When Richard Rashke’s The Killing of Karen Silkwood was published in 1981, it was a groundbreaking, whistle-blowing work leveled at the nuclear industry. Overnight, it became a significant artifact for Oklahoma history. Despite the importance of Karen Silkwood and the events surrounding the now-defunct Oklahoma-based Kerr-McGee plutonium plant, the discussion surrounding her death has grown quiet in the last three decades.
Yet there never was a solid conclusion as to what happened—not a believable one, anyway. There are still many contradictions and unanswered questions involved in Silkwood’s death. Rashke’s book keeps those questions alive, even 30 years later.
In 1970, Kerr-McGee opened a plutonium production plant near Crescent, in the heart of tornado alley, to make fuel rods for nuclear reactors. The corporation was a collaboration between Dean Anderson McGee, a lead geologist in the oil industry from Kansas, and Robert S. Kerr, 12th governor of Oklahoma and later U.S. Senator. While initially concentrated in oil-related endeavors, the corporation pursued a few ventures in the nuclear industry, including uranium mining and milling in Arizona and New Mexico, and uranium processing at plants in Gore and Crescent, not far from where the plutonium processing plant was later built. By 1974, Kerr-McGee was considered one of the most powerful energy corporations in the United States.
Beginning in August 1974, Karen Silkwood—lab technician and member of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) union at Kerr-McGee—began secretly collecting documents at the request of an OCAW legislator, Tony Mazzocchi, proving that quality-control tampering and other illicit activities were going on at the company’s Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site in Crescent. Three months later, on November 13, she left a union meeting at a Crescent restaurant with plans to deliver the documents to New York Times reporter David Burnham. She never made it. Silkwood’s white Honda Civic was found in a ditch off Route 74. It was a fatal crash.
According to the report filed by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, Silkwood fell asleep at the wheel under the inducement of drugs and alcohol use. A flask and some marijuana joints were retrieved from the crash. However, it was not determined that Silkwood was under the influence of marijuana at the time of the accident. Also, no one at the union meeting was drinking, including Silkwood, and the contents of her flask was later revealed to be tomato juice. Postmortem toxicology reports revealed a moderate amount of methaqualone in her bloodstream, for which she had a prescription. Lastly, and most importantly, neither Silkwood’s notebook, nor her file folder, both containing evidence against Kerr-McGee, were retrieved from the crash site, even though a coworker who understood what those two items contained saw Silkwood leave the restaurant with them in hand.
OCAW hired A.O. Pipkin, a car crash expert who owned Accident Reconstruction Laboratories in Dallas, to conduct an investigation and analysis of Silkwood’s crash. After studying the car and crash site, Pipkin determined that Silkwood did not fall asleep at the wheel; rather, she was chased by another vehicle (or vehicles) and was forced off the road, where her Civic collided with a cement wing wall.
Three months prior to her death, Silkwood met with OCAW legislator Tony Mazzocchi, who told her that plutonium was carcinogenic, which alarmed her. While it was known in the nuclear and mining industries that uranium (from which plutonium is obtained) was carcinogenic, it was not common knowledge, and the workers at Kerr-McGee’s uranium and plutonium processing plants were not informed of the substances’ carcinogenic properties. Like many employees of the Kerr-McGee facility, Silkwood had been contaminated on the job several times. According to nuclear and health physics experts who analyzed health and safety conditions at the Cimarron plant for Silkwood’s trial, the working conditions at the plant were extremely unsafe. For one, some of the respirators that workers wore during their shifts were faulty. There was also a high turnover rate at the plant that led to a lot of untrained employees handling radioactive material. In fact, it was later disclosed that these workers—some of them only in their late teens—received little to no training for their highly hazardous jobs.
Mazzocchi, through his assistant Steve Wodka, secured Silkwood and two other Kerr-McGee employees and union members (Jack Tice and Jerry Brewer) a meeting with the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The AEC was in charge of investigating nuclear facilities, but also with promoting nuclear energy, a formula for inevitable partiality. Kerr-McGee had a high-dollar contract with the AEC, which created an ostensibly biased relationship.
It was in the time leading up to the meeting with the AEC that Silkwood began collecting evidence for reporter David Burnham at Mazzocchi’s suggestion. Having worked in the Metallography Lab at the plant, where she conducted quality-control checks, and also having experience polishing fuel rod welds in accordance to acceptable standards, Silkwood had the knowledge and the access to records and the proof that quality-control records were being doctored. The doctoring allowed leaky, faulty rods to be used at the Westinghouse Fast Flux Test facility, a nuclear test reactor owned by the Department of Energy at the Hanford Site in Washington State, no longer in operation. She didn’t know what would happen if faulty rods were used, but was smart enough to know that the results could not be good. In addition, Silkwood discovered that glove-box gaskets were leaking plutonium nitrate into the workplace. But, most importantly, Silkwood discovered that enough plutonium to make nearly three atomic bombs—approximately 40 pounds—was missing from the Cimarron plant, although it was never determined how she made this discovery or if she had documentation to prove it.
Furthermore, prior to April 1974, Kerr-McGee was not required to have security in place to guard from plutonium leaving the plant. As Rashke, and as Silkwood’s lawyers suggested during her trial, such lax security made a plutonium-smuggling ring at the Kerr-McGee plant undoubtedly possible.
In early November, Silkwood was contaminated during her shift. She had 10,000 disintegrations per minute (d/m) on her right wrist—20 times greater than the amount declared safe by the AEC. Her nasal smear also tested positive (150 d/m). It was on her hands, neck, and face, and in her hair. An explanation for her contamination was never determined.
Two days later, on November 7, Silkwood was tested again. Results showed she had an astounding 45,015 d/m in her right nostril and 44,988 d/m in her left nostril (despite the fact that she had a blocked nasal passage in her left nostril). This indicated that she was most likely exhaling plutonium from her lungs and that her exposure, in this particular case, had not occurred at the plant.
Two Kerr-McGee employees investigated Silkwood’s house after her contamination results. Her kitchen stove tested positive for 25,000 d/m, the refrigerator door, 20,000 d/m, and inside the refrigerator, an astonishing 400,000 d/m. The bologna inside the refrigerator was contaminated, as well as frozen strawberries, vegetables, and other items within the home, including cereal, Q-tips, a bicycle and bath oil and cologne.
Her roommate, Sherri Ellis, who also worked as a lab technician at Kerr-McGee at the time (although not a union member) mysteriously suffered minimal contamination. Silkwood alone appeared to be seriously affected.
As Rashke points out, the contamination within Silkwood’s home was no accident. The likelihood that Silkwood would intentionally contaminate herself to make a point on behalf of the OCAW union, as Kerr-McGee suggested, was not plausible, since she understood plutonium’s carcinogenic properties. Silkwood also told a coworker that someone contaminated her and told her sister during a phone call that someone was trying to harm her but that she couldn’t discuss the details over the phone. The results of the AEC investigation of the Kerr-McGee Cimarron facility following Silkwood’s crash determined that she had inhaled and eaten plutonium, among other details. However, the AEC investigation did nothing to resolve who was responsible for contaminating Silkwood, nor did they look very far into why quality control negatives were being doctored, or why workers were receiving such little training at the plant. As Rashke points out, both Kerr-McGee and the AEC benefited from the Crescent plant’s existence. The coziness of the relationship was threatened by the union.
On December 29, 1974, the New York Times published Burnham’s report that thousands of pounds of nuclear materials were missing from 15 nuclear processing plants in the United States, including Kerr-McGee. The missing plutonium, according to the AEC, was the result of accounting and inventory mistakes. Barbara Newman reported in a 1976 article in The Nation, “Some of Our Plutonium is Missing,” that in 1974 the Kerr-McGee plant closed down on two occasions to conduct inventory because of missing plutonium—plutonium that was “found” on both occasions. The inventory was conducted by Kerr-McGee and did not provide any objective proof that the plutonium was actually accounted for. Furthermore, Kerr-McGee was licensed to produce 1,000 kilograms of plutonium, even though the average amount recorded in their inventory was approximately 360 kilograms.
But despite all the question marks hovering over the Kerr-McGee plant, its relationship with the AEC, Silkwood’s contamination and, most importantly, the missing plutonium, the FBI investigated for only five months before closing the Silkwood file.
It should be noted that the events leading up to and surrounding Silkwood’s death only take up the first third of Rashke’s book. The remainder of the pages follows the bizarre quandaries and threats encountered by investigators and lawyers involved in the congressional subcommittee investigation (focused on proving poor working conditions at the Cimarron plant) and the civil suits filed by Silkwood’s father.
For starters, it was verified by an anonymous source within the FBI that Silkwood’s union-related activities and investigations were being monitored. There was strong speculation that Silkwood’s home was bugged. Furthermore, the same source also divulged to a private investigator involved in the Silkwood lawsuit investigation that the CIA was diverting plutonium from U.S. nuclear plants and delivering it to international political allies. This information suggests that Kerr-McGee was up to no good from the start and that whatever was going on at the plant in small-town Crescent involved the FBI and a potential collaboration between the FBI, the Intelligence Department of the Oklahoma City Police, the CIA, the NSA, and the U.S. Navy.
And, Rashke suggests, that a 28-year-old union laborer stumbled onto it and paid the ultimate price.
In 1977, while working on another story, Rashke met with attorney Dan Sheehan, who would go on to represent Silkwood’s family in her civil trial. During their meeting, Rashke caught a glimpse of the Silkwood lawsuit sitting on Sheehan’s desk and asked to look at it. He was instantly intrigued.
“I’m addicted to David and Goliath stories,” said Rashke during a phone interview. “What struck me immediately was that if Silkwood had been a man, this would not have happened. She was a woman. She wasn’t married at the time. She was very vulnerable. She didn’t have a lot of money, so it was easy to squash her.
“I never believed [it] when I heard that she fell asleep at the wheel on the way to Oklahoma City to deliver evidence to New York Times reporter David Burnham. I laughed and said, ‘Tell me another one.’ ”
Rashke worked closely alongside Sheehan and private investigator Bill Taylor, hired by Sheehan to help build the Silkwood case. There were times when potential risks to Rashke’s safety arose. He had a hideout in Oklahoma City, a church where he was to go if he ever felt threatened. If necessary, Taylor could provide him a haven on an island off of Florida. It never came to that, although there were times when Rashke admits he grew anxious.
“The stakes were high in terms of life and death with Silkwood,” says Rashke. “The stakes were very, very high on the level of the health of the workers … [and] the stakes were high for the government, in terms of terrorism, and also in terms of diverting plutonium, if that’s what they did.”
When asked what matters to him today about the book, Rashke said: “No one in all those years, including Kerr-McGee, was able to come back to me and say, ‘You made a serious mistake here.’ Not a single person.”
For Rashke, the subject is not dead, nor has it lost importance. “Silkwood,” he says, “will always be close to my heart.”