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.