In the 1970’s, the promise of nuclear power was still king in the United States. And in Oklahoma, the Kerr-McGee corporation was king: the employer of thousands, respected, home-grown, bearing the name of the most powerful businessman-politician to ever come from the state, Robert Kerr. Among many other things the corporation was in the business of providing plutonium rods for the next generation of fast-breeder nuclear reactors.

It was however, an industry fraught with complication and danger. In this emerging technology, just what was safe? —after all plutonium 239 is, molecule for molecule, one of the more dangerous substances in industry. Even the first generation of nuclear plants alarmed the public. Before the 1970’s were over the reputation of nuclear power was rocked by the Three Mile Island meltdown in Pennsylvania, and the hard-hitting film The China Syndrome.

On this stage of great controversy enters a bright, assertive young employee of the Kerr-McGee plant in Crescent, Oklahoma named Karen Silkwood. A whiz at science and nobody’s fool, Karen was first viewed as a valuable employee among the underqualified local talent. But, she had too many opinions, too much interest in safety, too much interest in unions. Within a few years Karen had gone from promising new hire to thorn-in-the-side of management, her job barely protected by her union status. She made constant safety complaints, and speculated that significant quantities of plutonium were missing and unaccounted for. Perhaps unknown to the company, she was gathering copies of incriminating documents.

Her relationship with her employer darkened with each passing month. Then, in the fall of 1974, Karen was somehow exposed to alarming levels of plutonium, contamination that even spread throughout her home and personal belongings. Karen alleged carelessness at the company or even sabotage, while whispers accused her of contaminating herself to embarrass Kerr-McGee. Was Silkwood capable, in essence, of suicide to prove her point?

On the evening of November 13 Karen was driving Highway 74, toward Oklahoma City, on her way to meet New York Times reporter David Burnham and deliver her trove of documents, but never made it. Her Honda Civic was found off-road, smashed into a concrete culvert, and she dead of impact. The tow-truck driver remembers seeing papers at the scene, flapping in the breeze, but those papers disappeared that night. Karen’s documents were never seen again.

A regrettable accident—that was the official story—but friends of Karen, and enemies of nuclear power, joined forces to keep pressure on authorities. Her case became a cause-célèbre. The alternative investigation was slow: it seems that everyone supporting Silkwood, everyone who had information unflattering to Kerr-McGee, was intimidated by the corporation or by law enforcement. Even Mrs. Jean Jung, a woman who simply stated that she’d seen the sheaf of documents shortly before Karen’s last drive, found it prudent to move entirely out of state. Finally, in 1979 a civil verdict gave Silkwood a measure of vindication. Kerr-McGee was found responsible for her contamination by plutonium, due to negligence at the plant, and a jury awarded half a million dollars, plus ten million in punitive damages. Some years of legal wrangling later a sum of over a million was finally settled on, and transferred to her estate.

Yet, the mystery of the cause of Karen’s demise, and of what Kerr-McGee and law enforcement did behind the scenes before and after her death, has never been settled. An extensive trail of informal testimony suggests that Silkwood and her supporters had been illegally wiretapped and tape recorded for months before her death. Informal, because the judge at trial had decided that such testimony in open court would prove “inflammatory” to the jury, and disallowed it. But countless questions remain.

What can the evidence and logic tell us about the demise of Karen Silkwood? Join us in our quest for answers.

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