The mysterious death of Karen Silkwood: What really happened to the Plutonium whistleblower?

The mysterious death of Karen Silkwood: What really happened to the Plutonium whistleblower? 1
The Mysterious Death Of Karen Silkwood: What Really Happened To The Plutonium Whistleblower?

Karen Silkwood was a nuclear plant worker and whistleblower at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site plant near Crescent, Oklahoma. On November 13, 1974, she set out to meet a reporter to go public with evidence of extensive safety violations. She was later found dead. Her car appeared to have been run off the road and the documents she had with her were missing.

karen silkwood wreckage
A newspaper article of ‘The Death of Karen Silkwood.’ An accident or murder?

According to some reports, Silkwood had carried small amounts of plutonium out of the plant and had deliberately contaminated herself and her apartment. Why should she act so bizarrenesses this remains in question, and more than four decades later, her death is still a mystery.

The Early Life Of Karen Silkwood

Karen Silkwood
Karen Silkwoodhad just left town and was driving on Highway 74. About five minutes into her drive, her car ran off the road and hit a culvert. She died instantly © Fandom

Karen Gay Silkwood was born on February 19, 1946, in Longview, Texas, to her parents named William Silkwood and Merle Silkwood and raised in Nederland, Texas. She attended Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. In 1965, she married William Meadows, an oil pipeline worker, with whom she had three children. After the marriage fell apart, Silkwood left Meadows in 1972 and moved to Oklahoma City, where she briefly worked as a hospital clerk.

Silkwood’s Union Activity

After being hired at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site plant near Crescent, Oklahoma, in 1972, Silkwood joined the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union and took part in a strike at the plant. After the strike ended, she was elected to the Union Bargaining Commission, the first woman to reach that position at the Kerr McGee plant.

Silkwood was assigned to investigate health and safety issues. She discovered what she believes to be numerous violations of health regulations, including exposing workers to contamination, faulty respiratory equipment, and improper storage of samples.

Silkwood Became Contaminated

On the night of November 5, 1972, Silkwood was polishing plutonium pellets that would be used to make fuel rods for a “breeder reactor” of the nuclear power plant. It was around 6:30 pm, when an alpha detector mounted on her glove box went off ― it was a piece of equipment that was supposed to protect her from exposure to radioactive material. According to the machine, her right arm was covered in plutonium.

Further tests revealed that the plutonium had come from the inside of her gloves — that was the part of her gloves which was only in contact with her hands, not the pellets. After that, plant doctors monitored her for the next few days, and what they found was quite unusual: Silkwood’s urine and feces samples were heavily contaminated with radioactivity, as was the apartment she shared with another plant worker, but no one could say why or how that “alpha activity” had gotten there.

The next morning, as she headed to a union negotiation meeting, Silkwood again tested positive for plutonium, although she had performed only paperwork duties that morning. They gave her a more intensive decontamination.

In the summer of 1974, Silkwood testified to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) about having been contaminated, alleging that safety standards had slipped because of a production speedup. She was appearing with other union members.

The Suspicious Death Of Karen Silkwood

Karen Silkwood accident
A group of Karen Silkwood supporters are shown gathered to dedicate a sign marking the spot where she died in a 1974 car crash. Silkwood died in the auto accident after being contaminated with plutonium at her job with Kerr-McGee Corp © File photo/Beaumont Enterprise

After her work on November 13, 1974, Silkwood went to a union meeting before heading home in her white Honda. Soon, police were summoned to the scene of an accident along Oklahoma’s State Highway 74: Silkwood had somehow crashed into a concrete culvert. She was dead by the time help arrived.

An autopsy revealed that she had taken a large dose of Quaaludes before she died, which would likely have made her doze off at the wheel; however, an accident investigator found skid marks and a suspicious dent in her car’s rear bumper, indicating that a second car had forced Silkwood off the road.

Something More Unusual Was Shown In The Reports

Due to contamination concerns, the Atomic Energy Commission and the State Medical Examiner requested organ analysis from Silkwood by the Los Alamos tissue analysis program. Much of the radiation was in her lungs, suggesting that plutonium had been inhaled. When her tissues were examined further, the second-highest deposits were found in her gastrointestinal organs. This indicated that Silkwood had ingested the plutonium somehow, again, no one could say how or why.

Silkwood’s Death Is Still A Mystery

Karen Gay Silkwood
Gravestone of Karen Gay Silkwood ©

After Silkwood’s tragic death, her father William Silkwood sued Kerr-McGee, and the company eventually settled the case for $1.3 million, plus other legal fees. Kerr-McGee, eventually, closed its Crescent plant in 1979, and nearly five decades later, Karen Silkwood’s death remains a mystery to this day.


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