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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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A subsequent investigation by a private detective concluded that she had likely been forced off the road by another car; a dent in the rear bumper showed metal and rubber fragments, as if another car had rammed her from behind. The manila folder was not recovered from the site of the crash, though other personal effects were.
A subsequent Justice Department investigation also ruled it an accident. Congressional hearings, along with a lawsuit on behalf of Silkwood's children, however,
have revealed an intriguing and bizarre story to discredit critics, involving the FBI, newspaper reporters, and the nuclear industry, a story largely left untold. It is possible Silkwood's phone had been tapped and that she had been under surveillance for awhile. Union official Jack Tice has said that Silkwood had been alarmed prior to her death: "She was starting to think someone was out to get her."
The truth of what happened the night of November 13, 1974, may never be known. What is clear is that the death of Silkwood has become a rallying point for anti-nuclear activists and put the nuclear industry on the defensive. The Atomic Energy Commission confirmed three violations at the Cimarron plant, which eventually shut down. And a major questioning of the nuclear industry has occurred as a result of the revelations that have come to light. In a suit filed by Bill Silkwood on behalf of his grandchildren, a jury in May, 1979, awarded the Silkwood estate over ten million dollars in punitive damages and cleared Silkwood of the allegation that she had stolen plutonium from the plant. It also found that Kerr-McGee had been negligent and that someone had planted plutonium in her apartment. Though an appeals court overturned the decision, the Supreme Court eventually agreed with the lower court, reinstating the victory for the Silkwood family and saying that punitive damages could be awarded in cases involving the nuclear industry, effectively allowing state and jury regulation.
Though many mysteries remain surrounding the death of Silkwood, the public has gained much awareness about nuclear issues and has pressured the industry to become more responsible to health and safety concerns. As former Congresswoman Bella Abzug has commented, the issues stemming from the Silkwood case are "a matter of concern both in regard to public safety and the rights of individuals."
Silkwood's story was unveiled to a much greater audience in the 1983 film directed by Mike Nichols. Meryl Streep starred as Karen Silkwood with Kurt Russell and Cher in supporting roles. Silkwood garnered numerous Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for acting, directing, and screenplay writing. Cher won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress.
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