was in the missing manila folder.

Silkwood must have unwittingly collected documents that would have uncovered a nuclear smuggling ring at the plant, Srouji said. The smugglers must have poisoned Silkwood with plutonium to scare her and to keep her quarantined — away from the Kerr-McGee files — and when Silkwood bravely returned to the plant they ran her off the road and pilfered her folder.

“Karen Silkwood must have had figures in her possession which not only pinpointed the exact amount of nuclear material missing but the persons involved as well,” Srouji said. “She didn’t know the time bomb she was carrying.”

Srouji did know a lot about the case. Her good friend Larry Olson was the FBI agent who investigated Silkwood’s death.

Larry Olson, 44 years old, a tall, fair-haired 15-year FBI veteran with no sign of a paunch, gave scant notice to Silk-wood’s accident when he first read about it in the local papers. But after the New York Times called national attention to Pipkin’s hit-and-run theory, the Bureau as signed the case to him. He was picked, he says, because he is an Oklahoma native and one of his regular duties was to serve as the FBI’s liaison to Kerr-McGee.

As he later told congressional investigators, Olson’s first stop was Kerr-McGee’s 30-story granite headquarters in downtown Oklahoma City where he chatted with security chief Reading and W.C. “Spot” Gentry, a retired FBI agent who had hired on at Kerr-McGee as a security consultant.

It is generally known among Olson’s associates that he has a fascination for the titillating qualities of criminology — in the mid-Sixties when Olson was stationed in Nashville he once offered to entertain U.S. attorney Gil Merritt with FBI tapes of Martin Luther King’s bedroom conversations — and Reading and Gentry were soon plying Olson with notes on Silkwood’s sex and drug habits. Olson copied down everything, he says, because he felt it might prove germane.

Reading’s mind was already made up: Silkwood’s allegations about the company should be disqualified because she was bisexual (“‘Lesbies’ don’t care, they’ll do anything”) and because “narcotics paraphernalia” had been found in her apartment.

Olson treated the case with his usual tenacity. He interviewed Silkwood’s friends and satisfied himself that she had experimented with, in his FBI jargon, “switch-hitting.” But he could not connect bisexuality to her death, and the “narcotics paraphernalia” turned out to be a syringe and beaker from the plant which she had been using for cooking.

So Olson turned to the trace of alcohol that had been found in her bloodstream. For a while he was obsessed with finding the source of the alcohol. He checked with the cafe where she had eaten supper and chased leads as far afield as Idaho. But the alcohol, regardless of where it came from, was not enough to contribute to her falling asleep at the wheel. Of more significance were the .35 milligrams of methaqualone the autopsy revealed.

Silkwood’s nerves had begun to erode as she sneaked Kerr-McGee documents into the manila folder in the month before she died, and a doctor had prescribed the chalky white Quaaludes to help her sleep at night. But, her friends say, she also was taking them during the day.

The question was whether .35 milligrams, less than one pill, were enough to lull her to sleep as she drove down Highway 74. The Oklahoma City medical examiner, A.J. Chapman, said yes. Eight independent toxicologists, interviewed separately by ABC’s Reasoner Report, National Public Radio and a congressional subcommittee, disagreed, partly because they felt Silkwood had built up a tolerance on a regular diet of the pills.

Olson opted to suppress his curiosity and accept Chapman’s verdict without consulting the other toxicologists. He was content with the notion that Silkwood had died in a drug stupor.

Besides, he had become preoccupied with an aspect of the case that was truly enigmatic: the flecks of plutonium that had suddenly appeared on Silkwood’s skin and in her digestive system the week before her death. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which then regulated the nuclear industry, had investigated her contamination and concluded that Silkwood had been infected in her apartment. Olson was puzzled by how the plutonium, which by law had to be kept under strict security, could have escaped the plant.

“The most reasonable explanation seems to be that the gastrointestinal contamination was caused by self-administration by Employe A [Silkwood],” a Kerr-McGee official wrote in a January 1975 letter to the AEC. By Kerr-McGee’s reckoning, Silkwood had deliberately swallowed a microscopic dose of plutonium at work and walked undetected past the alpha counters at the door (which cannot spot internal contamination) as part of a bizarre plot to embarrass the company. At the time, Silkwood was regularly emptying her urine and fecal wastes into plastic one-quart boxes for lab tests because four months earlier she had been contaminated in a mishap at the plant and the company was required to monitor her health. Kerr-McGee officials suspected Silkwood tried to doctor her waste samples to prove the plant was chronically unsafe.

While Olson initially had no misgivings about Kerr-McGee’s motives, he began to grow uneasy about the company’s pat assessment of Silkwood’s role. Silkwood’s friends informed him that she had been genuinely scared when she discovered her insides were corrupted with plutonium, which can cause cancer even in small doses. That description did not fit the portrait of a cool-handed actress schemingly popping plutonium in her mouth.

Olson briefly toyed with a countertheory: that Silkwood had slipped a vial of plutonium into her vagina or rectum, then used a syringe to spike her samples at home, accidentally spilling some in the process. Olson tested the syringe found in her apartment, the same one Reading had earlier categorized as the tool of a junkie, but it was not radioactive.

Olson also had doubts about the inherent logic of either theory. Seventy-three workers at the plant had been contaminated in the previous four years. One more could not be that much more embarrassing for the company, and hardly worth the risk to Silkwood.

But what nagged at Olson’s curiosity most of all was the baloney and cheese in her refrigerator. The AEC inspectors had found that the highest concentration of plutonium in the apartment was, oddly, on the two sandwich foods. “The AEC had no idea how it got there, and I didn’t either,” Olson says. “For a while I thought maybe she had been ‘abusing’ herself with a ring of baloney, and that the plutonium had gotten on that way. But I checked and found it was sliced baloney.”

While Olson was mulling, National Public Radio reported in late December 1974 that the AEC was worried about 40 pounds of plutonium that could not be accounted for at the Kerr-McGee plant. At the same time David Burnham, the reporter who was to meet Silkwood at the Holiday Inn, quoted government sources in the New York Times as saying that up to 60 pounds of plutonium might be missing.

In that quantity plutonium is highly valued contraband. It was first discovered in 1940 during the search for the atom bomb and usually occurs as a yellow-green powder or slushy gray liquid. Although it is sometimes available for commercial use under government contract, as at Kerr-McGee, the world’s supply is controlled by the U.S., the U.S.S.R. and the other nations of the nuclear elite. Only 12 pounds are needed for a bomb capable of destroying a medium-sized city. The grade of plutonium being processed at Kerr-McGee has a price set by the government of $70 a gram. But on the black market it could sell for five to ten times that much; 60 pounds could be worth $5-$10 million.

Without pressing Kerr-McGee for details, Olson confirmed that the company had been having trouble with its nulcear inventory. His curiosity was aroused. Silkwood had been contaminated with plutonium; that was indisputable. The plutonium had come from the Kerr-McGee plant; that was a near certainty. Some 40-60 pounds of plutonium were unaccounted for; that appeared to be a well-grounded allegation.

Olson developed a theory: Silkwood had been stealing plutonium.

In early January 1975 he took his theory to Ted Rosack, the acting agent in charge of the FBI’s Oklahoma City bureau. Olson wanted permission to open up a new line of investigation into the alleged disappearance of plutonium. Rosack hesitated, according to a confidant of his, and then decided to discuss the situation with an old friend, William DeBruler, the agent then in charge of the Atlanta bureau, who apparently advised him to submit Olson’s request directly to FBI headquarters.

Olson obligingly prepared an official “letterhead memo” outlining the evidence, being careful not to sound reckless or foolish, according to Rosack’s friend, who says he saw a copy of the memo. Rosack attached his personal note to the “letterhead memo” recommending that Olson be given the go-ahead.

The response from FBI headquarters was an unequivocal rejection that stunned both Olson and Rosack. “Washington sent back an LHM [“letterhead memo”] telling Olson to forget about the missing plutonium, that it didn’t have anything to do with the Silkwood case,” Rosack’s friend says. “In effect, he was told not to poke his nose where it didn’t belong.”

(The FBI’s official stance is that it did not veto any part of Olson’s investigation. But a January 28th, 1975, letter to the General Accounting Office from Thomas Henderson, a deputy director of the Justice Department’s management and labor section, indicates he was aware the FBI was limiting its probe. “The FBI is conducting an investigation to determine if Silkwood’s death was accidental,” he wrote. “The investigation does not include possible suspects or motives.”)

Olson sent another “letterhead memo,” seconded by Rosack, protesting the decision. But that only elicited a sterner warning from Washington to steer clear of a smuggling investigation. Shortly thereafter Rosack was relieved of his position and transferred to Denver, a move that his colleagues interpreted as a demotion.

Olson, meanwhile, stewed about the turgid nay-saying of Washington bureaucrats. He was sure the missing plutonium was a clue to Silkwood’s contamination. He became so consumed that he broke one of the first rules of the FBI’s secrecy code and phoned Joe Pennington, a young prize-winning newsman then at radio station KTOK in Oklahoma City.

The two met in a lightly trafficked bar. Pennington says that Olson, in the grip of outrage and confusion, explained his theory that a smuggling ring was at large in the plant. That coincided with other information Pennington had picked up. So in late January he went on the air with the possibility that smugglers were responsible for the missing plutonium.

Earlier in January Pennington had broadcast a report from a confidential Kerr-McGee source that 40-50 pounds of plutonium seemed to be missing. In response to that report, Kerr-McGee had sent a letter to station KTOK. “The letter pointed out that I was reporting on a very sensitive area and that I might inadvertently be jeopardizing national security,” Pennington says. At that time KTOK officials had assured him they would not be intimidated.

But after his broadcast about smuggling, Pennington says, “I got the feeling Kerr-McGee was putting more pressure on the station. It wasn’t long before it was made clear to me that I was to drop the Silkwood story and move on to other things.” Because he was already embroiled in an unrelated power struggle at the station, Pennington left KTOK in early February for a news job at a radio station in Columbus, Ohio.

He had only been in Columbus a few weeks, he says, when Olson phoned. The FBI agent told Pennington he had just learned from a Kerr-McGee source that up to 120 pounds of plutonium were now missing, most of it since Silkwood’s death. Olson had begun to revise his thinking. He now suspected OCAW higher-ups of stealing the plutonium and contaminating Silkwood to undermine Kerr-McGee. He felt Silkwood had possibly been a pawn or a patsy. Olson entreated Pennington to turn his news-hound’s attention to the OCAW. A few days later Olson called again, Pennington says, but his new employer was not interested in a story that was four months old and four states away. And by this time, the media in Oklahoma City also had begun to neglect the Silkwood case.

The Justice Department, which has jurisdiction over the FBI, seemed even more anxious to be rid of the case. Before Olson’s reports were finished, Phil Wilens, chief of the Justice Department’s management and labor section, was portraying the investigation as a foregone conclusion. On February 12th Wilens sent a memo to Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Keeney which said that no criminality was involved in the case, even though Wilens had then seen only three of the 11 FBI field reports.

The official end came rapidly. In mid-April Wilens directed Thomas Goldstein, a young lawyer in the management and labor section, to draft a final “Fact Memorandum,” a procedure which usually means sifting through all the evidence and reaching an independent verdict. But Goldstein entered the case only two weeks before he was scheduled to leave the Justice Department for a job in Miami, a period in which he also had to foreclose some federal litigation in New York.

“We found that Goldstein made no attempt to clarify the contradictions that screamed out all over the place,” says one congressional investigator. “He never even contacted Olson.”

Goldstein’s “Fact Memorandum” focused only on A.O. Pipkin’s hit-and-run scenario.

To Pipkin, the tire tracks at the scene indicated that Silkwood had skidded violently off the left side of Highway 74, then had straightened the wheel and driven along the shoulder for nearly 100 yards. She had not tried to return to the highway, as if another car prevented her from doing so, until she saw the lurking culvert and frantically turned the steering wheel. Pipkin disputed the Highway Patrol’s asleep-and-drifting theory on three points. He argued that a drifting car, as a Reasoner Report simulation of the accident later showed, would have veered into a field before it reached the culvert. He also felt that the highway’s center-line crest should have steered a drifting car to the right, not the left. And the dent in the Honda’s rear bumper, free of the customary road film that comes from driving the dusty prairie, seemed to him tangible proof that another vehicle had banged into Silkwood’s car.

Goldstein ignored Pipkin’s first point and discounted the other two.

One reason the Honda crashed on the left, Goldstein wrote, was a furious wind that helped shove the lightweight car to its destruction. A fellow Justice Department official later described the wind as a 60-70 mile-per-hour howler. But congressional investigators determined that Goldstein’s information was predicated solely on a tip from an anonymous caller who had phoned the FBI in Dallas. Neither Goldstein nor Olson had bothered to check with the National Weather Bureau, which recorded the wind at the time of the accident at 15 miles per hour out of the north, a modest blow behind the car that should not have interfered with the crash.

The dent in the bumper posed a larger dilemma for Goldstein. The Highway Patrol initially figured wrecker driver Ted Sebring had caused it when he dragged the Honda over the concrete wing wall. But another OCAW auto-crash expert conducted tests which showed the dent resulted from “contact between two metal surfaces.” So Goldstein then suggested that Drew Stephens. Silkwood’s boyfriend, had contrived the dent after the car was turned over to him, a speculation for which there was no evidence whatsoever.

On April 29th, the day before he left the Justice Department, Goldstein issued his “Fact Memorandum.” Such reports are often detailed accounts that number 100 pages or more; Goldstein’s report was four and a half pages long. His conclusion was the same one his boss, Wilens, had predicted 11 weeks earlier: no foul play.

The “Fact Memorandum” was supposed to be the final, official benediction. But Larry Olson wasn’t told about it and remained on the lookout for a way to investigate the OCAW and perk up flagging media interest in the case. When Jacque Srouji came west, he sensed he’d found it.

Jacque Srouji, a one-time wide-eyed FBI informant, now a matronly 32-year-old journalist, first learned about the Silkwood mystery while authoring two articles on nuclear power for Nashville! magazine in late 1974. The articles landed Srouji a small advance from a fledgling Nashville publishing company to write a book about the nuclear industry. Srouji planned to devote a chapter to the Silkwood case because she expected a firsthand account from Olson.

A decade before, when Srouji was a cub reporter at the Nashville Banner, her publisher had instructed her to supply the FBI with special reports on civil rights and antiwar demonstrations she’d covered. Olson had been her control agent in the Nashville bureau between 1963 and 1967.

Srouji left the Banner in 1968 and Olson moved to Oklahoma City soon afterward. She switched briefly to a job at the rival Nashville Tennessean (without telling her new editors of her FBI other life), but quit to spend more time with her three children and to begin freelancing. Then in 1975 the FBI took a renewed interest in Srouji.

While researching her book Srouji went to the Soviet Embassy in Washington to get the U.S.S.R.’s catechism on nuclear power. There she met the second secretary of the embassy, Sergei Zaitsev, not realizing that Zaitsev had long been suspected of being a KGB colonel. When the FBI’s surveillance cameras spotted Srouji talking to Zaitsev, the FBI recruited her to spy on him. Her assignment to unmask Zaitsev, however, ran afoul of her excursion into the Silkwood case.

Srouji arrived in Oklahoma City in early April 1975. Olson welcomed her, glad to resume an old friendship and to have an audience for his suspicions, and he arranged for her to meet Reading at the Kerr-McGee building. Reading tried to indoctrinate her with tales of Silkwood’s sex life, Srouji says, and he confided that the company, in apparent violation of the law, had hired Pinkerton detectives to monitor OCAW activists.

Olson then took her step by step through his investigation and, in another breach of the FBI code, loaned her his files, which she photocopied before returning. He engaged her in a labyrinthine discussion of the war of FBI “letterhead memos” between Oklahoma City and Washington and introduced her to his theory about the missing plutonium and the OCAW. Srouji found it all very overwhelming and complicated. For a while she joined Olson in pursuit of a solution. But she was handicapped by her deadline and once she had gathered enough material for her chapter she grew discouraged about Olson’s quest. By summer she was sidetracked into the Zaitsev caper.

Olson also was growing weary. In October he made one final effort when he finessed FBI protocol and arranged an interview with Dr. Dean Abrahamson, a University of Minnesota physicist-physician. “It was very strange,” Abrahamson recalls. “Most of the questions were about the nuclear material that was unaccounted for at the plant.” In 1974, at the OCAW’s behest, Abrahamson had tried to educate Kerr-McGee’s workers on the menace in plutonium, and Silkwood had later turned to him when she became contaminated. But Abrahamson knew nothing about smuggling.

After that Olson returned full time to other police work. Srouji had resumed working part time on the Tennessean news desk a month earlier. She’d finished her research and had written a first draft. Because Olson’s cooperation had been extracurricular, she had promised not to use his name in her book or mention the “letterhead memos.”

Kitty Tucker is a frizzy-haired, 32-year-old law student. She first read about Silkwood’s death in a Washington Post article, which downplayed the OCAW’s claim of murder. But Tucker continued to follow the case in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Ms. and other magazines, which did not.

Tucker, then the legislative coordinator for the Washington D.C. chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), became a walking encyclopedia on Silkwood and began to empathize with her posthumous plight. She came to view Silkwood as a heroine of women’s liberation, the labor movement and the antinuclear struggle. And, beyond the symbolism, she also saw an unsolved murder.

She asked her husband, an environmentalist named Bob Alvarez, for suggestions and took her concern to Sara Nelson, the national labor task-force coordinator for NOW. On a warm July evening a meeting was held at the rambling frame house near downtown Washington where Tucker lives. Tucker, Alvarez, Nelson and another NOW official agreed to take up the Silkwood cause under the organization’s national banner.

On August 26th Tucker, Nelson and NOW President Karen DeCrow confronted Phil Wilens, John Keeney and two other Justice Department officials in a carpeted government office. The NOW women demanded to know why the Silkwood case had been closed. The Justice Department men, relying on Goldstein’s “Fact Memorandum,” tried to explain away the inquiry, but the women were asking for answers the “Fact Memorandum” didn’t have.

“They started to get irritated and they told us that we must be watching too much television because in real life all crimes are not solved,” Tucker says.

Insulted, the NOW women held a press conference and branded the “Fact Memorandum” a coverup. Then they convened another strategy session. What they needed, they decided, was enough public attention to command a congressional investigation. They launched a petition drive and began soliciting contributions and allies from the disparate ranks of feminism, labor and ecology.

In late September Tucker and Nelson placed a joint call to Silkwood’s parents in Nederland, Texas, a tiny town near the Louisiana border and the Gulf of Mexico. Bill and Merle Silkwood, hardworking, churchgoing Baptists, had been dumbfounded by their daughter’s death and her ensuing notoriety. They blamed themselves for not insisting she come home when she phoned the day before the accident. “She didn’t tell us what she was doing,” says her mother, who works as a bank clerk. “But she sounded scared, and she said she was going to come see us as soon as she finished a few things first.”

The next they knew she was dead. After they read Pipkin’s report, they suspected murder. “Coincidences like that just don’t happen,” says her father, a house painter whose major passion is gardening.

He was pleased when the FBI took the case, he says, because “I was sure the FBI would get to the bottom of this.” To Bill Silkwood the FBI represented old-fashioned integrity. So he was disappointed and chagrined when the FBI and the Justice Department abandoned his daughter’s case. “I don’t know why, but the FBI has let us down,” he told Tucker and Nelson when they called. “I can’t even get a copy of the FBI report.”

Tucker and Nelson invited Silkwood’s parents to an upcoming NOW convention in Philadelphia. Bill and Merle Silkwood, who only vaguely knew of NOW and had never been to Philadelphia, accepted. On October 25th in Philadelphia, Karen Silkwood was presented an honorary NOW membership. The convention crowd fell silent as Merle Silkwood approached the podium and accepted for her daughter.

On November 13th, the first anniversary of Silkwood’s death, NOW proclaimed “Karen Silkwood Memorial Day.” Nelson delivered a moving eulogy to a large antinuclear rally in New York. Four days later 300 nuclear critics from the Ralph Nader-sponsored Critical Mass Conference in Washington held a candlelight vigil in Silkwood’s memory on the steps of Capitol Hill. Bill Silkwood addressed the gathering.

“We taught Karen to speak up when she saw something that was wrong,” he spoke haltingly, emotion breaking his voice. “Maybe that’s why she’s not here tonight. But her death will not have been in vain if you all speak up now and don’t let her killers get away.”

That same weekend the media began to resurrect the Silkwood controversy. Major-length features appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Star and San Francisco Chronicle, and shorter articles were printed in the Washington Post and New York Times.

Simultaneously, the offices of U.S. senators Abraham Ribicoff and Lee Metcalf were besieged with letters and phone calls from NOW members. NOW had targeted Ribicoff and Metcalf because they are chairmen of a committee and subcommittee, respectively, which oversee government operations.

On November 18th Tucker, Alvarez and Nelson led a delegation — which included Silkwood’s parents, NOW official Eleanor Smeal, a Ralph Nader representative, a United Auto Workers leader and a few other associates — to a meeting with Ribicoff and Metcalf. The two senators were not prepared for the stampede of solidarity for a dead plutonium worker. Impressed with their plea and the 8500 petition signatures Tucker brought, Ribicoff and Metcalf promised to reopen the case forthwith. Metcalf was to be in charge of the new investigation, and his investigators were to have sub poena power and all the other necessary accouterments.

Tucker and Nelson were overjoyed. Then, five months later, just as Metcalf was to commence public hearings, they were jolted by a turnabout. Metcalf announced quietly that he was canceling the hearings and annulling the promised investigation.

Metcalf’s abrupt decision came one day after a visit from Kerr-McGee’s chairman of the board, Dean McGee. Metcalf explained that McGee had urged him to drop the investigation because the OCAW was now satisfied with the Justice Department’s “Fact Memorandum.” OCAW president Al Grospiron quickly rebutted McGee’s claim and repeated the union’s discontent with the official verdict. But Metcalf refused to reconsider his decision, or to discuss it with his staff.

Nor was he forthcoming about what else McGee had told him. Metcalf did admit, under further questioning by reporters, that McGee had mentioned the issue of missing plutonium but he declined to say whether McGee had invoked the specter of “national security.”

Peter Stockton, 37 years old, a former Budget Bureau economist and Capitol Hill weapons analyst, now a meticulous congressional investigator, was so intrigued by the Silkwood case when he first read about it that he took a leave of absence to fly to Oklahoma City. Through a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, Stockton teamed up with Barbara Newman, National Public Radio’s top Washington reporter, and the two spent several weeks exploring the same clues and interrogating the same witnesses as Larry Olson. In a late-December 1974 radio broadcast they became the first to reveal Kerr-McGee’s inventory problem, the tip that had sent Olson on his search for the missing plutonium.

But Stockton and Newman returned to Washington irritated with their failure to learn more. “I left Oklahoma with the feeling that somebody very powerful didn’t want the full truth to come out,” Stockton says. So when Metcalf’s chief counsel, Win Turner, asked him to help reopen the case a year later, he was enthusiastic. At the time Stockton was working in the House of Representatives for Congressman John Dingell, who agreed to loan him to Metcalf’s staff.

Stockton and Turner’s first discovery was that Kerr-McGee’s plutonium plant was about to be shut down. The Energy Research and Development Administration, apparently disquieted by the reemerging Silkwood uproar, had decided not to renew the company’s contract. “We got the feeling that Kerr-McGee caused the cancellation in the hope we would call off our investigation,” Stockton says.

Instead Stockton and Turner forged ahead. They reviewed the bulging file the AEC had maintained on Kerr-McGee and found that AEC officials had been misleading the public about safety and record-keeping problems at the plant. On January 7th, 1975, the AEC had issued a report that tended to minimize Silkwood’s original allegations about dangerous working conditions and falsified lab tests. On the same day, however, according to an AEC internal document, regional director James G. Keppler was telling Dean McGee that his company had “serious management problems” closely paralleling Silkwood’s charges.

Down in Nashville, meanwhile, Jacque Srouji was at the Tennessean copy desk scanning stories from the United Press International teletype when she spotted one about Metcalf’s entry into the case. On her next day off she flew to Washington to “see if anything new had turned up that I could use in my book.” She conferred with Turner, found that “Congress knew less than I did,” and flew back to Nashville.

But Srouji had told Turner about the FBI reports she had photocopied, and he asked Stockton to arrange a followup meeting. A few days later Stockton met Srouji in Nashville. She let him examine a few pages from a stack of papers but, to protect Olson, she did not show him any sensitive reports or say anything about Olson’s smuggling theory.

“I didn’t press her on it,” Stockton says, “because I didn’t want to get into a journalistic hassle over the First Amendment and because I assumed we’d get the same reports from the Justice Department anyway.”

The Justice Department, however, was not cooperating at all. Stockton and Turner had met with John Keeney and another deputy assistant attorney general on November 20th to request the Silkwood file. The Justice Department officials refused.

After Stockton and Turner threatened to inveigh with a subpoena, the Justice Department retreated slightly. On November 25th the two investigators were allowed to inspect Goldstein’s meager “Fact Memorandum.” In a followup meeting a lower-echelon official let it slip that Keeney had specifically censored out Olson’s file on Silkwood’s contamination and the missing plutonium. “We are not sure why,” Stockton wrote in a congressional memo the next day. “It may have made no sense or it may have been too revealing.”

Three weeks later, after more haggling, the Justice Department turned over an edited version of Olson’s investigative file. “The blanks in the file,” Stockton says, “raised some wild questions.” But the Justice Department refused to release the rest of the file, which included Olson’s “letterhead memos.”

On February 13th Stockton tried unsuccessfully to bypass the Justice Department roadblock by phoning Olson in Oklahoma City. “Olson told me that he’d been ordered not to talk to me or anyone else from Congress.”

Stockton made up his mind to fly to Oklahoma City and to Chicago, regional headquarters for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (which had assumed the AEC’s policing duties), for a face-to-face confrontation with Olson and NRC officials about the missing plutonium, in preparation for the hearings. To do so, he needed Senator William Brock from the Senate Government Operations Committee to approve his expense voucher. Weeks passed while Brock delayed, leaving Stockton in an awkward hiatus. Finally, in late March, Stockton and Turner met with a Brock aide. “It was the damnedest meeting I’ve ever been in,” Stockton recalls. “I was told that the Kerr-McGee inventory wasn’t any of my business and that I was overstepping my authority to try and investigate it.”

Baffled, Stockton and Turner appealed to Metcalf for a subpoena of Olson and the Justice Department officials. But a week later Dean McGee intervened and Metcalf dropped the case, plunging the congressional investigation into a crisis.

Stockton’s only administrative mooring now was with Congressman Dingell, a balding 21-year House veteran from suburban Detroit. A year before, shortly after he’d returned from his reporter’s sabbatical, Stockton had talked to Dingell about the alleged missing plutonium at Kerr-McGee. Dingell, who chairs the House Small Business Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, subsequently asked the General Accounting Office for a full report on the inventories of all nuclear facilities, an accounting that was not yet complete. In the meantime Stockton had kept Dingell appraised of the Silkwood investigation, and Dingell’s subcommittee had become an ex officio party to the case.

By this time Stockton had come to view the case as a personal challenge, and he asked Dingell to pick up where Metcalf had left off.

Dingell agreed. Dingell’s father had been a political foe of McGee’s former mentor, Senator Robert Kerr, even though both were Democrats. In a 1950 congressional fight over a bill sponsored by Kerr to benefit big oilmen like himself, the elder Dingell had referred to him as a “horse thief.” Kerr had a reputation for using his influence promiscuously on behalf of the energy industry, his company and himself. During his tenure in the Senate (1948-63), his company’s worth grew seventeen fold and his personal fortune rose from about $1 million to $35 million. One reason was Kerr-McGee’s monopolistic role as a uranium supplier to the government; one AEC contract alone earned the company $300 million. In 1962 the executive director of the Uranium Institute accused Kerr of employing “predatory politics,” and Capitol Hill errand boy Bobby Baker, who looked on Kerr as “a father,” later implicated him in the influence-peddling scandal for which Baker went to prison.

Dingell did not want the Silkwood investigation sacrificed to some lingering senatorial courtesy, and he also felt the Justice Department was snubbing congressional authority in the case. So, even though he had to stretch