Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life and Mysterious Death of Karen Silkwood

A Serious Infraction

In D.C., Silkwood, Tice, Brewer, Mazzocchi and Wodka also met with the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the agency in charge of regulating the nuclear energy industry. They presented 39 allegations. As Richard Raske writes in his book, The Killing of Karen Silkwood, the three Kerr-McGee employees alleged a series of employee contaminations and safety hazards; they alleged that contaminated areas continued to be used without cleanup because of the production deadlines; respirators were not used and often not washed or cleaned; vacuum cleaners that had cleaned radioactive areas were never decontaminated afterward; samples of plutonium were carelessly left lying in desk drawers for anyone to take; and that workers had to fight over two showers to clean off at the end of their shifts. The AEC investigated the claims.

Nuclear fuel pellets (left), loaded fuel rods (center), fuel assembly (right)
Nuclear fuel pellets (left), loaded fuel rods (center),
completed fuel assembly (right)

Later, after her death, the AEC came to a few positive early conclusions. Reported The New York Times: "The commission said it had substantiated 20 of the 30 allegations made by the union," including that managers had on "at least one occasion sent a worker into a dangerous area without advising him that a respirator was required to protect him from possible radiation." Silkwood's work would not be in vain. The board also put together a five-person panel to further investigate the union's complaints.

But separate from their official complaint, at the initial meeting with Mazzocchi and Wodka, Karen, separately from her coworkers, also told the higher-ups that she had seen some tampering with negatives on the instruction of one of her supervisors.

The possibility that the fuel rods were faulty raised the eyebrows of Mazzocchi and Wodka. Faulty fuel rods were a larger issue that went beyond the health and safety or union matters. Faulty manufacture was something that could shut down the plant or get it very heavily fined as well as having dangerous industrial consequences: Some scientists speculated that a faulty fuel rod could lead to an explosion or even a total meltdown. David Burnham, who had been covering the energy beat for some time, told the History Channel, "the big story is really had the Atomic Energy Commission properly regulated this industry?—is what I was interested in. So I was looking for chinks in the armor and she offered a possible chink."

Silkwood's roster of complaints now became more important and made her more dangerous to Kerr-McGee.

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