November 13, 2007

November 13 | Karen Silkwood

February 19, 1946 - November 13, 1974: Age 28

Karen Silkwood worked for the Kerr-McGee corporation as a chemical technician. Kerr-McGee, although primarily involved with oil and gas, also made plutonium for nuclear fuel rods. As a member of the labor union Silkwood became concerned about safety procedures at the plant and testified at a hearing of the Atomic Energy Commission, alleging that safety standards were slipping as a result of production speedups.

On November 5, 1974, a routine test for plutonium contamination revealed 40 times the legal limit. She underwent decontamination, but the next day tested positive again, despite having only done paperwork that day. On November 7 she was found to be dangerously contaminated, and a team checked her home — only to find plutonium on various surfaces in her house. Kerr-McGee has since alleged that she contaminated herself in order to blacken the company's reputation, but the type of plutonium present in the contamination was not from the part of the plant Silkwood worked in.

Silkwood decided to go public with the story and contacted a New York Times reporter. She was headed for Oklahoma City to meet with this reporter with a stack of documents when her car left the road and rolled into a culvert. No documents were found in the car, but the police did find marijuana and some sedatives. Her blood revealed a high dose of Quaaludes, more than twice the recommended dose to induce drowsiness. Her death was ruled an accident.

Public suspicions forced an investigation of the Kerr-McGee plant, which was found to have numerous safety violations. Kerr-McGee closed its nuclear operations in 1975. The site was still being decontaminated 25 years later. Silkwood's family sued Kerr-McGee for damages. During the trial the corporation tried to paint Silkwood as a troublemaker who had contaminated herself to damage the company. The jury didn't buy it, and awarded the family $10 million in punitive damages. On appeal, the amount was reduced to a bizarre $5,000, but the Supreme Court restored the original verdict in 1984. The suit was going to retrial when the corporation settled out of court for $1.38 million with no admission of liability.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Karen Silkwood Story (Los Alamos report)

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