Karen Silkwood was a chemical technician who had in 1972 started working at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site in Oklahoma, where she was tasked with making plutonium pellets. During her time at the plant, she joined the local Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union and began voicing her concerns about the safety of the site and the corporate handling of health issues for workers. According to her, Kerr-McGee had demonstrated various violations of health regulations, faulty equipment, and improper storage procedures, as well as manufacturing faulty fuel rods, falsifying product inspection records, and generally risking employee safety in numerous areas. Silkwood reported this to the Atomic Energy Commission, and in 1974 began to dutifully gather evidence to back up her claims and allow for the Union to pursue litigation against Kerr-McGee, and this is where a series of ominous events would unfold, which would turn into a major conspiracy and unsolved mystery still discussed to this day.
It began on November 5, 1974, with a routine self-check at the plant, a procedure that all workers performed after work in order to measure any possible contamination. Considering that Silkwood had done her work as usual and always meticulously followed safety guidelines there was no reason for her to think that the test would be other than negative for exposure as usual, but on this occasion she was alarmed to find that not only had she been contaminated with plutonium all over her arm and hands, but had in fact received nearly 400 times the legal limit for plutonium contamination. She was promptly decontaminated at the plant and sent home with urine and feces test kits in order to continue monitoring the situation. In the meantime, an inspection of the glove box she had been using showed that there were no leaks or holes, and that there were traces of plutonium not on the outside of the gloves, but rather on the inside. In addition, no other surfaces where Silkwood had been working were contaminated and when the air filtration system was looked at there was no sign of any plutonium in the air. This was all quite odd, because it meant that the contamination had not come from her work at the glovebox, but rather from somewhere else.
The next morning, Silkwood stayed away from making the pellets and did only paperwork, yet once again she tested positive for plutonium contamination, was decontaminated, and sent home. The following day she tested positive yet again, this time to a truly dangerous level, although her locker and automobile had no traces, but was so alarming that a team was sent to go investigate Silkwood’s home, where she lived with her boyfriend Drew Stephens, and her roommate Dusty Ellis. A sweep of the house showed that there was plutonium contamination present in the bathroom and on the kitchen. It was all very strange, as no one could figure out where this contamination had come from, but Silkwood herself was fairly certain that it had somehow come from her urine sample, but no one could be sure, and it was still unclear how she had gotten contaminated in the first place. However, considering that this was a week before she was planning on going public with her findings on safety negligence at the plant, there were red flags in her mind that something more sinister was going on.
On November 13, Silkwood attended a Union meeting and then went off towards Oklahoma City in order to meet with a reporter with the New York Times by the name of David Burnham. With her she had a file stuffed with documents and evidence of her claims about Kerr-McGee, and her plan was to go public with it all. She would never make it to this meeting, as the next time anyone saw her, her automobile had crashed into a concrete culvert and Karen Silkwood was dead. At the scene were two tablets of Quaaludes and some cannabis, leading to the suspicion that she had taken the sedatives and fallen asleep at the wheel. An autopsy confirmed that she had Quaaludes in her system, indeed twice the recommended dosage for inducing drowsiness. This was a bit strange, as why would she have wanted to take sedatives when she was on her way to have what would have been one of the most important meetings of her life?
There were other odd clues surrounding the accident as well. Police were unable to find the binder full of documents she had been carrying, despite the insistence of several people at the Union meeting who said that she had taken them with her. There were also found some odd skid marks from Silkwood’s car on the road, as well as what might have been damage from another vehicle rear ending her, as well as tiny chips of paint, and family and friends would claim that this damage had not been there before the accident. Making it all a little more sinister was that Silkwood’s family would claim that they had been getting menacing phone calls in the days leading up to the accident. Taken with the Quaaludes, an ominous picture began to emerge, and soon there was speculation that she might have been unknowingly given the Quaaludes and then rammed off the road by some nefarious party. However, authorities could find no evidence of foul play, and so they stuck by their official cause as falling asleep at the wheel.
The oddness would continue when Silkwood’s body was submitted for further testing by the Los Alamos Tissue Analysis Program found some interesting details. They found a high concentration of plutonium in Silkwood’s lungs, as well as lodged within her gastrointestinal tract, suggesting that she had inhaled and ingested the plutonium. Why or how this happened no one knows. What any of this means remains murky, but it was enough for Silkwood’s family to pursue a civil suit against Kerr-McGee for alleged negligence and inadequate safety that had led to her plutonium contamination, but the company would settle out of court for $1.3 million without ever admitting any liability or wrongdoing. Soon after, Kerr-McGee would shutter all of its nuclear fuel plants, and they have never been held accountable or been charged formally with any of the events surrounding the Silkwood case. The saga of Karen Silkwood has gone on to be much picked apart and debated, and has spawned numerous books, documentaries, and even a Hollywood film starring Meryl Streep as Silkwood herself. What happened to her? What is behind her mysterious contaminations and strange death? Was this a conspiracy to silence her, a plan to scare her that went wrong, or something else? No one knows, and we probably never will.