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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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The Cimarron facility manufactured fuel rods that were used in nuclear fission reactors. Contained within these fuel rods were particles of plutonium, an element created from uranium atoms, and the most toxic substance then known. Even pollen-sized grains of plutonium can cause cancer, as had been shown in animal experiments,
but the workers at the plant were not alerted to any danger. Nonetheless Silkwood became increasingly concerned about health and safety violations that went uncorrected by management, and as 1974 drew on, got involved with the bargaining committee for the union. The Cimarron plant was experiencing sixty percent employee turnover a year, was using second-hand equipment, and was behind on production.
Desperate to avoid another strike, which was looming, Kerr-McGee organized a union de-certification vote that, though ultimately failing, galvanized the union into bringing the safety violations to the attention of federal officials. Silkwood and two other local union officials went to Washington, D.C., to confer with national union leaders and the Atomic Energy Commission. Chief among their allegations were the lack of training given employees, failure to minimize contamination, and poor monitoring, including the finding of uranium dust in the lunchroom. At this meeting Silkwood secretly agreed to obtain before and after photomicrographs of faulty fuel rods showing where they were being ground down to disguise faults.
After this meeting Silkwood began carrying around notebooks to document a variety of safety violations at the plant. Her assertion was that people were being contaminated by plutonium all the time, and indeed there were at least 17 acknowledged incidents of exposure involving 77 employees in the recent past. Silkwood's concern was obsessive. As her friend Stephens remarked: "She just lived it, couldn't let it go and relax, particularly in the last month she was alive." On November 4 and 5, 1974, for two consecutive days, Silkwood was contaminated by radioactivity, detected by plant electronic monitors when leaving work. By November 7, her urine showed very high levels of radioactivity. When tested, her apartment also showed high levels, especially in the refrigerator. At this time Silkwood was convinced she was going to die of plutonium poisoning. She and her roommate and Stephens were sent to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to be more thoroughly tested. The exposure level was deemed not serious.
On November 13, Silkwood attended a local union meeting then got into her car to drive to Oklahoma City to deliver the manila folder of evidence, the results of her seven week vigil, to New York Times reporter David Burnham. Ten minutes later her car went off the road and Silkwood died. The state patrol ruled it an accident, saying "it's pretty clear she fell asleep at the wheel. She never woke up." While blood tests showed a small amount of alcohol and methaqualone (a prescription sedative) in her system, it is doubtful the amount was sufficient to induce sleep in ten minutes.
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