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How Not to Crack the Silkwood Case

Who Killed Karen Silkwood?

by Howard Kohn
Summit Books, 462 pp., $14.95; $8.95 (paper)

In many ways it seemed the definitive question for the Seventies, coming after A. Ernest Fitzgerald, the Huston Plan, and Watergate, after the Arab oil embargo and the reports that oil companies were lying about the shortage of gasoline, after the revelations of corporate bribery overseas, the CIA assassination scandals, and the FBI’s COINTELPRO. Now we were being asked to decide whether an energy conglomerate had murdered an employee about to blow the whistle on its slipshod nuclear operations and whether the government had somehow helped to cover up the crime. It was not surprising that the question “Who killed Karen Silkwood?” should soon be asked not only by those recently convinced of the pervasiveness of government and corporate lying and the duplicity of the intelligence agencies and the oil companies, but also by environmentalists just beginning to worry about nuclear safety. The question was asked as well by many in the women’s movement who soon came to see Silkwood as a symbol of feminist concern about health and safety in the workplace and “violence against women.”

The simple facts of Silkwood’s death were provocative enough. On the night of November 13, 1974, as the whole world must know by now, the twenty-eight-year-old laboratory technician was on her way to a secret meeting with a New York Times reporter, David Burnham. She was said to be carrying a manila folder of papers documenting shoddy safety practices or worse at the nuclear installation where she worked. Her tiny Honda Civic somehow veered left across the center line of an Oklahoma highway, hit a culvert wingwall, and flipped on its side. When the police arrived, Karen Silkwood was dead and, according to varying accounts, papers bearing the logo of her employer, the Kerr-McGee Corporation, either were or were not scattered about. By the time Burnham, Silkwood’s boyfriend, and an official of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union to which she belonged reached the crash site, the car had been neatly towed away and her body delivered to a funeral home. Whatever documents Silkwood had had with her—and two women who saw her leave for the meeting recalled that she carried a sheaf of papers of some sort—had disappeared forever.

Dead because she knew too much!” This was the charge of those in the fledgling antinuclear movement who started to push for a federal investigation of the crash, and then, when the Justice Department concluded that it had been an accident, for the $10.5 million civil judgment her family won from Kerr-McGee, the Oklahoma energy giant whose practices Silkwood had attacked as unsafe. (On December 11, a Federal Appeals Court in Denver reduced the award to $5,000, saying that it was the business of the federal government to regulate the country’s private nuclear industry and that the lower courts should not have punished Kerr-McGee. The Silkwood family’s lawyers said they would carry the question further, to the United States Supreme Court).

Though it may yet set a legal precedent in the field of negligence, the law-suit alleged and revealed nothing about the circumstances of Silkwood’s death. Before it reached trial, judicial rulings had narrowed the family’s complaint to the single question of whether traces of plutonium discovered to have contaminated her apartment in the days before she died had got there through some fault of Kerr-McGee. The company never disputed that the plutonium was its own but suggested that Silkwood herself had stolen a microscopic quantity and purposely contaminated her apartment. The company portrayed her as a nuclear Joan of Arc prepared to die of radiation burns to dramatize her claims of plant negligence. Lawyers for the Silkwood family argued that the plutonium was put there by Kerr-McGee in hopes of frightening Silkwood, an outspoken union organizer whom the company considered a supreme troublemaker, into keeping quiet.

Though the title of his book implies Howard Kohn’s conviction that someone did Silkwood in (his question seems to be answered by a photograph on the jacket of a piece of graffiti declaring that “Karen Silkwood Was Murdered”), Kohn, who covered the case from its inception for Rolling Stone, does nothing to solve the murder or even to establish that one was committed, though he does not shy away from any opportunity to suggest that Silkwood’s death was anything but accidental. But even from Kohn’s description of the evidence it seems highly unlikely that Silkwood’s death could have somehow been engineered. The crash of her car into a concrete wall on the opposite side of the highway would have required a conjunction of forces and objects of the sort that might be achieved on a pool table but not with four-wheeled vehicles on asphalt roads.

It is less easy, however, to dismiss the possibility that Silkwood’s car was, for whatever reason, struck from behind by another. As Kohn points out, tests showed that two dents in the Honda’s rear bumper were fresh ones and that they had been made by a metal object which might have been another car (but which the police suggested was nothing more sinister than the tow truck that pulled the car from a roadside ditch). There are also some corollary questions: if the Honda was bumped from behind by another car, was the collision intentional or could it have been accidental? If intentional, was it meant simply to frighten her or halt her car so that the manila folder, if there was one, might be recovered? In any case and whatever the motive, were the government, the police, or the company necessarily behind it, or might it have been merely an angry co-worker or even a rejected lover? Kohn also dismisses too readily the possibility that Silkwood’s physical condition might have impaired her behavior that night. An autopsy revealed traces of alcohol and fifty milligrams of methaqualone, a soporific sold under the name Quaalude, in her bloodstream. There were two unsmoked marijuana cigarettes in her purse.

There is also the question of the horse and the barn door. On the day of her death Silkwood had been barred from the Kerr-McGee plant and relegated to a company warehouse, hardly the sort of action that would have been taken by those who had some reason to know of her impending death. Moreover, Silkwood had already traveled to Washington to make several of her allegations against Kerr-McGee known to officials of her union and to inspectors from the Atomic Energy Commission, which promised to investigate and did so. Two months after her death the AEC reported its finding that twenty of her thirty-nine claims of health and safety irregularities had merit. There later proved to have been seventy-five violations of federal regulations altogether. In 1976 Dr. Karl Morgan, distinguished health physics researcher, told a congressional subcommittee that he had never seen a nuclear facility “so poorly operated from the standpoint of radiation protection” as Kerr-McGee’s had been. The plant, which fabricated fuel rods containing highly toxic plutonium for use in fast-breeder reactors, was closed in 1975.

Since Silkwood’s charges were already a matter of official record in two places, it is difficult to see what might have been gained, and by whom, in preventing her from meeting with a newspaper reporter. Unless, as Kohn tries to make out, she also had with her that night some especially damaging information—proof that between forty and sixty pounds of radioactive material in Kerr-McGee’s nuclear inventory was unaccounted for. In fact, Kerr-McGee’s MUF (industry shorthand for “material unaccounted for”) was then in the forty-pound range, enough to manufacture four bombs and nearly three times more than the company apparently reported to the AEC.

Kohn supplies some slender evidence that Silkwood might have known the material was missing, and “at a time when such knowledge was very rare and perhaps quite dangerous.” In fact, something on the order of two hundred pounds of enriched uranium was also missing from a Pennsylvania company named NUMEC, and there was evidence enough to convince the CIA that it had been diverted to the Israeli government. But more than seven thousand pounds of plutonium and bomb-grade uranium were then unaccounted for by other nuclear facilities around the country, and only in the Pennsylvania case was there reason to suspect an intentional diversion. The rest of the material, the government believed, had been lost in manufacturing, mistakenly sent to nuclear dumps, or only appeared to be missing because of accounting errors, and there are many reasons to believe that the Kerr-McGee MUF fell into the latter category, not the former. If Silkwood knew or was concerned about Kerr-McGee’s MUF she had not told her union. David Burnham, the Times reporter she was to have met, had been told only that Silkwood was bringing with her evidence of efforts by Kerr-McGee to cover up faulty welds in some of the fuel rods it was producing.

Unfortunately, Kohn permits his fascination with the circumstances of Silkwood’s death and the cover-up that he believes followed it to overshadow what qualifies as a genuine scandal: the allegations Silkwood put on record before she died that Kerr-McGee had a poorly trained work force with scant education about the dangers of plutonium; that the plant had inoperable or malfunctioning machinery and safety equipment; that radiation-monitoring instruments were left unused; that radiation spills were not recognized or cleaned up; that traces of uranium dust were found even in the employees’ lunchroom.

For Kohn it is not enough that such conditions existed or that the Kerr-McGee plant was allowed by the government to operate while in violation of dozens of health and safety regulations (five of Silkwood’s fellow workers there were contaminated by radioactivity a month after her death). Nor is it enough that accounting procedures in the nuclear industry were sufficiently haphazard to permit losing track of enough radioactive material to make scores of bombs; or that some companies, Kerr-McGee apparently among them, were able to hide their true MUF from the government’s inspectors, or that the inspectors were in some cases not diligent enough to find it. Instead, he insists on all of these things as a motive for murder.

In his quest to establish a shadowy but omniscient government-industry conspiracy to keep the perils of the nation’s nuclear operations hidden from public view, Kohn paints the figures in the Silkwood case against a cartoon landscape where tragedy and near-tragedy seem to stalk everyone associated with the woman in life or in death. Tony Mazzocchi, an official of the OCAW in Washington, blacks out while driving through suburban Virginia and his car runs off the road. Mazzocchi, says Kohn, is sure “that murder had been intended.” Jean Jung, a fellow worker at the Kerr-McGee plant and one of only two people to recall that Silkwood had carried a folder containing some documents when she left to meet with Burnham, is menaced on the way home by “a heavy car with bright headlights” that chases her “down dirt roads at breakneck speeds.” A car driven by a fellow member of the OCAW, whose identity or connection with Silkwood is otherwise unexplained, is sideswiped and almost forced off an Oklahoma highway “shortly after Karen’s death.” A dead duck is placed on the doorstep of a former Silkwood roommate.

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