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Nuclear Power on Trial

The ghosts of Robert Kerr and Karen Silkwood meet in an Oklahoma courtroom

Sen. Robert Kerr

Sen. Robert Kerr, December 11th, 1953.

Ira Gay Sealy/The Denver Post/Getty

There is a story that political reporters tell about Robert Kerr, the energy baron and U.S. senator who ran for president in 1952. He lost but he acted like he hadn’t, and he soon had people calling him the “uncrowned king of the Senate.” Almost all important legislation required his blessing. John Kennedy learned that the hard way in 1961 when Kerr single-handedly arranged the defeat of the young president’s prized Medicare bill.

Kerr was an Oklahoman and a big-business Democrat and he made no secret of his distaste for Kennedy’s liberal, Ivy League politics. So J.F.K.’s supporters were stunned a short while later when the president suddenly agreed to fly to Oklahoma to help Kerr cut a ribbon for a desolate stretch of highway in the Kiamichi Mountains.

Oklahoma’s governor at the time, Howard Edmondson, the only state official to defy Kerr and back Kennedy in the 1960 race, called the White House to make sure he’d heard right. “Why the hell is the president of the United States coming to Oklahoma for such a bush-league event?” Edmondson wanted to know.

Kennedy’s reply was to the point. “I’m coming to Oklahoma,” he explained, “to kiss Bob Kerr’s ass.”

Kerr died fifteen years ago, but his stature was such that even today little of consequence happens in Oklahoma without some similar concession to his ghost. Kerr’s influence lives on through his company, Kerr-McGee Corporation, an energy conglomerate that made him a multimillionaire, gave clout to his political aspirations and ranks as one of Fortune‘s top 200 companies, with assets of $1.2 billion in oil, uranium, potash, helium, coal and asphalt.

A big, hearty man, Kerr was devoted to being first at what he did. He was the first native-born Oklahoma governor, an ambition he set openly while still a struggling lawyer only a few years departed from the log cabin where he grew up. And though he failed to become the first president from Oklahoma, he was one of Washington’s all-time power mongers in terms of getting things done and making others do them.

Kerr’s oil company was the first to expand into uranium, and, thanks in part to the senator’s royal presence on Capitol Hill, it became a nuclear industry leader and the country’s number one uranium producer.

Unhappily for Kerr-McGee, the company is currently facing another, less inspiring “first.” It is expected to enter a federal courtroom in June as the first nuclear firm to go on trial for its safety and security record, a circumstance of extended implications. At issue is Kerr-McGee’s handling of deadly radioactive materials. At stake is the company’s prestige and profits and, more importantly, the nuclear industry’s already troubled image.

The trial of Kerr-McGee promises to give new and urgent prominence to a number of questions that have been recent fare for television talk shows and Washington lunches. Are energy companies telling us the truth about nuclear fission’s unpredictable ways? Has technology mastered the sinister dangers of plutonium, which can cause cancer and blow up cities with equal facility? Is it protected from thieves? Are we protected from it?

The plaintiffs in the case are the father and children of Karen Silkwood, a young lab analyst who died in a suspicious car crash in November 1974 during an investigation of health, safety and record-keeping problems at the Kerr-McGee plant where she worked. The lawsuit seeks a vindication for her unfinished investigation, accuses the company of being deliberately callous, sloppy and negligent in the way it operated, and asks for $2.5 million in damages.

Kerr-McGee denies the allegations, but the final decision will be left to a jury of twelve Oklahomans. Their verdict, no matter how narrowly the legal system defines it, could have a powerful impact on the credibility of the nuclear industry and on people’s faith in a nuclear future.

Quail Creek Country Club is a green oasis on the bleak Oklahoma prairie. Between golf and tennis matches. Oklahoma City’s young executives collect in the comfortably expansive bar to talk about corporate intrigues and Sooner football. But in late 1974 the conversation suddenly turned to the weather and its more esoteric dimensions: wind speeds, inversion layers, tornado warnings. The reason for this curious preoccupation was Karen Silkwood’s death, which belatedly had called attention to the location of Kerr-McGee’s plutonium plant on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, only a few miles upwind from the country club.

A former state legislator recalls the scene. “When the big shots from Kerr-McGee came in to hold court as usual, everyone turned their backs. Kerr-McGee was persona non grata. People had read about the Silkwood case and were starting to worry that Kerr-McGee was going to poison everyone in the neighborhood.”

Kerr-McGee opened the plant in 1970, and soon afterward was awarded a $9.6 million contract for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) fast-breeder program. Plutonium-fueled fast-breeders, so named because they generate more plutonium than they burn up, were supposed to replace conventional uranium-fired reactors and ease the problem of a diminishing supply of uranium.

The breeders were still at an experimental stage, however, and Kerr-McGee was to manufacture eight-foot-long, pencil-thin fuel rods for a test facility.

Karen Silkwood went to work at the plant in 1972, trying to revive an earlier interest in science after her marriage of seven years had dissolved. She intended to build a career at Kerr-McGee, but she began to develop doubts when other workers complained about being frequently exposed to airborne plutonium.

Plutonium is a fiercely toxic substance — one-millionth of a gram has caused cancer in animals — and it cannot be retrieved once it escapes into the atmosphere. By fall 1974 Kerr-McGee had been obliged to tell the AEC of seventy-three accidental contaminations at the plant, and workers claimed dozens more went improperly unreported.

The single most controversial incident, though, occurred not in the plant, but in the refrigerator of Silkwood’s suburban apartment. Three times during the first week of November 1974 Silkwood ate bologna and cheese slices that had been infected with a microscopic amount of plutonium, a contamination that the AEC decided was no accident.

Kerr-McGee officials suggested that Silkwood, who had become a union activist, purposely turned her refrigerator radioactive to embarrass the company. But a more likely hypothesis — considering how genuinely frightened Silkwood appeared when she discovered the contamination — is that someone from the company poisoned her sandwich foods to scare her into ending an investigation she was conducting for the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International (OCAW).

At the OCAW’s request, Silkwood was gathering up internal company documents in an attempt to prove that Kerr-McGee was falsifying records and violating AEC safety guidelines. The mystery of her contamination and her inquest of Kerr-McGee wrongdoing both became moot a week later, however, when her lightweight Honda Civic Hatchback slammed into a concrete culvert while she was on her way to deliver a manila folder of papers to an OCAW health expert and a New York Times reporter. The folder inexplicably disappeared from the wrecked Honda and, in effect, so did her investigation.

Law enforcement officials looked into the case, but none solved, or even addressed, most of the alarming questions her death had raised. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol unconvincingly ruled that she had been killed in a routine accident, ignoring evidence that another vehicle had forced her car off the road, and the FBI and two congressional subcommittees dropped the case (one in apparent reaction to Kerr-McGee pressure) as a conundrum.

Now two young lawyers have undertaken, on behalf of the Silkwood estate, a final effort to find some answers. They are Danny Sheehan, 33, a legal trouble-shooter from Washington D.C., and Jim Ikard, 30, the local counsel in Oklahoma City.

Except for four years at Kansas State University, where he went because of a basketball scholarship, Ikard has always lived in Oklahoma. Nonetheless, he is one of the state’s few legal iconoclasts, i.e., someone willing to tangle with Kerr-McGee, and his office is a patch of California in Oklahoma City’s interior-design desert: adobe tile floors, a matching desk with chrome underpinnings, hanging ferns, futuristic art.

Sheehan has taken up temporary residence in an unfinished adjacent office where the furniture is still cardboard boxes and plywood boards. He has served most of his time on the East Coast with a Wall Street firm, the American Civil Liberties Union and F. Lee Bailey. He plans to enter a Jesuit seminary in August.

(The two recently were joined by Gerry Spence, a veteran Wyoming trial lawyer accustomed to pinning seven-figure verdicts on corporate defendants, and Leonard Boudin, a distinguished New York civil liberties lawyer. But Sheehan and Ikard are still the suit’s major pretrial strategists.)

Their adversary is headquartered only a short walk away in a granite edifice, thirty stories high and a block in circumference. Robert Kerr’s corporate legacy is spread relentlessly across the prairie states — anyone traveling through the Southwest is immediately aware of the red-white-and-blue K/M trademark heralding Kerr-McGee’s gas stations — but the company’s real power is in Oklahoma. A main boulevard in the state capital is named in Kerr’s honor, as is a downtown park, and the reach of the Kerr-McGee building surpasses all its neighbors in seeming tribute to the company’s political and economic position.

Kerr-McGee’s chief counsel for this suit is the immediate past president of the Oklahoma Bar Association, and in almost all aspects that are decisive in litigation — money, legal and evidentiary research, familiarity in the courtroom — the Silkwood side is no match for Kerr-McGee. Yet the case clearly has the Oklahoma company on edge. Kerr-McGee has devoted an inordinate amount of time to identifying those who are bankrolling the Silkwood side (Rolling Stone readers and other grassroots sources have provided most funding so far), and its attorneys have taken to fretting aloud about a left-wing conspiracy.

While the case is of interest to feminists, environmentalists, unionists and civil libertarians —who view Silkwood as a victim and symbol of their cause — the merits of the suit are rooted in the final days of her short life. Even if the suit does not ultimately resolve how Silkwood was killed, Sheehan and Ikard hope to establish that there is a why. Their major thrust is that Kerr-McGee sanctioned a series of abuses at the plant, which Silkwood was trying to expose, a situation which would have given the company and its agents a motive for stopping her.

In its most limited interpretation, the suit faults Kerr-McGee for the plutonium that invaded Silkwood’s apartment and internal organs, and for the week of torment that preceded her death. The plutonium was traced through chemical analysis to Lot 29 at the plant, and there is no dispute that someone smuggled it out past censors and guards. Because Kerr-McGee was the legal custodian of Lot 29, Sheehan and Ikard argue that the company is legally responsible for Silkwood’s contamination.

This argument also includes an implication, first raised in a 1976 congressional investigation, that the Silkwood case is only the tip of a larger security scandal. Jim Smith, a former plant supervisor, testified in a pretrial deposition that “plutonium could have been carried out the front door by the pailful.” One of Sheehan and Ikard’s theories is that the company was afraid Silkwood would discover that it could not account for a large quantity of plutonium.

The Silkwood lawyers confronted Kerr-McGee Board Chairman Dean McGee with this allegation during a recent deposition. McGee, a robust seventy-three-year-old, elected not to respond on the grounds he might compromise “national security.”

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which replaced the AEC as the federal nuclear watchdog in 1975, Kerr-McGee is missing thirty-eight pounds of plutonium, worth tens of millions of dollars on the black market, from its inventory. And at least one former NRC investigator concedes that as many as sixty pounds might not be accounted for.

Officially, Kerr-McGee claims the vanished material is lodged in the plant’s piping system or was lost to other quirks of the manufacturing process. There has been unannounced corporate concern, however, that the real explanation is significantly less innocent. Rolling Stone has obtained an internal memo written a year before Silkwood’s death in which Ray Janka, a plant security officer, worries that thieves were at work. “With such a large holdup [in the pipes],” he writes, “it is difficult to feel safe that we are not losing plutonium.”

The NRC unofficially shares that concern. According to NRC sources, the agency is keeping open an investigation it began in 1975 after receiving a tip that the Moe Dalitz Mafia family was offering stolen Kerr-McGee plutonium to the international black market, where it is valued as the essential ingredient for nuclear weaponry. The NRC hired a private investigator from Cleveland, home of the Dalitz Mafiosi until their migration to the Southwest in the Sixties, and he allegedly found enough evidence to keep such black market suspicions alive.

There are less flamboyant possibilities, of course, and pretrial testimony has hinted at one of them. Jerry Cooper, another former plant supervisor, admitted that he once had been directed by a company superior to sneak a pile of bomb-grade uranium away from a government inspector while the inspector’s attention was diverted. The superior said that the material technically belonged to the company and that his directive to Cooper was only intended to avoid needless red tape.

But a congressional investigator, who has been looking at the overall problem of nuclear security, says this could be an example of an emerging phenomenon: companies clandestinely stockpiling nuclear contraband for sale on an international “gray market” that has been created by loopholes in NRC regulation. (U.S. companies can legitimately ship bomb-grade cargoes to French and English companies which, in turn, can market them to the Third World.)

In any case, Cooper’s testimony illustrates Kerr-McGee’s disdain for the strict letter of the law, a point Silkwood was trying to document. “Here is a company entrusted with the most dangerous material ever known,” Ikard notes, “and it adopts an attitude that it doesn’t want to follow the rules because they’re too much bother.”

The Silkwood lawyers, relying on information from Cooper, Smith and other former plant employees, expect the suit to corroborate Silkwood’s original allegations about hazardous plant conditions. They are asking the court to force Kerr-McGee and the NRC to release all records on the question of missing plutonium.

In addition, they have discovered new evidence that suggests Kerr-McGee wiretapped Silkwood’s apartment and kept her under surveillance in the weeks before her death. According to two sources in the Oklahoma City Police Department, Kerr-McGee Security Chief James Reading and Oklahoma City Police Captain William Vetter met at police headquarters in October 1974, shortly after Silkwood began her investigation. They allege that Vetter was in charge of an illegal eavesdropping operation and that Reading, a former city police official, knew that wiretap equipment was available from the department.

In court papers filed in February 1978. the Silkwood lawyers also quote Oklahoma City Assistant Police Chief Lloyd Gramling as indicating he heard discussions of off-duty city policemen eavesdropping on Silkwood. If the lawyers can prove that Kerr-McGee was aware of Silkwood’s movements during those fateful weeks, it would provide the most damning connection yet between the company and her death.

“That’s what Kerr-McGee is afraid of. In fact, that’s what the entire nuclear industry is afraid of,” says Sheehan, “because as Kerr-McGee goes in this case, so goes the reputation of the nuclear industry.”

Robert Kerr’s prairie company has always been an unlikely standard-bearer for an industry that was born in sterile, professorial laboratories. Kerr’s roots were uncultured and unremarkable — a rural childhood, a military stint as a gunner and a brief career as a lawyer without a law degree — and his company got its start poking holes in ground that turned everyone the color of a butcher’s apron.

Kerr’s fortune was self-made. He and his brother-in-law took over a languishing oil company in 1929 with $5000 in cash. $25,000 in loans and a fistful of gumption. Times were hard. Kerr, fond of showmanship and good food, had to endure cheap hotels and self-service cafeterias on his business trips. But he soon was able to buy out his brother-in-law and lay the foundation for his empire.

Dean McGee, considered one of the best geologists in the oil industry, became Kerr’s new partner in 1937, an arrival that gave Kerr the opportunity to indulge in politics. The log-cabin native, as he prided himself, was elected governor on his first try in 1942 and moved on to Washington six years later. Kerr’s political philosophy was home-grown populism: “Son, I’m agin’ any combine I ain’t in on,” he explained to one reporter.

McGee, meanwhile, imprinted his technological outlook on Kerr-McGee (a name formalized in 1946), masterminding the first successful offshore drilling for oil on the continental shelf.

This hybrid of politics and science made for good business in the early Fifties when the U.S. government decided to promote the “peaceful” applications of nuclear fission. Kerr-McGee started buying uranium mines in 1952, and within five years the company’s worth had tripled. Kerr was one of the nuclear industry’s most convincing salesmen on Capitol Hill, and Kerr-McGee was among the largest beneficiaries of the nuclear dole that Congress handed out.

The congressionally created AEC, which was headed by Kerr’s friend Lewis Strauss, awarded Kerr-McGee $400 million in uranium contracts, including $180 million during one three-year period, and Kerr’s company gained an effective monopoly over uranium production. In the opinion of the Uranium Institute, a group of small, independent uranium producers who felt Kerr-McGee was prospering at their expense, there was more than coincidence involved.

In 1962 the Uranium Institute formally asked the Justice Department to file an antitrust suit against the Oklahoma company. In its complaint, the institute alleged the AEC had signed one contract with Kerr-McGee for uranium that had to be ferried 430 miles, bypassing five other uranium mills along the route. “The conspiracies which prompt this complaint are the result of the political influence of Senator Kerr,” the institute’s director charged, pointing out that Senator Albert Gore, a partner with Kerr in a cattle ranch, chaired the congressional subcommittee that oversaw Kerr-McGee’s deals with the AEC.

Such accusations were not unfamiliar. Columnist Drew Pearson dunned Kerr for sponsoring bills that benefited the oil companies, including his own, and revealed that Senator Clinton Anderson, another of Kerr’s business sidekicks, had helped engineer a 1962 bill that forced the Interior Department to double the price of helium, thereby allowing Kerr-McGee to open a helium plant that hadn’t been able to compete at the lower prices.

Kerr shrugged off all charges. “I feel that Kerr-McGee has done more than any other company to put the United States on an independent basis as far as uranium supply is concerned,” he said in response to the Uranium Institute’s suit. What was good for Kerr-McGee was good for the country.

When two Saturday Evening Post reporters questioned him about a possible conflict-of-interest problem, Kerr puffed up, a six-foot-three hulk of indignation. “Problem? I’m proud of it! I founded my company and I wear this badge right out in the open for everyone to see,” he thundered, sticking out his chest to display a diamond-studded Kerr-McGee founder pin.

“How about abstaining from a vote on personal-interest matters?” the reporters persisted. Kerr’s expression turned rascally. “Now wouldn’t it be a hell of a thing if the senator from Oklahoma couldn’t vote for the things Oklahomans are most interested in?”

Neither the White House nor the Justice Department rose to argue. With Lyndon Johnson sidelined in the vice-presidency and John Kennedy struggling through the first years of his administration, Kerr established himself as one of the country’s top two or three politicians. He seemed invulnerable to criticism. But then a heart attack on New Year’s Day 1963 silenced him as his critics never could and provided the first evidence that his shenanigans had ventured beyond the shady into the illegal. After Kerr’s funeral, which J.F.K., L.B.J. and the other political chieftains attended, his administrators opened a safety-deposit box and found it stashed with scandal.

Inside was a secret cache of 100-, 500- and 1000-dollar bills that allegedly were part of a $100,000 bribe. According to Bobby Baker, a Kerr protégé and a Senate errand boy who eventually went to prison for influence peddling, Kerr received the money from savings-and-loan executives in exchange for a shift in his position on a banking tax bill.

What prompted even bigger headlines, though, was the discovery that Kerr had been buying undeveloped real estate along the Arkansas River while, as chairman of the Senate Rivers and Harbors Subcommittee, he was steering $300 million a year in public funds to improve the waterway and multiply the value of his investments. Even some of Kerr’s friends were aroused. They had justified Kerr-McGee’s consumption of taxpayer subsidies as a tradeoff for jobs the company supplied. But the Arkansas River deal was a matter of undisguised personal greed. The fact that Kerr’s name was not publicly affixed to the appropriate courthouse deeds until after his death was silent testimony that this transaction was not for wearing on one’s lapel.

More surprising was that Dean McGee’s name showed up on the posthumous records alongside Kerr’s as thirty-seven-and-a-half percent owner of the property. It was the first time McGee had been personally implicated in impropriety. Until then he had stood in stark contrast to his beefy, glad-handing mentor. McGee, as stern and somber as a steel girder, had spent a quarter-century toiling in Kerr’s shadow, shunning the back room for the board room.

To McGee fell the challenge of presiding over the scandals Kerr had bequeathed, a task made more demanding in 1966 when Kerr-McGee, along with several other companies, was sued for price fixing in the sale of asphalt to the state of Oklahoma. It was a move the state attorney general had never dared when Kerr was alive. The suit became the longest and most expensive civil prosecution in Oklahoma City’s history, and, in a proceeding rare for a civil trial, the judge sequestered the jury, apparently to prevent it from being intimidated.

Kerr-McGee was found guilty and assessed $3 million in damages. But it survived the publicity and the fine (which the state was later persuaded to reduce by half). The company’s profitability, after all, rested in oil and uranium, not in asphalt.

McGee made it a point to remind Oklahomans how civic-minded the company could be. Kerr-McGee loaned its swimming pool to local children, donated land for a park, endowed a center for eye-disease research, increased its contributions to universities and colleges and developed a camouflaging device so an Oklahoma GI in Vietnam no longer had to worry that his brightly colored “I ride with pride in Oklahoma” bumper sticker would attract enemy bullets. The company also showed a twenty-eight-minute promotional film to more than 3 million viewers, won the first annual Governor’s Club Cup in 1967 for boosting tourism in the state and, in a move calculated to excite more Oklahomans than free beer on Saturday night, it sponsored “Beat Texas” pep rallies for the Oklahoma Sooner football team.

The effort seemed to rehabilitate Kerr-McGee’s reputation. Kerr’s extracurricular zest was forgiven as the product of a bygone era. “It should be remembered, I think, that Bob Kerr was raised in the anything-goes style of Oklahoma politics in the Forties and Fifties. It was a time when you did what you were big enough to get away with, which, for Bob Kerr, was considerable,” former reporter Martin Hauan writes in his book, He Buys Organs for Churches, Pianos for Bawdy Houses, a title derived from an apocryphal legend about Kerr.

Frosty Troy, editor of the irreverent Oklahoma City Observer, also concedes that the past has been forgotten. “I’d have to say that Dean McGee is considered one of the ‘white hats’ of the Oklahoma establishment today,” he says, “and Kerr-McGee is thought of as a very progressive organization.

“Of course,” he quickly adds, “people still have a lot of questions about the Silkwood case.”

For three and a half years Kerr-McGee has managed to elude public accountability in the case. Those who tried to pursue Silkwood’s interrupted investigation were met with a resistance that was at once quite unofficial yet masterfully effective. “When you’ve got muscle like Kerr-McGee all you have to do is purr,” is how Frosty Troy puts it.

The only local politician to demand an all-out investigation was Thomas Bamberger, then a state representative. Kerr-McGee, apparently hoping to quiet him, invited Bamberger to tour the plant. Afterward, he was greeted by a bevy of reporters. “Well, it’s not too badly run if you were making CBs or maybe low-grade ball bearings,” he told them. “But for plutonium, it sure doesn’t seem very safe.”

Bamberger introduced legislation to outlaw nuclear operations in the state but it was defeated, as Bamberger was in the next election.

Daily Oklahoman reporter Alan Bromley followed leads in the Silkwood story until McGee made it known that the company might move its headquarters to Houston if unfavorable publicity continued. “All of a sudden I was deluged with other assignments,” Bromley says.

The Oklahoman adopted an editorial-page stance deploring those who wanted to prolong the case, and the Silkwood story disappeared from the Oklahoman‘s pages.

Then Sheehan and Ikard filed the lawsuit in November 1976. A week later Bromley was fired, a move he believes was cause and effect. “The last thing the Oklahoma City establishment wanted was for me to start digging into the story again,” he says.

If censorship was the intention, it has not succeeded. As the lawsuit proceeds toward trial, all the uncertainty about Kerr-McGee is being resurrected. And new doubts are surfacing, doubts about that once-reassuring nuclear rhetoric, doubts that afflict the entire industry.

A majority of Americans, according to public-opinion polls, are uneasy about nuclear power. They are worried that it is too unhealthy, too expensive, too untrustworthy. This disenchantment comes at a time when there is already dissension in the industry. Westinghouse Electric Corporation, one of two major U.S. nuclear contractors, has filed suit against Kerr-McGee for allegedly conspiring with several other companies to inflate the price of uranium ore by 500 percent.

At the same time the demand for uranium-fueled reactors has plummeted. Utility companies that were ordering an average of forty reactors a year in the 1972-74 period are expected to place orders for only four or five in 1978. And the plutonium fast-breeder is in even more serious trouble. President Carter seems determined to kill the fast-breeder program, despite congressional opposition, because he has become convinced that as plutonium proliferates, so will the number of Third World nuclear arsenals.

Kerr-McGee’s plutonium plant closed in December 1975 after the government opted not to renew its contract. William Olmstead of the NRC’s legal division says the agency acted because Kerr-McGee refused to upgrade the plant to conform to new safety standards. But, off the record, other government officials report that a more persuasive reason was NRC skepticism about the quality of the plutonium-filled fuel rods Kerr-McGee was producing.

One objective of Silkwood’s investigation was to determine whether Kerr-McGee was falsifying records to hide dangerous defects in its fuel rods. Because of administrative delays, the rods are still awaiting a full and accurate test. But one inspector hired by the government claims the welding on some tools was deficient and Westinghouse, another of the program’s civilian contractors, has complained that up to ninety percent of some batches appeared to be inadequate.

Sheehan and Ikard hope the lawsuit will help settle this and other lingering questions. Kerr-McGee is still trying to have the suit dismissed, but the Silkwood lawyers are sure it will reach a courtroom showdown.

For a while it seemed that Kerr’s ghost might come to the company’s rescue. In November 1977 Judge Luther Eubanks, embroiled in controversy for calling Ikard “a magpie,” joking about Sheehan for “running off at both ends,” and disparaging the case as “not worth a hill of beans,” stepped down as presiding judge. He was replaced by Judge Luther Bohanon, a Kerr protégé. When Kerr nominated Bohanon for the federal bench in 1961, an American Bar Association panel, apprehensive about Bohanon’s lack of judicial experience, recommended against him. But Kerr turned Bohanon’s judgeship into a public test of his political strength and forced President Kennedy to make the appointment.

Sixteen years later, in December 1977, Bohanon ruled against twenty of twenty-one points in pretrial motions Sheehan and Ikard filed. The angered lawyers filed a motion asking Bohanon to excuse himself, and a month later the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals appointed an out-of-state judge to take Bohanon’s place, an extraordinary intervention that reflects the seriousness of the issues.

Judge Frank Theis from Wichita introduced himself to the opposing lawyers in a February 1978 hearing. “There are a lot of ghosts in this case,” he announced, “and I’m either going to bury them once and for all, or they’re going to get up and walk.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Nuclear weapons


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