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.
The Texas State Police had Robert Pomeroy under investigation. He was a suspected subversive. A dossier was being compiled.
Pomeroy had formed a 40-member citizens’ group early in 1974 to protest the building of a nuclear plant near his home outside Dallas. An undercover agent who had been tailing him reported back that Pomeroy might be using the group as a front, “possibly for a Ralph Nader action.”
What that meant was not clear. But the undercover agent gave the dossier to Continental Airlines, where Pomeroy had worked as a pilot for seven years. When Pomeroy, an ex-Marine with no police record and an impeccable civil image, found out about the dossier, he went to court, suing for libel, slander and a trampling of his civil rights. A state senator looked into the case and guessed that the Texas police had been put up to the job by the forces Pomeroy had opposed, the nuclear industry.
The police, while refusing to say who asked for the investigation, now claim they have destroyed their files on Pomeroy and all other nuclear critics.
Living with the memory of bombs over Japan and the threat of war with Russia, Americans in the late Forties and Fifties distrusted the malevolent caprice of nuclear power. So when the U.S. energy moguls decided to invest their future in nuclear reactors, they had to educate the public to the “peaceful” side of atom splitting. An industry forum crafted a 160-page guide for promoting nuclear energy; typical advertisements glamorized its development as “one of the most revolutionary events of the 20th century.” General Electric handed eight million school children like Karen Silkwood a free comic book entitled “Inside the Atom.” By the Sixties, the sales job seemed a success. Oil and coal would someday be replaced by the bold and bright promise of uranium.
It was uranium, an unpretentious metal buried mostly in isolated pockets under western deserts, that was going to fuel tomorrow’s generators–and the oil companies were in on the ground floor. Kerr-McGee Corporation, for instance, which flies its K-M trademark topmast at hundreds of service stations in the Southwest, grabbed up all the uranium fields it could sink a shaft in. On a Navajo reservation near Shiprock, New Mexico, Kerr-McGee discovered a cache of uranium under the parched turf. The Navajos were paid as little as $1.60 an hour to exhume the metal, hauling it out in wheelbarrows from the stifling, scratchy air below.
After 16 years of plunder, the Navajo mines were exhausted in 1969. Only then did the miners learn that uranium dust had infected many of them with a rare lung cancer that resists early diagnosis. By June of last year the cancer had killed 18 of the 100 Navajo miners, and 21 more were feared dying. But Kerr-McGee refused to take responsibility or pay medical expenses. “I couldn’t possibly tell you what happened at some small mines on an Indian reservation,” Kerr-McGee spokesman Bill Phillips told a Washington reporter. “We have uranium interests all over the world.”
By the Seventies Kerr-McGee had mined and milled tons of yellow-cake uranium and had acquired 800,000 acres of uranium leases and a corner on the market. With assets approaching a billion dollars, it is the nation’s largest uranium producer.
In downtown Oklahoma City, where Kerr-McGee’s square-block headquarters towers 30 stories above the modest skyline, the Kerr-McGee name is as imposing as its building. The late Robert Kerr, the company’s cofounder, claimed to have been born in a log cabin and to have worked his way through college selling magazines. As company president he prided himself on staying at cheap motels and eating baked beans in self-service cafeterias–while fighting to keep unions at by and workers at minimum wage. As Oklahoma governor in the Forties he ran the state with the same frugality and didn’t relax his tight fist until moving to the U.S. Senate in 1948. There Kerr became the most powerful man in the Senate, next to Lyndon Johnson; with Kerr’s unflagging zeal, the energy industry won millions of dollars in tax subsides. And nuclear research profited from fat bags of public dollars, to the exclusion of solar and geothermal research, in which Kerr-McGee had no interest.
Dean McGee, Kerr’s successor as company board chairman, holds office and influence in such diverse interests as banks, power companies and the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. McGee has yet to run for public office, but few doubt he could fit comfortably in the governor’s chair. “People in Oklahoma look at Dean McGee the same way people in New York look at Nelson Rockefeller–they look up,” one local politician has observed. When Richard Nixon came to Oklahoma State University last spring in one of his final public appearances, he had to share the podium with McGee, who received an honorary doctorate.
Recently McGee was named to a federal commission studying America’s long-range energy needs, and he presumably will push for nuclear power. But McGee is already looking ahead to the day-when nuclear reactors will no longer use uranium. Future reactors will feed on a far more potent fuel: plutonium.
Uranium, like fossil fuels, is limited in supply; in 40 or 50 years we are liable to run out. But plutonium is the love child of an ultimate alchemy: It can reproduce itself. An industry brochure puts it like this: “Question–How many pounds of plutonium will you have left after you use three pounds in a nuclear reactor? Answer–Four pounds!”
Plutonium barely exists in nature; our present supply is entirely manmade. It was first discovered in the Forties among the waste products of fissioned uranium Plutonium can take several forms–but it is usually a gray, soft metal, a slushy liquid nitrate or a fluffy yellow-green oxide powder fine enough to be inhaled. In any form it is “fiendishly toxic,” according to one of its discoverers, Dr.Glenn Seaborg.
Plutonium is much more dangerous than uranium. It is incredibly combustible, readily convertible into nuclear weapons and, once let loose in the atmosphere, it stays deadly for a quarter-million years; it cannot be recaptured or destroyed. Swallowing it in a quantity that can be seen would sear the digestive tract, killing quickly and painfully. Plutonium is also a carcinogenic killer but, because only a few hundred people have ever’ handled it, scientists disagree as to what amount can cause cancer. As little as a millionth of a gram has induced cancer in lab animals and some experts say that a softball-sized bag of plutonium, if properly dispersed, could visit cancer on every home on earth.
For years plutonium was used exclusively for bombs. The nonmilitary inventory wasn’t enough to fill a pair of size ten shoes. But at the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in Washington D.C., visionaries saw an incipient bonanza. So the AEC, encouraged by money and kind words from Capitol Hill, set out to make plutonium practical and profitable. A special nuclear reactor to breed plutonium, nicknamed the “fast-breeder,” was built in Michigan. It proved a $135-million flop. In 1972, after dozens of false starts, it was abandoned, a vast leprous hulk on the outskirts of Detroit. (Early last year the Soviet Union’s only fast-breeder closed down after a serious explosion.)
The AEC was undeterred. It decided more tests were needed. Near Richland, Washington, construction was begun on a facility to test “fuel rods,” the plutonium-filled tubes used in a fast-breeder. The Richland facility won’t be ready for tests until 1978 and a new fast-breeder, scheduled for Tennessee, won’t be finished until the Eighties. But for the past four years fuel rods have been trucked into Richland to await the tests.
Most of the fuel rods come from Kerr-McGee’s prized plutonium plant 20 miles outside Oklahoma City. It was Kerr-McGee, on good terms with the AEC since Robert Kerr’s congressional days, which was awarded a $1.4-million AEC contract to process the plutonium into pellets and pour them into the fuel rods.
Kerr-McGee’s plutonium plant, built next to one of its uranium plants (and within five miles of 92 gas and oil wells, two popular resort lakes and the churning Cimarron River), opened in 1970 shortly before 8583 fish turned bellyup in the river following a big ammonia spill at the facility. Raised against the flat harshness of rural Oklahoma, the barnlike plant is unimposing; only a chain-link fence and armed guards hint at the devil’s brew within.
Kerr-McGee had assured the AEC it could deal safely and circumspectly with the plutonium. But the AEC, a government agency in the curious role of both promoting and policing the nuclear industry, soon received numerous reports of irregularities and accidents at the Kerr-McGee plant. In a situation that left no margin for error, things kept getting bungled.
In October 1970, soon after the plant opened, two workers were contaminated when a radioactive storage container was left in the open for three days. Twenty-two more workers were exposed to plutonium in January 1971 when defective equipment allowed plutonium oxide to escape into the air. Less serious incidents were common. The protective “glove boxes” the workers used often had holes. Sometimes the “Super Tiger” and “Poly Panther” drums, specially designed to store the volatile liquid, unaccountably leaked. Improperly designed pipes once sent plutonium sloshing to wrong parts of the plant.
One day a worker bent to adjust a compressor unit; it exploded, ripping through his hand and tearing off the top of his face, spitting tissue over the ceiling. He died instantly. “When I got there,” remembers a former lab technician, “they were washing the goo down the drain.” Kerr-McGee, he feels, “didn’t give a damn about the people who worked there–it didn’t care whether its safety program was effective or not.”
In April 1972 two maintenance men repairing a pump at the plant were splashed with a rain of plutonium particles, which settled on their hands, faces, hair and clothes. At noon they left the plant for lunch in a nearby town, not discovering their contamination until they returned. They were scrubbed clean, along with their car. But Kerr-McGee neglected to check out the restaurant where the men had eaten.
Nor did Kerr-McGee inform the AEC of the incident, a clear violation of the federal nuclear code. The AEC was finally alerted to the affair a month later, tipped off by an environmentalist who had learned of it from a plant worker. By then there was nothing to be done for the restaurant patrons, short of an all-out search for any who might have gulped down plutonium with their egg salad.
Beyond adding another bulge to the file of violations already logged against Kerr-McGee, the matter was forgotten.
When Karen Silkwood arrived at the Kerr-McGee plant in late summer 1972, she was just divorced and eager to begin a career as a nuclear laboratory technician. But after only three months testing the plutonium fuel rods, Silkwood was outside the chain-link fence, marching with an on-strike placard.
The Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW), representing the plutonium workers, was at loggerheads with Kerr-McGee. The company, a veteran of the wildcat oil rig, had managed to keep the unions out until 1966, three years after Senator Kerr’s death. Now the OCAW was demanding a new contract with higher wages, safer conditions and better training. Kerr-McGee had replied with an offer worse than the old contract. Then, as soon as workers went on strike, the company rushed scabs onto the job, barely missing a beat in fuelrod production.
Even Kerr-McGee officials later conceded, in a letter to the Sierra Club, that thrusting untrained strikebreakers into the plant led to more plutonium spills and leaks. (“Some scabs got only four hours of training when they should have gotten five days,” fumed one striker.) Among the inexperienced substitutes hired during the strike was the plant’s safety officer.
On the picket lines, meanwhile, 26-year-old Karen Silkwood was spending a lot of time with 22-year-old Drew Stephens, a short-haired, brainy lab analyst with an easy smile. When he first came to work three years before, Stephens had expected to earn his 40-year gold watch from Kerr-McGee. But he had grown disenchanted after the rash of accidents and now lived for weekends when he turned sports-car racer, a hotdog kid on the local auto-cross circuit.
The strike lasted ten weeks. Those picketers whose jobs had not been lost to scabs returned to work in January 1973, reluctantly signing a new contract that stripped away many of their previous rights, including certain protections against arbitrary firings and reassignments. A few weeks later a plant employe was emptying a bag of plutonium wastes when a fire spontaneously erupted, shooting radioactive dust into the air. Seven workers sucked in the junk. But Kerr-McGee supervisors waited a day before calling in a physician. Four days later the seven workers still had not been tested for contamination in their lungs.
Silkwood and Stephens shared in the outrage building in the plant. But they were now deeply in love, Stephens divorcing his wife of four years to live with Silkwood. They were enjoying the good times, tooling around in Stephens’s tomato red Austin-Healy Sprite, country-rock blaring on the radio.
Then, in July 1974, Karen Silkwood became contaminated with plutonium.
Actor Jack Lemmon, serving as narrator, introduced the documentary: “One thing is certain. The nuclear power plants… have everybody connected just a trifle jumpy.”
Entitled ‘Powers that Be,’ the television film was produced in 1971 by Don Widener, an Emmy winner then working for the NBC-owned station in Los Angeles. The film, a powerful critique of nuclear dangers, was shown once in Los Angeles but never repeated nationally.
NBC decided to let it die after Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E), the nation’s second largest private power company and a heavy nuclear investor, raised a fuss on Capitol Hill about Widener’s credibility. No charges were ever substantiated (although some are still in litigation). But, in an internal memo later subpoenaed in a lawsuit, a PG&E official confided: “The fact that NBC is upset at our aggressive approach [with Congress] is just what we wanted.”
Award-winner Widener, who is suing PG&E for libel, was let go by the network soon after the documentary and has found little television work since.
Oklahoma City still listens to Rosemary Clooney, votes Republican and plays host to all the cowboy conventions it can corral. Adolescents favor mail-order miniskirts and the Burt Reynolds look. A popular radio station provides”full-time Christian broadcasting.” Okie country is not the kind of place that fathers worry their daughters will run off to.
But for Karen Silkwood, Oklahoma City was full of bright lights and goodtime chances to catch up on what she missed as a teenager. She hung out at bars and rock concerts and learned how to get gently stoned. She was happy. Coming home one night she told Stephens: “I feel like I’m in love with the whole world.”
But after several months she moved out, jealous for her freedom, unwilling to risk another marriage. She wanted her own place and, after a money-poor marriage, indulged in a color TV, a $600 stereo, a Suzuki cycle and a Honda Civic Hatchback. Silkwood and Stephens remained friends and part-time lovers, but her career was her first love. She retreated from the night scene to work overtime. And she got involved in the union. OCAW Local 5-283.
Silkwood looked to the union as the only outlet for her growing frustration with management. When suddenly exposed to a swirl of airborne plutonium in July 1974, she was not wearing a respirator. For over a year she had been bugging the company to buy a special respirator to fit over her tiny, narrow face; it hadn’t arrived.
When union elections came up the next month, Silkwood ran and won one of the three seats on the Local 5-283 steering committee. Fellow workers knew her as the spunky chick who talked back to her bosses. “Goddamnit, I am right and you are wrong,” she once raged at a supervisor. “If you want to tell me what to do, you oughta learn how to do the job right.”
Despite growing anticompany jabber at the plant, most workers did not want a fight. Many simply quit; the annual turnover rate among the 115 hourly workers, according to the union, hovered around 60%. Some complained of being harassed out of their jobs; three workers who griped to AEC officials about safety conditions early in 1974 were reportedly tracked down and transferred to “shit details” in the chilly warehouse.
Other plutonium workers took their feelings outside the plant, anonymously phoning tips to environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth. Several calls also went to Ilene Younghein, an Oklahoma City housewife, mother of two grown kids, a hefty woman with a wonderful rococo laugh who had read about the dangers of plutonium in Intellectual Digest and had written to a local newspaper about it. “You can imagine how stunned I was when some workers called to tell me there was a plutonium plant under our very noses,” she recalls. “It was a short drive upwind from my house and I hadn’t known it. What would happen if there was a big explosion at the plant? We’d have dead people all over the place.” In addition, Younghein learned, the plant had been built on a flood plain and in the center of a tornado alley, a situation that required stowing all plutonium in a vault whenever there was a flood or tornado alert. And there was no guarantee the vault would not crack. All 900,000 people within 50 miles of the plant, she figured, were living in the shadow of Armageddon. “I felt betrayed by Kerr-McGee. They built that plant without telling anyone–I guess they thought no one would find out.”
A few short notices had appeared in the local papers in 1970 when Kerr-McGee first began hotfooting with plutonium–quotes of welcome for the plant from then governor Dewey Bartlett. But there was no mention of the menace in plutonium.
In the fall of 1973 Younghein had begun a one-woman campaign to shut the plant down. Angry workers simply wanted the company to improve training procedures and apply safety precautions rather than lock its doors. But they supplied inside scuttlebutt to Younghein and other environmentalists, hoping the outside pressure would prod Kerr-McGee to clean up its act. Younghein did her best, collecting 500 signatures on a petition for stricter federal controls and penciling two lengthy doomsday articles for the Oklahoma Observer, a maverick semiweekly unintimidated by Kerr-McGee.
Meanwhile, Kerr-McGee was preoccupied with a breakwater federal court ruling in New Jersey that ordered all nuclear companies to submit statements describing the dangers of nuclear plants. Among other things, Kerr-McGee was required to show the AEC that neighbors of the plutonium plant understood the risks and were willing to live with them. Kerr-McGee balked; Executive Vice President George B. Parks argued in a letter to the AEC that such questions were not “proper subjects of inquiry in a [public] environmental study.”
Then Kerr-McGee relented. In August 1974 the AEC received three letters, one each from the city councils of Guthrie and Crescent and one from the commissioners of Logan County, representing the citizenries closest to the plant. The letter from the Guthrie City Council reported that it had surveyed the populace and found that “in general, their reaction has shown no animosity and… that the presence of the Kerr-McGee facility is welcome due to its favorable benefit.” The letter from the Crescent City Council said the same thing–exactly the same thing, word for word. So did the letter from the Logan County Commission. In the finest tradition of spoon-fed corporate blurp, all three letters were identical. Confronted later with this embarrassment, Guthrie City Manager R. E. Anderson mumbled, “The company did give us a letter to look at so we knew what they had in mind. I didn’t realize we’d sent it off without changing a few words.”
The same month that Kerr-McGee was trying to impress the AEC with letters in triplicate, Karen Silkwood and the other two Local 5-283 steering committee members were preparing a declaration of war against the company. New contract negotiations were due in a few months, and for the first time Local 5-283 was going to confront Kerr-McGee squarely on the issue of safety. The chronicle of accidents, safety abuses and other allegations was to be compiled into a formal list of grievances.
Silkwood helped interview workers in the dangerous production areas of the plant. Most were young, average age about 25, coming from nearby farms and small towns and, Silkwood learned, several had no idea plutonium could cause cancer.
They spun out a grim tale of corporate callousness: New employes often were sent directly into production without safety training (one such worker had been badly contaminated and had quit the next day before receiving medical attention); production schedules sometimes forced workers to stay on the job even when the air wasn’t safe to breathe–supervisors ordering them to wear respirators rather than hunting the source of contamination; and plutonium was sometimes stored in such casual containers as desk drawers.
With their grievances in hand, and with the quickening hopes of the union membership, Silkwood and her fellow committee members, Gerald Brewer and Jack Tice, flew to Washington D.C. for a meeting with the OCAW International. They arrived on September 26th and met Steve Wodka, an OCAW legislative assistant, a hardnosed, stiff-talking man given to curt skepticism and impatient waves of the hand. Though only 25, he is among the OCAW’s best troubleshooters. Wodka and his boss, Tony Mazzocchi, had devoted much of the previous year to hassling do-nothing regulatory agencies and exposing health hazards in the asbestos industry, a crusade that had won them praise from Senator Walter Mondale on the floor of Congress.
Wodka and Mazzocchi pumped Silkwood and the others for details, then the next day marched them over to the only place in town that could put the clamps on Kerr-McGee–the AEC. The AEC copied it all down and promised an investigation.
But Wodka was already considering another investigation. Silkwood had confided to him that for months she had suspected that tests on the plutonium fuel rods destined for Richland, Washington, were being fudged. And, she said, she had recently heard about records being doctored, X-ray photos being black-penciled and other tests being manipulated. Kerr-McGee’s plutonium plant might be defrauding the AEC, she had concluded, shipping inadequate or unsafe fuel rods to Richland.
“Both Tony Mazzocchi and I felt this was a very serious situation,” Wodka says. “But we felt it was premature to bring it to the attention of the AEC. We had to have proof before we could make any accusations. So we asked Karen to go back to the plant, to find out who was falsifying the records, who was ordering it and to document everything in specific detail.”
Silkwood agreed to go undercover.
Back in Oklahoma she revealed her new role to Stephens. She stood in his living room, crouching over the radiator vent to shake off the autumn chill, and jabbed a delicate brown finger into the air: “We’re really gonna get those motherfuckers this time.”
“I told her to calm down, to forget about it,” Stephens remembers.
Six days before Silkwood’s Washington trip, Stephens had abruptly quit, riled by a sudden transfer. “When I first went to work there I wanted to be the world’s greatest laboratory technician. Now I never wanted to see the place again.
“But Karen felt differently. She wanted to reform the place. She had tried to go through channels and she’d gotten very frustrated. But when she came back from Washington she was really excited. This was her chance to do something. She figured things were really going to change.”
On October 10th, two of the nation’s leading plutonium experts arrived in Oklahoma City from the University of Minnesota, summoned by the OCAW International to conduct crash courses for Kerr-McGee’s plutonium workers. Their credentials were impressive: Dr. Donald Geesaman, a top AEC scientist for 13 years, had crusaded for stiffer plutonium standards until he was fired; Dr. Dean Abrahamson was both a physicist and a physician.
The two professors were told that 73 workers had been internally contaminated by plutonium during the previous four years. (Dozens more workers had accidentally brushed plutonium or been sprinkled with it, but had washed it off their skin.) The 73 had been exposed to airborne plutonium; any inhaled into their lungs could not be washed out. The probability of cancer in such cases, Dr. Abrahamson warned, “is disturbingly high.” Because it takes 10 or 15 years after exposure to detect cancer, no cases have yet been reported at Kerr-McGee. But those workers with internal contamination must live with the threat of cancer for years to come.
Karen Silkwood was one of those 73, and she was shocked by Abrahamson’s news. She had assumed she would stay clear of cancer if she did not breathe in more plutonium than allowed under AEC guidelines. But Abrahamson was saying, “If you can measure plutonium in the air at all, it’s too high.” The AEC guidelines, he said, were meaningless.
Silkwood grew moody and restless, working nights and unable to sleep during the days. She got a prescription for some sleeping pills. And she began to hunt for another job.
But first, she vowed to Stephens, she was going to get proof that Kerr-McGee was sustaining its plutonium plant through false and perjurious records. She had already collected some evidence, she said, and was certain she could get more. At one point Silkwood reported to Wodka that she had obtained photographs proving the welding on some fuel rods was too weak. “They [company supervisors] are still passing bad welds no matter what the pictures look like,” she said in a telephone conversation that Wodka taped. “I have a weld I would love for you to see, just how far they ground it down to relax the weld trying to get rid of the voids, the occlusions and the cracks.” (Unsafe fuel rods, according to MIT physicist Dr. Henry Kendall, could lead to “an accident that would result in the release of huge amounts of radioactivity.”)
Silkwood spent the weeks of October staying after hours, poring over files; recording every questionable procedure, building a dossier in a dog-eared manila folder. She did not know then that other employes had noticed her spying, and that the plant rumormill was abuzz with suspicions about what she was up to.
“I have guilt feelings about those weeks,” Stephens says. “I should have talked to her more, been with her more, helped her out…. But I just wanted to forget about the place.”
On Tuesday, November 5th, 1974, Silkwood discovered she had been contaminated with plutonium again.
Sometimes Robert Rowen found the radiation levels so high that the radioactive film in his dosimeter was extremely overexposed. Then one day, he says, a superior asked him to falsify test records. After six years of trying to help PG&E’s Northern California nuclear plant run safely, Rowen went to the AEC, charging PG&E with repeatedly violating federal rules on the handling of radioactive material.
Shortly thereafter, in the spring of 1970, Rowen was fired. But when he went job hunting, he discovered he was considered a dangerous radical. The local police even had a file accusing Rowen of living in a commune which read Eldridge Cleaver and advocated revolutionary violence. The police chief said he had received this information, unsolicited, from a PG&E security official. (The official admits talking to the police about Rowen but denies making any accusations.)
A state labor referee looked into Rowen’s firing and found “the principal cause was his extreme safety consciousness.” The AEC investigated PG&E, corroborated some of Rowen’s charges and scolded the company for “discouraging” at least one employe from talking to the AEC about safety at the plant.
Rowen, a former Pathfinder in the Marine Corps, has filed a huge damage suit against PG&E and finally landed a job as a high-school civics teacher and football coach near Eureka, California.
Rapidly, as if no time were left on the clock, Silkwood jammed the dime in its slot and dialed long distance. Washington. Steve Wodka. “Hello.” An uncertain trickle started down her face. Her voice tottered. “Please come to Oklahoma,” she said. “Something very weird is happening here.”
Three times in the past three days Karen Silkwood had been contaminated with plutonium, and no one knew where it was coming from. A monitoring device had first discovered flecks of plutonium on her skin and clothing shortly after she reported for work November 5th. She had quickly stepped under a brisk shower. But the next day the monitor flashed on again. More plutonium on her skin. Another shower. On the third day the mystery repeated itself–and a nasal smear indicated she also was contaminated internally.
How much plutonium, she wanted to know, could a person ingest before it burned out her insides?
Wodka tried to reassure her and promised to fly in. Silkwood hung up and sought out her old lover. “She was damn near incoherent,” says Stephens. “She was crying and shaking like a leaf; she kept saying she was going to die.”
Again she picked up the phone and called long distance. Minneapolis. Dr. Dean Abrahamson. She wanted medical advice from a physician. She told him that somehow, somewhere, she had gotten plutonium all over her, inside and out. “She knew what the medical implications were,” recalls Dr. Abrahamson, “and she was worried.”
A team of Kerr-McGee inspectors, armed with alpha counters, full-face respirators, special galoshes, taped up gloves and white coveralls, were meanwhile hunting the source of the plutonium. There had been no recent accident at the plant to account for her contamination. So, at Silkwood’s request, they had trekked to her apartment. There the alpha counters commenced eerie gibberings.
Plutonium, in small quantities, was everywhere. Outside on the lawn the inspectors filled a 55-gallon drum with alarm clocks, cosmetics, record albums, drapes, pots and pans, shampoo, bedsheets. Alongside they stacked chairs, bed, stove, refrigerator, television, items to be trucked to the Kerr-McGee plant for later burial in an AEC-approved site. The plutonium trail turned hottest in the kitchen, inside the refrigerator. A package of bologna and a package of cheese were the two most contaminated items in the apartment. Apparently, the plutonium had been tracked around the apartment from the refrigerator. But no one could explain how two sandwich foods had become the source of contamination.
The apartment was sealed off and the AEC called in.
Silkwood, however, was more worried about the plutonium inside her than on the cheese and bologna. She kept popping the Quaaludes that had been prescribed a few weeks before. “The Quaaludes were just supposed to be taken for sleeping at nights,” Stephens says. “But she was using them during the day, just to calm down. I’d never seen her so scared.”
Wodka had jetted in from Washington and, after talking to Kerr-McGee and AEC officials, had helped arrange for Silkwood to fly to an AEC laboratory in New Mexico to be checked out for poisoning.
On Sunday November 10th, five days after her first contamination, she boarded a Braniff airliner. That same morning a front-page New York Times story reported that, according to the AEC’s own internal documents, the AEC had “repeatedly sought to suppress studies by its own scientists that found nuclear reactors were more dangerous than officially acknowledged or that raised questions about reactor safety devices.” One AEC study, kept confidential for seven years, predicted that a major nuclear accident could kill up to 45,000 persons and pollute an area the size of Pennsylvania. Times reporter David Burnham, who in 1970 interviewed Frank Serpico and broke open the New York police corruption scandal, had sifted through hundreds of memos and letters and learned the AEC had a tenyear record of blue-penciling alarming data, soft-soaping test failures and glad-handing an industry that increasingly appeared not to know what it was doing.
The report gave scant comfort to Silkwood as she flew to Los Alamos, New Mexico, site of the world’s first plutonium explosion during the Abomb tests of World War II. With her were Stephens and Sherri “Dusty” Ellis, her roommate of the past few months, a blonde, rawboned, 21-year-old rodeo champ. Ellis also worked at the plant but had refused to get involved in Silkwood’s efforts to unmask the company.
Now the three shared the same fears; all had been contaminated in the apartment.
For two days they underwent a “whole body count,” a meticulous probing of skin, orifices, intestines and lungs, urinating at intervals into plastic bottles and defecating into Freezette box containers.
After the first day, the three had cause for relief. Dr. George Voelz, the health division leader, assured them they had suffered no immediate damage. Even Silkwood, by far the most infected, was told she was in no danger of dying from plutonium poisoning.
On Tuesday November 12th, Silkwood called her mother to announce the good news about the tests, but added, “I’m still a little scared. I still don’t know how I got contaminated. I feel like someone’s using me for a guinea pig.”
“I told her to come home,” her mother recalled. “And she said she would. She said she was ready for a vacation… she just had to do a couple things first.”
After more body-prying tests at Los Alamos, the three travelers flew back to Oklahoma City, landing about 10:30 Tuesday night. Because the women’s apartment had been gutted of furniture, they checked in at Stephens’s bungalow, now a bachelor’s pad papered with four-color profiles of racing cars clipped from hotrod magazines. Silkwood wandered over to her favorite radiator vent, squatting and rubbing to warm up, then went to bed early. She had a busy day ahead. She had told Wodka she would give him the evidence she was collecting as soon as she returned from Los Alamos, and Wodka had set up a meeting with her and David Burnham, the Times reporter, who was winging in from the East Coast. The meeting was scheduled for Wednesday night at the Holiday Inn Northwest in Oklahoma City.
Wednesday morning Silkwood drove to work. Contract negotiations between Local 5-283 and Kerr-McGee had begun the week before and, as a committeewoman, she was supposed to take part in the bargaining. She spent the morning in negotiations, arguing the union demands for better safety training and higher injury benefits. In the afternoon she met for several hours with AEC inspectors, who were trying to unravel the mystery of her contamination.
At 5:15 p.m. she drove to Crescent, about five miles from the plant, and stopped at the Hub Cafe for a supper meeting, sans supper, to discuss negotiations strategy with Local 5-283. Jack Tice, who headed the negotiating team, told the assembled union members that, as expected, Kerr-McGee was not budging off its hard line.
Silkwood excused herself about 6 p.m. to telephone Stephens, reminding him to pick up Wodka and Burnham at the airport and to expect her at the motor hotel about 8 p.m. She sounded normal, Stephens remembers, perhaps a bit excited about having an audience with the New York Times. At 7:15 p.m. Silkwood left the Hub Cafe and headed for Highway 74 and the Holiday Inn Northwest. A fellow union member would later swear in an affidavit that Silkwood, minutes before she left the restaurant, was carrying a manila folder an inch thick with papers. The folder, Silkwood told the union member, contained proof that quality-control records were being falsified.
Thirty miles away, Wodka, Burnham and Stephens waited for that proof until 8:45. Then they picked up the phone; but for some reason the Holiday Inn lines were out of order, and another hour passed before the three could get through.
Meanwhile, at 8:05 p.m., a truckdriver, sitting high up in his cab and rolling along the two-lane highway, spotted the white Honda, almost hidden in the muddy culvert. Silkwood had traveled about seven miles from the Hub Cafe, a ten-minute drive.
By the time Stephens, Wodka and Burnham learned the news from a local union member, the 1638-pound Civic Hatchback already had been towed to Ted Sebring’s garage in Crescent. And Silkwood had been pronounced dead on arrival at the Guthrie Hospital, the victim of multiple and compound fractures.
The three men raced to the culvert, only a mile from the plutonium plant, and prowled about, stepping gingerly through the mud, which in Oklahoma is the color of dry blood. All they could find were shards of aluminum trim, the orange roadside reflectors that had been trampled by the bouncing car and Silkwood’s uncashed paycheck.
Later they found the wreck locked up in Sebring’s garage and peered at it through the window. They stopped at the home of union committeeman Jack Tice, one of the last to see Silkwood alive; Stephens called Silkwood’s parents. Then they returned to the culvert, searching for an explanation in the tire tracks and the scraps of metal.
The explanation the State Highway Patrol offered was that Karen Silkwood, exhausted after driving 600 miles from Los Alamos to Oklahoma City, had fallen asleep and drifted off the road to an accidental death. Almost immediately the police had to alter their official version when they were told Silkwood had flown from Los Alamos and had gotten a full night’s sleep only 12 hours before the crash.
The second official version was somewhat more convincing. Sometime during the afternoon of November 13th Silkwood had gulped down at least one of the pasty white Quaaludes from the vial in her coat pocket. Oklahoma City’s chief forensic toxicologist, Richard W. Prouty, discovered .35 milligrams of methaqualone in her bloodstream, conceivably enough to lull her to sleep on the highway.
But that was not sufficient for Steve Wodka.
Silkwood had swallowed several Quaaludes in the past week without nodding out. Why would she fall into a trance on her way to an extremely crucial meeting? And the proof of fraud she was supposedly carrying had disappeared. Her personal effects, listed by the medical examiner, included an ID badge, an electronic security key (for the plant), two marijuana cigarettes, a Kotex pad, two used Kleenexes, a Bradley Mickey Mouse pocket watch, a small notebook, her clothes, $7 in bills and $1.69 in change. But there was no manila folder heavy with Kerr-McGee documents.
Trooper Rick Fagan, however, had mentioned finding dozens of loose papers blowing about the accident scene when he first arrived. Fagan had plucked up the papers, he told his superiors, and shoved them into the Honda. According to the highway patrol’s information officer, Lieutenant Kenneth Vanhoy, the papers were in the Honda when Ted Sebring hauled the car awa