Karen Silkwood was a plutonium lab technician at nuclear energy giant Kerr-McGee who revealed blatant security and health violations, frequent worker contamination due to faulty equipment and fraud to conceal defective plutonium rods.
Silkwood joined Kerr-McGee in 1972 and quickly noticed safety violations which led her to join the local union. She began compiling a list of violations and met with her union’s legal team in Washington to turn in her findings. The whistleblower testified to the Atomic Energy Commission about being contaminated and the lacks in safety standards at Kerr-McGee. She was task by her national union with discovering more evidence, in particular, for her claim that the company doctored fuel rod photo negatives.
Unbeknownst to Silkwood, her spying activities were an open secret at the plant and she was also being carefully observed. In the beginning of November 1974, she began setting off contamination sensors at the plant and found to be dangerously contaminated. The source of the contamination was later traced to cheese and baloney in her fridge at home.
A week later she was killed in a car crash on her way to deliver her bulging folder of evidence to a New York Times journalist. Her evidence was never found, although Kerr-McGee representatives visited the garage where Silkwood’s car had been towed under the pretense of testing the car for contamination. Despite being involved in a frontal collision, her car showed damaged to the rear indicating that she might have been forced off the road.
Kerr-McGee closed its Oklahoma plant in 1976. In 1984 a jury found Kerr-McGee guilty and had to pay $10 million in punitive damage because it had lied to its employees about the dangers of plutonium, it had defrauded the government by producing and selling faulty fuel rods, it had lost more than 40 lbs. of plutonium. However, this judgment was overturned on appeal in federal court. The US Supreme Court then reaffirmed the original verdict but after Kerr-McGee said it would appeal, Silkwood’s family settled out of court with Silkwood’s family for $1.38 million.
News Report following the $10 million judgment:
The Killing of Karen Silkwood: The Story Behind the Kerr-McGee Plutonium Case