A progressive Democratic activist in New Jersey paid homage to Karen Silkwood, who was killed on this day 47 years ago.
In the fall of 1974, 28-year-old Karen was in the middle of a union battle with Kerr-McGee over worker safety violations but when she found out she was contaminated with a lethal dose of plutonium, it was time to talk.
“On Nov. 13, 1974, one of the most famous whistleblowers of all time was killed in what is now believed a company-supported murder when she died in a car accident after exposing nuclear industry wrongdoing at a plutonium plant where she worked,” said Lisa McCormick, the outspoken progressive champion who challenged Senator Robert Menendez in the 2018 Democratic primary election.
If things had been different, Silkwood would have kept her appointment with the New York Times and shared documents about the alleged hazards at an Oklahoma plutonium plant.
“Today marks the 47th anniversary of Karen Silkwood’s death. Silkwood was en route to an appointment with Steve Wodka, an Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union staff representative, and David Burnham, a New York Times reporter,” explained McCormick. “She was going to provide documentation to the reporter showing that her claims against the Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site, a plutonium fuel production facility operated by Kerr-McGee Corporation, which had been negligent in quality control and falsified records.”
A binder and a packet of documents that Silkwood’s relatives say she had placed on the seat beside her were not in her vehicle after the crash that killed her.
Those missing papers allegedly substantiated Silkwood’s claims about the company, Kerr-McGee, sharing falsified quality control records for fuel rods manufactured at the Cimarron facility.
Silkwood’s death is still a mystery but it would ignite a national debate, inspire an Oscar nominated movie and ultimately become a constant source of unanswered questions.
The incident raised serious questions about corporate accountability and responsibility that have never been adequately answered, and the official government record concluded that she fell asleep at the wheel.
The Atomic Energy Commission said that it had uncovered evidence supporting some of the allegations that there were health hazards at a plutonium fuel processing plant in Oklahoma and that records had been falsified.
In a civil suit against Kerr-McGee by the Estate of Karen Silkwood, Judge Frank Theis told the jury, “If you find that the damage to the person or property of Karen Silkwood resulted from the operation of this plant, Kerr-McGee is liable.
The jury rendered its verdict of $505,000 in damages and $10 million in punitive damages.
On appeal, the judgment was reduced to $5,000, but in 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court restored the original verdict (Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 464 U.S. 283 (1984)).
The suit was headed for retrial in 1986, when Kerr-McGee settled for $1.38 million, admitting no liability.