Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Life and Mysterious Death of Karen Silkwood


Kerr-McGee corporate entrance
Kerr-McGee corporate entrance

Kerr-McGee had originally been an oil company, founded in 1929. When the company got into nuclear energy in the early 1950s, it was the first oil company to do so.

In 1965, Kerr-McGee consolidated its uranium production plants and moved all nuclear activity to the Cimarron Plant, where Karen worked, in Crescent, Okla. By the early 1970s, it had several contracts to produce plutonium. After the oil shocks of the 1970s, nuclear energy was becoming a hot-button topic and an expanding business. The town of Crescent was small, and Kerr-McGee was one of the area's primary employers.

The job at Kerr-McGee took skill and attention to detail. Silkwood's job was in creating plutonium pellets and loading those pellets into long, stainless steel rods. The entire process from start to finish was dangerous and prone to accident. First, a liquid mixture was turned into powder; then, the plutonium powder had to be mixed precisely with uranium before being formed into pellets.

Entrance to the Cimarron Kerr-McGee facility
Entrance to the Cimarron Kerr-McGee facility

To work, some workers donned 40-pound lead-lined vests to protect them from radiation. Some workers had to wear facemasks to avoid inhaling radioactive particles into their lungs and becoming contaminated internally. Workers wore rubber gloves, and when they were mixing the substances they used gloveboxes, putting their hands in gloves attached to transparent, sealed boxes in which the radioactive materials were confined.

Silkwood's job in the metallography laboratory was near the end of the process, polishing the fuel rods and inspecting them to see if there were any flaws before sending them off to their next destination, the Westinghouse Fast Flux Test Facility in Washington state.

The job at Kerr-McGee, already stressful in its physical demands, standing for the entire shift, shifting and sifting while wearing a full body suit and masks, was made harder when, in order to meet a fast-approaching deadline, workers were required to work double shifts. Long hours meant sloppy work.

At that point, the employees at Kerr-McGee were so in the dark about the carcinogenic dangers of plutonium that they would intentionally try to get contaminated. Buzz Hirsch, the executive producer of the major motion picture, Silkwood, based on Karen's life, said in a documentary that aired on the Biography Channel, "They used to play a game: who could get 'hot' the quickest. By 'hot,' I mean contaminated with plutonium." He said. "It meant they got scrubbed in the shower a little bit and they got the rest of the day off."

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