Encyclopedia Womannica

Warriors: Karen Silkwood

Episode Summary

Karen Silkwood (1946-1974) was an American workers' rights activist and nuclear chemical technician. She raised serious concerns about health and safety standards in corporate nuclear facilities. Her death remains shrouded in mystery.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s warrior was an American worker’s rights activist and nuclear chemical technician. She raised serious concerns about health and safety standards in corporate nuclear facilities, and the danger that this negligence posed to workers and the community alike. Let’s talk about Karen Silkwood.

Karen was born on February 19, 1946 in Longview, Texas to William and Merle Silkwood. The family then moved to Nederland, Texas, where Karen and her two sisters grew up.

After attending Lamar University, Karen met an oil pipeline worker named William Meadows. The two married in 1965 and went on to have three children together. 

Unfortunately the marriage didn’t last. William’s ongoing financial issues eventually forced the couple into bankruptcy. On top of that, William also refused to end an extramarital affair. 

Karen left William in 1972 and moved to Oklahoma City for a fresh start. For the first few months, she worked as a hospital receptionist before eventually landing a job at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site outside Cimarron, Oklahoma. The Plant was a nuclear fuel production facility, and Karen was hired to assist in the production of plutonium pellets.

Soon after starting work there, Karen joined the local Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union, and took part in her first strike at the plant. She must have made an excellent impression on her fellow workers because after the strike Karen became the first woman at a Kerr-McGee plant to be elected to the union’s bargaining committee. 

Karen’s assignment as a member of the committee was to investigate health and safety issues at the plant. What she found was astonishing: regular worker exposure to contamination, inept and improper sample storage, limited and faulty respiratory safety equipment, and insufficient shower facilities to ensure that workers didn’t further contaminate themselves or others outside of the plant.

With the results of Karen’s investigation in hand, the union claimed the plant had, “ manufactured faulty fuel rods, falsified product inspection records, and risked employee safety.” They threatened litigation. 

In the summer of 1974, Karen, along with other union members, appeared in front of the Atomic Energy Commission to testify about safety issues at the plant. She said that the safety standards at the plant had dropped due to increased demand for production.

A few months later, on November 5, 1974,  Karen discovered that she was heavily contaminated with plutonium during a routine self-check. Apparently this was not a major cause for concern. Karen was decontaminated at the plant and sent home to collect samples of bodily fluids for further testing. 

The next morning, Karen again tested positive for plutonium contamination even though she hadn’t been around any radioactive materials since she was decontaminated. She was put through a second, more intensive decontamination procedure.

When Karen arrived at work the following morning, she was found to be dangerously contaminated, to the point of breathing out contaminated air. This brought up the serious possibility that Karen’s contamination may not have been an accident. 

It was a mystery. Karen, her boyfriend, and her roommate were all sent to Los Alamos National Laboratory for more in-depth testing. Karen believed that she had somehow been contaminated at the plant. Kerr-McGee was pushing the idea that Karen poisoned herself in order to make the company look bad. 

In response, Karen said that she had put together all of the necessary documentation to prove her case, including internal company files, and was planning to go public. She set up a meeting with a New York Times journalist named David Burnham to share her story.

On November 13, 1974, Karen left a union meeting in Crescent, Oklahoma with a binder full of documents. She was planning to drive to Oklahoma City for her meeting with the journalist and a union representative from the national office. 

But Karen never made it to the meeting. Later that night, she was found in her car off the side of the highway in what appeared to be a single car accident. She was pronounced dead on the scene. The documents that multiple people testified she had in her possession at the time were missing from the car.

To this day, foul play has never been substantiated by law enforcement, though it has been highly speculated. Her family confirmed that she had received threats over the phone in the days before the planned meeting. The damage to the back of her car was consistent with being pushed off the road. And the binder full of documents was missing. . That said,, police did find low levels of cannabis and Quaaludes in Karen’s system, which could account for drowsiness leading to a possible accident. 

Because of contamination concerns, Karen’s organs were sent back to Los Alamos for further testing. They found high levels of contamination in her lungs and even more in her GI tract, meaning that she likely inhaled and ingested large amounts of plutonium. 

These results, along with increasing public concern, led to a federal investigation into safety and security at the plant. It was found, among other things, that between 44-66 lbs of plutonium had been misplaced at the plant. 

After her mysterious death, Karen’s father and children sued Kerr-McGee in 1979 for negligence. After a long and highly publicized trial that went all the way up to the Supreme Court,  Kerr-McGee eventually settled out of court for $1.38 million. The company admitted no liability. 

Though Karen died much too young, her legacy as a whistleblower and worker’s rights activist lives on. Her story was even chronicled in a 1983 Mike Nichols’ Movie named Silkwood that was nominated for an Oscar. Karen was portrayed by Meryl Streep.

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Warrior.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!