Karen Silkwood died November 13, 1974 in a car crash while driving to meet with a New York Times journalist and an official of her union’s national office.
After being hired to make plutonium pellets, the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site plant near Crescent, Oklahoma, in 1972, Silkwood joined the local Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union and investigated health and safety issues as a member of the union’s bargaining committee.
She testified in August to the Atomic Energy Commission about unsafe conditions at the facility, and plutonium contamination was subsequently detected on her person and in her home, over a three-day period in November 1974.
Silkwood died in a one-car crash under suspicious circumstances after reportedly gathering evidence proving claims of dangerous conduct by plant officials.
A binder that was in her possession when she left to meet David Burnham, a New York Times journalist, was not found at the crash seen.
The 1974 Honda Civic she was driving was new and on excellent condition.
It is believed that the binder contained evidence of numerous violations of health regulations, including exposure of workers to contamination, faulty respiratory equipment and improper storage of samples.
Some journalists theorized that Silkwood’s car was rammed from behind by another vehicle, with the intent to cause an accident that would result in her death.
Skid marks from Silkwood’s car, suggest that she was trying to regain control and get back onto the road after being pushed from behind.
Reflecting a character once considered an American archetype, Silkwood displayed great courage despite btutal tactics used by the company, which had enormous wealth and influence.
In a civil suit against Kerr-McGee by the Estate of Karen Silkwood, Judge Frank Theis told the jury, “If you find that the damage to the person or property of Karen Silkwood resulted from the operation of this plant, Kerr-McGee is liable.”
Kerr-McGee eventually settled a lawsuit for causing plutonium contamination of Silkwood’s body and home for US $1.38 million, without admitting liability.
Kerr-McGee closed its nuclear fuel plants in 1975. On June 23, 2006, Anadarko Petroleum acquired Kerr-McGee in an all-cash transaction totaling $16.5 billion plus $2.6 billion in debt and in 2019, that company was acquired by Occidental Petroleum.
Her death brought about a federal investigation found many of Silkwood’s allegations true, prompting Kerr-McGee to close the Cimarron plant in 1975.
Born in Longview, Texas, the heroic whistleblower studied medical technology at Lamar State College in Beaumont, Texas, on a scholarship.
She had three children, Kristi, Michael and Dawn, then ages 8, 5 and 4,
Today, Michael Meadows is married with three children and lives in the St. Louis area. Dawn Lipsey is married with three children and lives in Highland Village, Texas. Kristi Riddles declined to be interviewed .
Silkwood is buried at Plot 539 at Danville Cemetery, located in Kilgore, Gregg County, Texas, USA.
There is a debate about nuclear power but new facilities have been far fewer ? b
Accidents in nuclear power plants include the Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union in 1986, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, and the more contained Three Mile Island accident in the United States in 1979.
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