Karen Silkwood Was Right in Plutonium Scandal
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.”
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