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Karen Silkwood: an inspiration to fighters for environmental justice and workers' rights

Karen Silkwood.

By Sharyn Jenkins

Thirty-five years ago, on November 13, 1974, US anti-nuclear activist and trade unionist Karen Silkwood was killed in a car crash many suspect was deliberately caused. Karen Silkwood will be remembered as someone who fought an uphill and often unpopular battle against the ruthless nuclear industry. She is an inspiration to all who believe in environmental justice and workers' rights.

Silkwood grew up in Nederland, the petrochemical heart of Texas. Following an unhappy marriage and bitter divorce, in which she lost custody of her three children, she moved to Oklahoma City to look for work. In 1972 she began work in the Kerr McGee Metallography Laboratory.

Union militant

Work at Kerr McGee was not pretty. Silkwood discovered numerous violations of health regulations: exposure of workers to contamination, faulty respiratory equipment, plutonium samples stored in desk drawers and plutonium samples taken to local schools for show and tell.

Because the plant provided just two showers for the 75 workers on each shift and allocated no paid time for workers to shower, most workers left the plant unshowered.

Within a few months of being employed at the plant, Silkwood was elected as the first female committee member of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union at Kerr McGee. Alarmed at the health risks faced by workers, she collected evidence to expose the poor health and safety standards.

Her first hurdle was to get the workers onside. High unemployment meant people were desperate for a job and union membership was at an all-time low.

Kerr McGee was also seen as a “respectable” company because it was supported by the Atomic Energy Commission. Set up by US Congress, the AEC had power over ownership of factories and over all substances from which atomic energy can be generated, plus research and development facilities.

The union warned Silkwood to work quietly because corruption in the nuclear industry was rampant. But nobody suspected the lengths to which the industry was prepared to go to protect its interests.

While she was collecting evidence, Silkwood's phone was bugged, her movements monitored and, worst of all, she was deliberately contaminated with plutonium. The contamination was so severe that after her death all the clothes and other belongings removed from her apartment were put into sealed drums to avoid contaminating others.

After months of gathering evidence Silkwood decided to go public with the evidence she had collected, and made contact with a New York Times journalist prepared to print the story.

On November 13, 1974, Silkwood attended a union meeting, and then headed off on a 40-minute drive to a nearby town to hand her evidence over to the journalist. She never arrived.

Fourteen kilometres down the highway her car left the road and hit a concrete culvert. Found by a passing truck, Silkwood was taken to a local hospital and pronounced dead on arrival.

Highly suspicious

The car accident was highly suspicious. Silkwood was an experienced rally driver, yet tracks from the car indicated that it had gone for some distance on the grassed area to the side of the road. These marks would be consistent with the car being forced off the road.

The evidence that she intended to give the journalist was never found, although she had it with her when she left the union meeting.

Many sympathisers suspected that Kerr McGee (possibly with the support of government agents) had Silkwood murdered, but there was no evidence. However, a civil suit was filed against Kerr McGee for the Silkwood's contamination by plutonium at the plant.

In 1979, Silkwood's estate was awarded US$10.7 million for personal injury and punitive damages. Kerr McGee appealed the decision, and the appeal reduced the damages to just $5000.

The litigation continued, and in 1986, 12 years after Silkwood's death, Kerr McGee paid $1.3 million dollars in an out-of-court settlement. Kerr McGee closed its nuclear fuel plants in 1975.

At the time of her death, Silkwood was just 28 years old. From all accounts, she was a loyal, strong, vibrant and determined person, who stood up for what she believed in and would not ignore something if it was wrong.

Silkwood's battle did not end with her death, or even with the closure of Kerr McGee's plant. It continues every day in a world where a company's “right” to make profits still triumphs over workers' rights to safety.

[An earlier version of this article first appeared in Green Left Weekly issue #458, August 1, 2001.]

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