She was 28, a slight woman, dark hair pushing past slender shoulders, haunting beauty nurtured in a smallchild look. She was alone that chilly autumn night, driving her tiny three-door Honda through long stretches of prairie. The Oklahoma fields lay flattened under the crude brushmarks of the wind, the grass unable to snap back to attention. Every few miles a big-boned rabbit, mangled and broken, littered the roadside. A couple years back she had fired off a round of angry letters when sheep ranchers staged rabbit roundups, clubbing to death the furry army that had sprung up on the prairie. She was like that, poking her opinions where they weren’t welcome.
In the early evening darkness of Wednesday, November 13th, 1974, Karen Silkwood was on an environmental mission of another sort. On the seat beside her lay a manila folder with apparent proof that records were being falsified at the plutonium plant where she worked. Waiting at a Holiday Inn 30 miles away were a union official and a New York Times reporter who had just flown from Washington D.C. to Oklahoma City to meet with her.
They waited nearly an hour. Then they picked up the phone.
Karen Silkwood’s body had already been found in a small rivulet along Highway 74 where rabbits often came to drink. Her car had swerved left across the highway, skittered about 270 feet along an embankment, smashed head-on into a culvert wingwall, lurched through the air and caromed off another culvert wall, coming to rest in the muddy stream.
Her death was ruled an accident; the police decided she was asleep at the wheel. But the union official was not satisfied. The manila folder was missing. And a private investigator discovered two fresh dents in the rear of her car: telltale marks of a hit-and-run.
Even in the dead of winter it can be a steamy 80° in Nederland, Texas, a bottom-line speck on the map best known as the hometown of the late Tex (“Hillbilly Heaven”) Ritter. Nederland is tucked in the southeastern crook of the Longhorn State, a half-hour’s drive from the Gulf of Mexico but within mosquito-flying distance of the bogs and bayous. It is a small town with a limited sense of local color. Its most exotic avenues are driveways paved with seashells from the Gulf. Lowing Herefords munch and ruminate in back yards until ready for the oven. A windmill-shaped museum pays tribute to turn-of-the-century Dutch ancestors.
But the most eye-watering landmarks of Nederland are the giant oil refineries obscuring the horizon, coughing out a gray, sinister fog. This corner of Texas produces 10% of the nation’s oil supply; it is Texaco-Mobil-Gulf country, where there are seldom discouraging words about an energy crisis. When the wind is right, which is often, a thick, fetid odor settles over Nederland, clinging to food and clothes, gagging unwary strangers. The smell might explain why Tex Ritter skipped Nederland’s golden anniversary shivaree or why young families leave good-paying jobs to go elsewhere. But the air also reeks of big money. As state Representative Billy Williamson remarked last year when someone suggested shutting down the stinking refineries: “I think we are all willing to have a little bit of crud in our lungs… I don’t need some bunch of do-gooders telling me what’s good to breathe.”
Karen Silkwood never forgot the dirty air and sweet stench. When her teachers talked of a new technology that would eliminate the stink and mess of oil, she was captivated. The clean purr of nuclear power: That was the hope of the future. On her own time Karen enrolled in a six-week course on radiation. In her senior year she was accepted into her high school’s advanced chemistry class, and her father, the town’s premier housepainter, dreamed of his daughter as a scientist. But when her mother, a gentle-faced housewife who moonlighted as a bank clerk, discovered Karen was the only girl in her chemistry class, there was a confrontation. “I thought she should be in something like home economics, and I told the chemistry teacher I wanted her out,” she says. “But he finally made me change my mind. He said she was a better student than the boys.”
Karen was an intense, serious girl who shunned the local teenage hotspots for library reading and volunteer work at a hospital. Her acquaintances remember only one irritating characteristic: She talked back to her teachers, correcting them with an uncanny firmness when they slipped up, say, on the atomic weight of tritium. “She was,” says one old friend, “a very nice person who always wanted to be right about everything.”
She graduated in 1964 with a college scholarship and best wishes from everyone. At nearby Lamar College Karen pursued her science interests, settling on a career as a laboratory analyst, perhaps in nuclear physics.
But before her sophomore year ended, she was whisked away from her studies by a good-looking guy with a promising future as a pipeline supervisor at Mobil Oil. It was seven years, three kids, one bankruptcy and a divorce later before she returned to her earlier ambitions. In August 1972 she left her husband and children, resumed her maiden name and took a job away from the smokestacks of Texas as a laboratory technician for one of the nuclear elite, Kerr-McGee Corporation of Oklahoma City.