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…

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