Silkwood Becomes a Symbol for the Antinuclear Movement Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The mysterious death of Karen Silkwood drew attention to the dangers of the nuclear industry and stimulated a social movement that sought to improve safety in the nuclear industry and to educate the public on the dangers of nuclear energy.

Summary of Event

The mysterious events of November, 1974, that concluded with the death of Karen Silkwood brought about a dramatic change in the way Americans viewed the nuclear industry. Born on February 19, 1946, in Longview, Texas, Karen Silkwood had a typical childhood. In 1965, she married Bill Meadows, with whom she had three children, Beverly, Michael, and Dawn, before divorcing in 1972. Silkwood went back to her maiden name, left her children with Meadows, and went to Oklahoma to start a new life. Antinuclear activism Nuclear energy;Kerr-McGee Corporation[Kerr Macgee Corporation] Kerr-McGee Corporation[Kerr Macgee Corporation] [kw]Silkwood Becomes a Symbol for the Antinuclear Movement (Nov. 13, 1974) [kw]Antinuclear Movement, Silkwood Becomes a Symbol for the (Nov. 13, 1974) Antinuclear activism Nuclear energy;Kerr-McGee Corporation[Kerr Macgee Corporation] Kerr-McGee Corporation[Kerr Macgee Corporation] [g]North America;Nov. 13, 1974: Silkwood Becomes a Symbol for the Antinuclear Movement[01750] [g]United States;Nov. 13, 1974: Silkwood Becomes a Symbol for the Antinuclear Movement[01750] [c]Environmental issues;Nov. 13, 1974: Silkwood Becomes a Symbol for the Antinuclear Movement[01750] [c]Energy;Nov. 13, 1974: Silkwood Becomes a Symbol for the Antinuclear Movement[01750] [c]Crime and scandal;Nov. 13, 1974: Silkwood Becomes a Symbol for the Antinuclear Movement[01750] Silkwood, Karen Kohn, Howard Nelson, Sara Sheehan, Daniel Spence, Gerald

In the early 1970’s, the Kerr-McGee Corporation was one of the largest energy conglomerates in the United States, and its nuclear division was the country’s largest uranium producer. In 1970, the company opened a plutonium plant on the Cimarron River, near Crescent, Oklahoma, and was awarded a $7.2 million contract to produce sixteen thousand fuel rods for an experimental nuclear facility. It was this facility that hired Silkwood on August 5, 1972, as a technician earning $3.45 per hour.

Silkwood had been interested in science since childhood, and initially she was enthusiastic about working for the nuclear industry. In the metallography laboratory, Silkwood performed quality-control checks on randomly selected plutonium pellets by holding them up to unexposed X-ray film; if the plutonium was evenly distributed throughout the pellet, the film showed no “hot spots.” Silkwood also polished fuel-rod welds to check for cracks and inclusions.

Silkwood became disillusioned when the union contract expired in November, 1972, and the local Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union Labor strikes;Kerr-McGee Corporation[Kerr Macgee Corporation] (OCAW), seeking better wages, training, and health and safety programs, went on strike against Kerr-McGee. The union strike lasted ten weeks and ended with an ultimatum from Kerr-McGee—sign or be fired. This strike produced a strong connection for Silkwood to the union.

In the spring of 1974, Kerr-McGee was behind in production and initiated twelve-hour shifts and seven-day workweeks. This resulted in a dramatic increase of contaminations and spills. Silkwood’s safety concerns heightened. On July 31, 1974, Silkwood was first contaminated while working in the emission spectroscopy lab. Tests using Atomic Energy Commission Atomic Energy Commission, U.S.;Silkwood case (AEC) standards showed a slight air-filter contamination. There was confusion, however, because the contamination occurred only on her shift, not on those before or after.

In August, 1974, Silkwood was elected to the local union 5-283 bargaining committee and assigned to health and safety for the upcoming contract negotiations. Silkwood took the position very seriously and began documenting work conditions at Kerr-McGee. She took those concerns to Washington, D.C., in September, 1974, when she and two other local union officials met with Steve Wodka Wodka, Steve and Tony Mazzocchi Mazzocchi, Tony of the national OCAW office and the AEC to discuss thirty-nine examples of dangerous conditions. Silkwood also revealed to Mazzocchi her suspicions that quality-control records were being altered in order to keep production levels high. Knowing that if this was true Kerr-McGee would be guilty of fraud, Mazzocchi asked Silkwood secretly to gather documentation. It was at this meeting that Silkwood first learned that plutonium is carcinogenic.

Silkwood’s life took a dramatic turn on November 5. At her 6:30 p.m. work break, Silkwood’s routine radiation check showed contamination, her clothes read 20,000 disintegrations per minute (d/m), and her nasal smears read 150 d/m on the right and 9 d/m on the left. (At the time, the AEC safe limit was 500 d/m.) Silkwood was scrubbed with Clorox and Tide and told to collect specimens of her urine and feces. The next morning she read clean, but an hour into work she was contaminated again. After another scrubbing, Silkwood went to a bargaining meeting. When she prepared to leave the plant at 3:15 p.m., Silkwood set monitors off a third time, with similar readings as the day before. Tests indicated that her locker and car were clean.

On November 7, Silkwood was contaminated for the fourth time in three days. This time, however, the readings were significantly worse, with nasal smear readings around 45,000 d/m. Uncertain of the source of the contamination, Kerr-McGee officials checked Silkwood’s apartment, where they found high levels of contamination, including 25,000 d/m on the stove and more than 400,000 d/m on bologna and cheese wrappers. This was the first recorded off-site contamination in the history of the nuclear industry. Everything from the apartment was gathered and sealed in drums for burial.

Shaken, Silkwood faced allegations from Kerr-McGee and the AEC that she had contaminated herself. Silkwood, her boyfriend and coworker, Drew Stephens, Stephens, Drew and her roommate, Sherri Ellis, Ellis, Sherri were all examined by AEC and Kerr-McGee physicians. When OCAW insisted on further examinations, Kerr-McGee grudgingly sent them to the leading nuclear facility, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, where they received full body counts to determine contamination levels. Stephens and Ellis were slightly contaminated, and Silkwood’s contamination was less than one-half of the AEC limit. The group flew back to Oklahoma on November 12 with a sense of relief, although Silkwood still intended to leave Kerr-McGee as soon as she had concluded her investigation.

On the evening of November 13, Silkwood was scheduled to meet Wodka and David Burnham Burnham, David from The New York Times. At 5:30 p.m., she met with local union members at the Hub Cafe in Crescent. There she reportedly told a fellow union member that she intended to expose the conditions and defective plutonium fuel rods at Kerr-McGee; reportedly she indicated a notebook and manila folder of evidence. Silkwood left the Hub Cafe at 7:10 p.m. to start on her thirty-mile drive to her meeting.

One mile past the Kerr-McGee facility on Highway 74, Silkwood’s white Honda Civic hatchback veered to the left, hit a wall, straightened, and swerved into another wall before hurtling into a culvert. A passing truck driver later spotted her car, but Silkwood was dead. The notebook and manila folder were never found.

On November 15, the official police report ruled the crash a single-car accident. Although several aspects of the report were contested after further investigation, the official report was never changed. OCAW hired A. O. Pipkin, Pipkin, A. O. an accident re-creation expert from Dallas, to examine the crash. Pipkin devised a theory involving a second car that forced Silkwood off the road and then drove on. His theory ran in the newspapers on November 19, but two days later the medical examiner concurred with the police report and ruled Silkwood’s death an accident.


Karen Silkwood’s life fell under close scrutiny after her death, as both public and private investigations looked for answers to the unanswered questions. The investigations in turn sparked a national debate over nuclear safety, and Silkwood became a martyr to environmentalists, unionists, and feminists.

The baby-boom generation had been raised to believe that plutonium was a safe power source. Silkwood’s death first made many people aware of the carcinogenic properties of plutonium. Largely as a result of an article by Howard Kohn on Silkwood’s mysterious death, in the March, 1975, issue of Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone (magazine);Silkwood case a strong antinuclear movement emerged. The article generated more letters than any previous article had, and Rolling Stone itself joined the movement, crossing the line between reporting and advocacy, and donated time, space, and money to the cause of vindicating Silkwood.

To unionists, Silkwood’s death exemplified the struggle between workers and big business. Throughout the 1980’s, her name was synonymous with whistle-blowing. After reading the Kohn article, Kitty Tucker, Tucker, Kitty the Washington, D.C., chapter coordinator for the National Organization for Women (NOW), and Sara Nelson, the national director of NOW’s Labor Task Force, got NOW officially involved in the Silkwood cause. Many nuclear workers were women, and NOW pointed to their exploitation and raised concerns over the genetic dangers of plutonium. NOW targeted U.S. senators Abraham A. Ribicoff Ribicoff, Abraham A. and Lee Metcalf Metcalf, Lee and worked to bring about a congressional investigation into Silkwood’s death. Nelson, Tucker, and Bob Alvarez, Tucker’s husband, organized Supporters of Silkwood (SOS), Supporters of Silkwood a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public on nuclear dangers and raising funds to help investigations; the group repeatedly asked one question about Silkwood: “Dead because she knew too much?”

On August 26, 1975, while local NOW chapters across the country held vigils and parades honoring Silkwood, the NOW leadership met with representatives of the U.S. Justice Department and demanded information. At the NOW national convention two months later, Karen Silkwood became the first posthumous honorary member of the organization. Meeting with Senator Ribicoff on November 19, Tucker and Nelson brought seven thousand petitions calling for an investigation. Ribicoff had planned to investigate only whether the AEC and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which had taken over for the AEC, had performed adequately.

Congressional hearings, which began on April 26, 1976, were led by Peter Stockton, Stockton, Peter who had already investigated the case for National Public Radio, and Winston Turner. Turner, Winston Major testimony came from Jacque Srouji, Srouji, Jacque a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean and a source for the Federal Bureau of Investigation Federal Bureau of Investigation;Karen Silkwood case[Silkwood] (FBI), who asserted that union officials were responsible for the contamination. Congress established negligence on the part of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, the FBI, and the Justice Department but found no grounds for further investigating the AEC or NRC.

During the congressional hearings, Rolling Stone published another Kohn article that suggested that Silkwood had learned of forty pounds of missing plutonium and a theft-and-smuggling ring at Kerr-McGee. This article prompted Daniel Sheehan, an attorney formerly with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), to join the cause. Sheehan’s preliminary efforts concluded that Kerr-McGee could be sued for negligence in the company’s handling of plutonium. After the congressional hearings, Bill Meadows asked Sheehan to take over the case. Sheehan went to Stockton for information on Srouji, who had alleged that Silkwood was bugged and phone-tapped by federal agencies.

Bringing the Silkwood case to trial proved difficult. The Silkwood team, including NOW and SOS, was plagued by misinformation, cover-ups, and closed mouths in their attempt to gather evidence. Federal agencies, including the FBI and AEC, reported that while there were safety violations at Kerr-McGee, none was substantial. On November 5, 1976, eight days before the statute of limitations ran out, the Silkwood estate filed a suit seeking $160,000 in damages. The suit charged Kerr-McGee with negligence in handling plutonium and Kerr-McGee and the FBI with a conspiracy to deprive Silkwood of her civil rights.

Throughout the discovery period, the Silkwood team struggled with both a lack of funds and a lack of cooperation from the defendants. The team dropped the conspiracy charges against Kerr-McGee and the FBI before the suit went to court and shifted the focus to proving negligence. The plaintiffs amended their complaint to $1.5 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages.

The Silkwood case, which sought to improve safety in the nuclear industry and to educate the public on dangers of nuclear energy, was not only a civil trial but also a social movement. Under the direction of the attorney Gerald Spence, the Silkwood team sought to prove that plutonium is ultrahazardous and that, under Oklahoma law, Kerr-McGee was responsible for the material’s proper care; that Silkwood was contaminated with plutonium from Kerr-McGee; that Silkwood did not contaminate herself; that Silkwood’s contamination injured her between November 5 and 13, 1974; and that Kerr-McGee was negligent in failing to protect its workers. The trial did not cover the details of Silkwood’s death.

One of the most highly publicized trials in Oklahoma history, the case opened in March, 1979, and lasted ten weeks, the longest up to that time in Oklahoma. The plaintiffs called nineteen witnesses to testify on the dangers of plutonium, the working conditions at Kerr-McGee, and the character of Karen Silkwood. The defense team called twenty-four witnesses to prove that Silkwood had repeatedly contaminated herself with non-Kerr-McGee plutonium and that the contamination had not injured her; the defense argued that her contaminations fell under workers’ compensation laws.

In May, 1979, both sides rested. Meeting with the judge, Kerr-McGee conceded that Silkwood was contaminated with the company’s plutonium. The judge then set a precedent by defining plutonium as ultrahazardous. On May 18, 1979, after twenty-one hours of deliberation, the jury found Kerr-McGee negligent in an off-site contamination and awarded Silkwood’s estate $500,000 in compensatory damages, $5,000 in property damages, and $10 million in punitive damages. Afterward, Silkwood’s supporters placed a sign at her accident site with her birth, death, and vindication dates.

Appealing the case to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, Kerr-McGee contended that the first trial had been in violation of federal and state regulations and that the first judge had erred in declaring plutonium ultrahazardous. On December 11, 1981, the appellate court concurred and lowered the award to only the $5,000 in property damages. The Silkwood team then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled on January 11, 1984, that victims of radiation injuries could sue nuclear power companies. The decision severely limited the federal monopoly on nuclear power by placing companies under state tort laws that could hold companies liable for punitive damages for gross negligence. Not only was the Supreme Court decision a further vindication for the Silkwood case, it was also a victory for states, which were given some regulatory control of the nuclear industry. (In fact, sixteen states had become “friends of the court” in the Silkwood case, turning it into something of a states’ rights case.) In an out-of-court settlement in August, 1986, the first internal exposure case finally ended with a $1.38 million agreement. Kerr-McGee contended it settled to avoid more costly litigation.

Despite a standing $10,000 reward for information, the death of Karen Silkwood remained unresolved. In December, 1983, Hollywood drew further attention to the dangers of nuclear energy with their version of the story in the film Silkwood, which starred Meryl Streep Streep, Meryl in the title role. A year later, a coalition of nuclear safety groups established the Karen Silkwood Awards to keep her memory alive by honoring safety crusaders in the nuclear industry. Karen Silkwood may have lived an ordinary life, but her extraordinary death initiated a social movement that not only changed the public perception of nuclear energy but ultimately resulted in federal changes to the industry’s regulation. Antinuclear activism Nuclear energy;Kerr-McGee Corporation[Kerr Macgee Corporation] Kerr-McGee Corporation[Kerr Macgee Corporation]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kohn, Howard. “Malignant Giant.” Rolling Stone, June 11, 1992, 92-97. Includes excerpts from the March 27, 1975, article that sparked an antinuclear movement in the United States. Also discusses the impact of the case on the magazine.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Who Killed Karen Silkwood? New York: Summit Books, 1981. Compilation of several Rolling Stone articles covering the personal struggles of Silkwood’s family and supporters as well as theories on her death.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lief, Michael S., Ben Bycel, and H. Mitchell Caldwell. “Death by Plutonium: Fallout from Karen Silkwood’s Death Brings the Nuclear Industry to Its Knees.” In Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury: Greatest Closing Arguments in Modern Law. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998. Spence’s closing argument in Silkwood’s wrongful-death suit.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Raloff, Janet. “Silkwood: The Legal Fallout.” Science, February 4, 1984, 74-79. Discusses the importance of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Silkwood case for state regulation of the nuclear industry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rashke, Richard. The Killing of Karen Silkwood: The Story Behind the Kerr-McGee Plutonium Case. 1981. Foreword by Kate Bronfenbrenner. 2d ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. Detailed look at the events surrounding the death of Karen Silkwood and the first trial. Based on information drawn from extensive interviews and available sources. A preface and three short chapters explore what has been learned about Silkwood since the book’s initial publication.

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