After hours of grinding and polishing plutonium pellets through a protective glovebox, she checked for radioactive exposure. After a modest positive result, the glovebox was replaced. By the time she left the Kerr-McGee plant where she worked in Cimarron, Oklahoma, five hours later, she was clean.
But over the next two days, tests showed confusing patterns of radioactive contamination. Within days, Silkwood, a roommate and boyfriend were flown to Los Alamos, New Mexico, for further testing and within a week, Silkwood would be dead - not from the radiation, but from injuries suffered in a suspicious automobile accident.
Silkwood's death would spark a heated debate over nuclear safety as well as a lengthy court case. It would also inspire a movie that earned numerous Academy Award nominations, including for Meryl Streep (best actress) and Cher (best supporting actress).
Karen Silkwood was a native Texan and a straight A student in high school, where she was the only girl in a chemistry class. She earned a scholarship which she used to study medical technology at Lamar College in Beaumont, Texas.
But Silkwood quit school after her freshman year to begin a common-law marriage to Bill Meadows, a California transplant who found work in the Texas oilfields. But, three children later, the marriage dissolved and Silkwood left her children behind to find work in Oklahoma City in 1972.
She landed a job as a laboratory analyst at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site near Crescent, Oklahoma, where she began work making plutonium pellets for fuel rods to be used in nuclear reactors.
Kerr-McGee started as an oil company founded by former Oklahoma politician Bob Kerr in 1929. After luring Phillips Petroleum chief geologist Dean McGee in 1946, Kerr-McGee was born. Merging Kerr's skill at securing lucrative contracts through his political connections with McGee's nose for oil, the company was solidly in the Fortune 500 in the 1970s. Since beginning uranium production at Cimarron in 1965, it was the largest private-sector uranium producer in the world by the time Silkwood went to work there.
Silkwood, the granddaughter of a Texas oil worker and union member, recognized the value of a union, even in a right to work state like Oklahoma, and joined the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union (OCAW). Within months, the union went on strike. Although the vast majority of union members abandoned the picket lines during the months-long strike, Silkwood was one of 20 who stuck it out. She was rewarded in August 1974 by becoming the first woman to be elected to the OCAW bargaining committee and was put in charge of health and safety.
As Silkwood began documenting the spills and contamination she observed in Cimarron, which had a turnover rate of 60 percent and was manned by many poorly trained workers, another member of the bargaining committee complained to officers of OCAW International about working conditions at the plant. At the end of September 1974, the committee's three members flew to Washington, D.C., to meet with union officials.
There they were told for the first time that plutonium was a carcinogen. Since Kerr-McGee was pressing for decertification of the OCAW due to its dwindling membership. national union officials saw an opportunity to resurrect its withering local. The first step was to warn Cimarron employees of the serious dangers of the material they were producing. The second was to take the damaging information Silkwood was collecting and give it to a New York Times reporter to generate public support for the workers' plight.
On October 10, 1974, about 100 Kerr-McGee workers attended a union-sanctioned workshop about the toxicity of plutonium. One week later, workers defeated the Kerr-McGee proposal to decertify the union by an 80-61 vote. But workers still lacked leverage in bargaining sessions. Union officials figured that a page one story in the New York Times might give them the muscle to give workers some much-needed plant reforms.
Silkwood was encouraged to continue collecting evidence against the company before meeting with New York Times reporter David Burnham.
On November 5, after grinding and polishing plutonium pellets that would be used in fuel rods, a routine check showed that Silkwood had been exposed to radiation. After showering with Clorox and Tide detergent, she was determined to be clean and was sent home with instructions to collect urine and fecal samples for the next five days.
On November 6, Silkwood arrived at the Kerr-McGee plant early to prepare paperwork for a bargaining meeting. Even though she had not worked with plutonium since the previous day, she was found to be even more contaminated than the day before. A painful shower with abrasive chemicals designed to remove the outer layer of skin followed, but the contamination remained.
When she arrived for work on November 7, Silkwood immediately reported to the Health Physics Office where it was determined that she was dangerously contaiminated. After a check of the plant and Silkwood's car came up negative, a team of Kerr-McGee investigators headed to Silkwood's apartment.
Investigators in full protective gear found intense contamination, especially in the kitchen and bathroom, but Silkwood's roommate and co-worker, Sherri Ellis, only had low-level exposure to radiation. Suspecting that Silkwood may be exposing herself intentionally, Kerr-McGee investigators took advantage of the opportunity to read Silkwood's diaries and other documents found in the apartment and dispatched company lawyers to question her.
At the recommendation of union officials and Atomic Energy Commission investigators, Silkwood, Ellis and Silkwood's boyfriend, Drew Stephens, were flown to Los Alamos, New Mexico, on November 10 for two days of intense testing. Although Ellis and Stephens were found to be relatively clean, Silkwood was determined to have higher - but not life-threatening - levels of contamination. She was reassured that despite the contamination she should go on to live a normal life.
But Silkwood, a heavy smoker with asthma who had lost 20 pounds in recent weeks and was down to 94 pounds, wasn't so sure. Plus, her cover as a union investigator was blown. Union officials decided to move up her meeting with Times reporter Burnham. It was set for 8:30 p.m. on November 13, 1974, at the Holiday Inn in Oklahoma City, about 30 miles from the Cimarron plant.
Silkwood and Ellis were re-assigned to new jobs when they reported for work on Nov. 13. Silkwood also attended a union bargaining session before a union meeting at the Hub Cafe began at 5:30 p.m. After the union meeting, Silkwood confided to a friend and co-worker that she had been contaminated and that she feared she would later contract cancer. She also said that she had photos of defective welds and documents proving falsification of records by Kerr-McGee.
Clutching a folder containing the photos and documents, Silkwood climbed into her white 1973 Honda Civic around 7:15 p.m. and started driving to her appointment with Burnham.
Burnham arrived at the Holiday Inn around 8:30, where he joined union official Steve Wodka and Drew Stephens. When Silkwood failed to arrive by 10 p.m., Wodka began making phone calls. That's when he learned the shocking news: Silkwood had been killed in an automobile accident on a two-lane rural road.
The trio immediately headed to the accident scene and found the accident investigator, Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper Rick Fagen. Fagen ultimately determined that Silkwood crashed after falling asleep, possibly while under the influence of drugs. He found sedatives and evidence of marijuana use - but no documents - in Silkwood's car.
Suspecting foul play, the union hired its own investigator, A.O. Pipkin, a former policeman who had investigated more that 2,000 accidents. Pipkin challenged the notion that Silkwood was unconscious before the crash. First he disputed the driving pattern of the crash itself. Silkwood's car veered off the road to the left, then traveled in a straight line for 240 feet before slamming into a concrete culvert. Pipkin argued that sleepy drivers usually drift off the road to the right and crash or roll immediately.
Furthermore, Pipkin argued, the steering wheel was bent in on two sides, suggesting that Silkwood was bracing herself for impact at the time of the crash.
Then there was the problem of the dents. Silkwood's car had dents on its rear bumper, marks the Oklahoma Highway Patrol attributed to towing the car out of the culvert after the crash. A microscopic examination ordered by Pipkin, however, proved otherwise. That examination said the dent was fresh and contained paint chips from another vehicle. Pipkin's final analysis was that someone in another car had forced Silkwood from the road.
An autopsy the next day showed that Silkwood's bloodstream had twice the recommended dosage of Quaalude necessary for causing drowsiness and that even more undissolved Quaalude was in her stomach. Subsequent tissue analysis revealed that she had serious recent plutonium contamination with the highest concentrations in her gastrointestinal tract, indicating that she had ingested plutonium shortly before her death.
Although Kerr-McGee tried to paint Silkwood as a vindictive plutonium smuggler who infected herself to make the company look bad, an Atomic Energy Commission report released less than two months after her death said that isotope studies showed that Silkwood never had ready access to the type of plutonium found in her body.
Reporter Burnham wrote several stories about the Silkwood case in the weeks following the accident, but the story had largely run its course by January 1975. Meanwhile, Kerr-McGee ran its own investigation, using lie detector tests to question employees, reassigning local union officials and closing down operations for two weeks around Christmas 1974, leaving employees without income for that period.
National union official Tony Mazzocchi, an environmental activist who was a major architect of the Occupational Safety & Health Act and had been involved in the Silkwood case from the beginning, vowed to continue his investigative efforts into what he considered a murder case despite what the union viewed as intimidation on the part of Kerr-McGee.
Despite his own serious automobile accident on January 17, 1975, Mazzocchi was instrumental in getting major Silkwood articles published in two magagazines - Ms. and Rolling Stone. National Public Radio also did an update on the case and the National Organization of Women used the Silkwood case as a rallying cry in its "Stop Violence Against Women" campaign.
Although the Kerr-McGee Cimarron plant was shut down in 1975, the company was sued by the Silkwood estate in 1979. That trial resulted in a $10.5 million award to the family, but the Federal Court of Appeals reduced the award to a mere $5,000. After further legal wrangling, the parties agreed to a $1.38 million settlement in 1986, with $810,000 reportedly going to legal fees.
Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen collaborated on the screenplay for the 1983 movie, Silkwood, that was nominated for five Academy Awards. In preparation for her starring role, actress Meryl Streep was given recordings of union conversations with Karen Silkwood. The result was a best acting nomination for Streep, although many of Silkwood's friends thought Cher - who played Silkwood's roommate in the film and earned a best supporting actress nomination - more closely resembled Silkwood.
One of the great ironies of the case is that a December 7, 1985, story in the New York Times reported that the fuel rods questioned by Silkwood in 1974 turned out to be "among the best Kerr-McGee performers" and "posed no hazard while often exceeding contract specifications for useful life and power production."
Defenders of Silkwood maintain that it was still proper to blow the whistle since the intent to cover up and misrepresent flaws was the real problem from the start.
On June 14, 1995, Silkwood's ex-boyfriend, Drew Stephens, was practicing acrobatic loops in his plane outside of El Reno, Oklahoma, when the plane careened through a wheat field and burst into flames, killing him instantly. He was 45 years old.
Karen Gay Silkwood
Born: February 19, 1946
Died: November 13, 1974, age 28