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Karen Silkwood was a nuclear power plant technician and union activist who exposed violations by her employers. She was killed in a suspicious car accident.
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Nuclear facility technician, union activist. Born February 19, 1946, in Longview, Texas. Silkwood, a nuclear plant laborer who died while investigating safety violations made by her employer, is viewed as a martyr by anti-nuclear activists; in 1983, her story was made into a film, Silkwood.
On the night of November 13, 1974, Karen Silkwood, a technician at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron River nuclear facility in Crescent, Oklahoma, was driving her white Honda to Oklahoma City. There she was to deliver a manila folder full of alleged health and safety violations at the plant to a friend, Drew Stephens, a New York Times reporter and national union representative. Seven miles out of Crescent, however, her car went off the road, skidded for a hundred yards, hit a guardrail, and plunged off the embankment. Silkwood was killed in the crash, and the manila folder was not found at the scene when Stephens arrived a few hours later. Nor has it come to light since. Although Kerr-McGee was a prominent Oklahoma employer whose integrity had never been challenged, as a part of the nuclear power industry it had many adversaries. The controversy ignited by Silkwood's death regarding the regulation of the nuclear industry was intense, with critics finally finding an example around which to focus their argument. The legacy of the Silkwood case continues to this day in the on-going debate over the safety of nuclear technology.
Silkwood seemed an unlikely candidate to have had such a dramatic impact on American society. One biographer commented that "most of her life was distinguished by how ordinary it was, as ordinary as her death was extraordinary." Silkwood grew up in Nederland, in the heart of the Texas oil and gas fields. The oldest of three daughters of Bill and Merle Silkwood, she led a normal life. In high school she played on the volleyball team and flute in the band, and was an "A" student and a member of the National Honor Society. She excelled in chemistry and, upon graduation, went to Lamar College in Beaumont to become a medical technician.
After her first year of college, Silkwood eloped with Bill Meadows. They moved around Texas, where Meadows worked in the oil industry and Silkwood took care of their three children. After years of financial struggle (they finally declared bankruptcy), Silkwood left him in 1972 when she discovered Meadows was having an affair with her friend. Giving Bill custody of the children, she moved to Oklahoma City. There she found a job at Kerr-McGee's Cimarron River plant in Crescent, thirty miles north of Oklahoma City, soon joined the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, and walked the picket line during their largely unsuccessful nine week strike in 1972.
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