For critics of the nuclear industry’s safety record, the name Karen Silkwood still arouses strong emotions. Eleven years ago the 28year-old nuclear technician, already contaminated with radioactive plutonium, died mysteriously in an automobile crash near the Oklahoma nuclear plant where she worked. Then, a series of best-selling books, a popular Hollywood movie and a well-publicized lawsuit enshrined her as the nuclear power industry’s best-known victim. Next week a coalition of U.S. nuclear safety advocacy groups will present the second annual Karen Silkwood Awards to crusaders for safety in the industry. Meanwhile, lawyers for Silkwood’s family are preparing for yet another round in their complex court battle to win damages from Silkwood’s employer, Kerr-McGee Nuclear Corp., which has already been held responsible for her exposure to the lethal plutonium. Said the family’s Washington lawyer, Robert Hager: “Here we are, 10 years later, starting all over again.”
The 1983 movie Silkwood, starring Meryl Streep, has made the story familiar to millions. The real Silkwood was an analyst at Kerr-McGee’s Cim-
arron plutonium recycling plant near Crescent, Okla. She died on Nov. 13, 1974, when her Honda Civic swerved off Highway 74, 50 km north of Oklahoma City, and smashed into a concrete culvert. Minutes earlier she had left a meeting of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) International Union to keep an appointment with a New York Times reporter and an OCAW official. Ever since her death union members have consistently maintained that she left the meeting clutching a manila folder which contained evidence of dangerous safety practices and procedural irregularities at Kerr-McGee, the largest producer of uranium and of plutonium fuel rods in the United States.
Oklahoma police swiftly determined that Silkwood had fallen asleep at the wheel of her car and they cited the presence of drugs—prescription Quaaludes—in her bloodstream. But a union investigator’s report claimed that two dents in the Honda could indicate that it had been “struck from behind by an unknown vehicle.” The report also said Silkwood’s tire tracks showed that she had tried to control the car. As well, union spokesmen demanded to know what had happened to the manila folder, which was never found.
But the most intense scrutiny focused not on the crash, an accident
that has never been fully explained, but on evidence that in the weeks before her death she had been exposed to plutonium, a deadly carcinogen. Company records revealed that on three successive days in the week before she died, its regulation safety checks showed Silkwood bearing traces of the lethal material. After the third check company safety officials visited her home and found it everywhere, including on food in her refrigerator. In November, 1976, Silkwood’s father filed a landmark $11.5-million suit against Kerr-McGee for damages on behalf of the family. In it they alleged that Kerr-McGee had been negligent in not keeping close track of the plutonium, which is used in the manufacture of nuclear reactor fuel rods. In that, it bore responsibility both for her exposure at the plant and for allowing plutonium into the hands of whoever exposed her at her home. Dr. John Gofman, a world expert on the health effects of low-level radiation, swore that if she had not died in the crash she would inevitably have died from cancer. But when the trial opened in March, 1979, company lawyers told the jury that Silkwood had contaminated herself, and they suggested that she had done so deliberately—in an effort to discredit the company.
In reconstructing the activist’s final
days, the family’s lawyers predictably drew a more disturbing conclusion. One of their witnesses was James Noel, a former colleague of Silkwood’s. Noel told the jury that at the time of her death she was “conducting a secret investigation of the plant” and had evidence that the company had routinely violated safety regulations and falsified qualitycontrol records.
Then, Noel said that the missing envelope might have contained evidence that 40 lb. of plutonium, worth at least $10 million on the international black market, had disappeared from the plant. U.S. government records subsequently confirmed that the plutonium was indeed missing. The Silkwoods’ lawyers said that someone, probably company officials, knew that Silkwood was about to go public with her information and that they had planted plutonium in her apartment to frighten her.
For eight weeks a parade of witnesses corroborated the union’s allegations of unsafe procedures at the nuclear plant. One outside expert, Dr. Karl
Morgan, a U.S. government adviser who was instrumental in drafting the U.S. nuclear safety code, accused KerrMcGee of “a callous, almost cruel, hardened disregard” for its employees’ safety. For their part, company officials testified that the missing plutonium had simply disappeared in the facility’s pipes.
Finally, on May 18 the jury found Kerr-McGee liable for Silkwood’s contamination and awarded her estate $10.5 million in personal, property and punitive damages. It was the first award ever made to a nuclear worker, and it set a precedent by recognizing that states have authority to award punitive damages against the federally regulated industry.
But two years later the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision, not on the merits of the case but on the technical grounds that nuclear facilities are exempt from local interference. Over the next 2 V2 years the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In January, 1984, that court upheld the Oklahoma state court’s right to award punitive damages, but it sent the amount in question back to the Court of Appeals to be re-examined. The Court of Appeals has just ordered the case to be sent back to the original Oklahoma trial court for a new trial on the punitive damages issue. The family has yet to see a cent in damages and may face a long wait.
The family’s lawyers are currently amassing new evidence in order to claim for damages of at least $10 million or more. Hager, a partner in Washington’s Christie Institute, a public-interest law firm, said there is evidence that “Kerr-McGee had targeted Silkwood and had placed her under surveillance in the weeks before her death.” He added that while the first trial focused narrowly on Silkwood’s plutonium contamination, this time evidence relating to the night of Silkwood’s death could be admissible.
But her fate may have its greatest impact on the lives of people who work in the nuclear industry. Whatever caused her death, said Sylvia Tognetti, an organizer with the Washingtonbased Nuclear Reform project, “dozens of other workers have been inspired to blow the whistle on dangerous practices.” And, she added, “when they do, I can guarantee that they all have Karen Silkwood’s courage firmly in the back of their minds.”
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