Karen Silkwood: Disillusioned

What compels a person to expose the truth? Richard Rashke answers that question in his riveting new book, The Whistleblower’s Dilemma: Snowden, Silkwood and and Quest for Truth. It is a thoroughly absorbing dual examination of what compels people to risk everything to expose secrets.  This is an exclusive excerpt from the book now on presale at Amazon.

Chapter 3

By background and education, Karen Silkwood was an unlikely whistleblower.  Like Edward Snowden’s father, Karen’s dad was also a World War II veteran.  He had served as an Army Air Corps transport pilot and bombardier with fifty missions to his credit.  Unlike Lon Snowden, however, Bill Silkwood was not a career military officer or a postwar civil servant.  After the Air Corps decommissioned him, he returned home to Texas, where he sold insurance, worked as a contract house painter, and, with his wife Merle, raised three daughters.

The Whistleblower's Dilemma by Richard Rashke is available for presale at Amazon.com for $16

The Whistleblower’s Dilemma by Richard Rashke is available for presale at Amazon.com for $16

Born in 1946, Karen grew up in a pre-computer, religious household.  She showed little interest in politics.  She wasn’t active in the civil rights movement or anti-Vietnam-War protests.  And yet she exhibited the personal traits of a future whistleblower.  She was an independent thinker, loyal to a fault, and tenacious. She wasn’t afraid to take risks and speak out—she even corrected her teachers. She put everything she had into whatever she took on.

Unlike Snowden, Silkwood socialized with ease, laughed a lot, and loved a good time.  She played flute in her high school band and was the server on the girls’ volleyball team. After school hours, she volunteered at a hospital and belonged to Future Homemakers of America.

Like Snowden, Silkwood was smart. She was a straight-A student, a member of the National Honor Society, and one of twenty-two honors graduates in her high school class of l964.  She studied hard and read a lot.  Chemistry was her favorite high school subject, and she was the only girl in her advanced chemistry class.  She passed the course with honors and was elected president of the science club. After graduation, she matriculated at Lamar College in Beaumont, Texas, on a one-year scholarship awarded by the local Business and Professional Women’s Club.  She majored in medical technology.

*

Love altered Silkwood’s career path.  The summer after she graduated from high school, she met Bill Meadows.  Karen and Bill, who lived in Los Angeles, were vacationing on their respective grandparents’ farms near Longview, Texas.  They dated over the summer.   Bill returned to Texas the following summer to work for the Mobile Pipeline Company. He and Karen eloped because Karen’s father opposed the marriage.  She was only nineteen years old, a promising student with a future in medical technology. Bill Silkwood was convinced that a marriage would destroy her future.  He was right.

Karen dropped out of Lamar College and became a gypsy-wife, migrating with her husband from town to town across Texas—Longview, Corsicana, Sweetwater, Midland, Seminole. They finally ended up in Duncan, Oklahoma, bankrupt, with three children and a marriage that was falling apart.  Karen’s father, bitterly against the marriage, was so disappointed in his daughter that their relationship remained strained for the rest of her tragic life.

Bill Meadows offered Karen an uncontested divorce if she would agree to give him custody of their children, Beverly (Kristi), Michael, and Dawn.  She refused.  Finally in l972, after seven years of marriage, she tossed in the towel and walked out of the house without explanation, leaving her children in the care of their babysitter, whom Bill would later marry.  Two days later, Karen called Bill from Oklahoma City and told him that she would agree to an unconditional divorce and grant him custody of the children if he granted her visiting rights. And she took her name back—Karen Gay Silkwood.

*

Silkwood was a low-level clerical worker at an Oklahoma City hospital when she heard that the Kerr-McGee Corporation was hiring laboratory analysts at its plutonium plant on the Cimarron River, near Crescent. Like Snowden’s employers—the Dell Corporation and Booz Allen Hamilton—Kerr-McGee was a U.S. government contractor.  Both Dell and BAH worked for the CIA and the NSA; their job was to help the United States win the War on Terror.  Kerr-McGee worked for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).  Its job was to provide enough high-grade uranium and plutonium to build a Cold War nuclear arsenal to protect the country from the Soviet Union.

To Karen Silkwood, working in a Kerr-McGee laboratory seemed a heaven-sent opportunity to use her technical talents, build a career, and make more money.  So in August l972—eleven years before Ed Snowden was born—Silkwood donned a white laboratory smock and began to work in the Kerr-McGee Metallography Laboratory.  The lab inspected plutonium pellets that workers had shaped into what looked like gray bullets. One-inch long and a half inch wide, the pellets were composed of seven parts uranium and three parts plutonium. They were highly radioactive.

The AEC had given Kerr-McGee classified specifications for its pellets.  If they were too small, assembly-line workers rejected them.  If too large, they skinned them down to size with their hands inside sealed gloves that were inserted in sealed boxes.  As a final check, workers examined each pellet to see if it was cracked or chipped.  Then they loaded the pellets that had passed initial inspection into fragile, eight-foot long, pencil-thin stainless steel rods. Next, they washed the tips of the rods with alcohol to remove all radioactive contamination, taking care not to kink the rods. Workers then wheeled the rods into a huge x-ray room where electronic eyes read the contents of each rod. It was a critical step in the final check.

Like Snowden, Silkwood held a job that was both important and responsible. She did a series of quality-control checks in the Metallography Laboratory. She randomly selected pellets from a lot, then held them against an unexposed x-ray film to test for gamma rays. The AEC required that the plutonium be evenly distributed throughout the pellet. If it wasn’t, the developed film would show “hot spots” and Silkwood would reject them as dangerous.

Silkwood also polished randomly selected fuel-rod welds to see if there were any cracks or inclusions.  If the pellets or welds flunked, she would run tests on the entire pellet lot.  If she found a pattern of flaws, she’d reject the lot, which slowed down production and cut into Kerr-McGee profits.

*

In November, three months after Silkwood began polishing plutonium rod welds, she was pacing outside Kerr-McGee’s chain-link fence carrying her first ON STRIKE placard. The company’s workers were demanding better training, improved health and safety programs, and higher wages.

Silkwood was no union activist. In fact, she had shown little interest in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW), which represented 150 Kerr-McGee rank and filers.  She had joined the OCAW because she saw it as the workers’ only protection against the largest energy conglomerate in the United States.  It was her duty to picket, and Karen Silkwood took her turn.

The strike dragged on for ten weeks, and the OCAW local 5-283 came out barely breathing. The Kerr-McGee Nuclear Corporation—a subsidiary of the Kerr-McGee energy empire—wasn’t hurting in the fall of l972, so it could hold out against the strike.  And because the winter of l972-73 was exceptionally cold, jobs were scarcer than usual.  Farms for miles around Crescent were filled with unemployed twenty-year-olds, and Kerr-McGee had no trouble cherry-picking strikebreakers to keep its pellets moving.  Three dollars an hour ($17 today) seemed like a lot of money to them.

It was an unspectacular strike.  No violence, just a war of attrition.  As it stretched into its second month, with Christmas looming, more and more union members abandoned their strike placards and crossed the line until only a score were left still pacing.  Silkwood was one of them.

Two months after the strike began, Karen Silkwood was back at work under a new, two-year contract written by Kerr-McGee.  For the twenty OCAW members still left in the battered local, it had been a total defeat.  There would be no better training, no improved health and safety measures, and wages remained static.  But for Karen Silkwood, the strike had been an awakening.  Taking a stand against Kerr-McGee, walking the line, living off part-time wages as a clerk in a building supply company, watching OCAW members knuckle under to pressure one by one—all of these experiences cemented Silkwood’s ties with the union and changed the nature of her relationship with Kerr-McGee.

*

In the spring of 1974, a year and a half after the strike had ended and under pressure from the AEC, Kerr-McGee speeded up production. There were twelve-hour shifts, seven-day work weeks, and uninterrupted rotation from day to night shifts.  Speed, fatigue, and corner-cutting caused spills, contaminations, and more spills. Face respirators designed to filter out air-borne plutonium particles were defective, worker turnover was high, and more and more untrained workers were handling radioactive metals.

Silkwood worried increasingly about health and safety, about nineteen-year-old farm boys with tractor grease under their fingernails treating plutonium like fertilizer, and about a management that used them up and sent them back to plough the fields with plutonium in their bodies.  They had no idea that they were hot.

But then, on July 31, l974, a year and a half after the strike ended, Silkwood’s concern about health and safety became personal and frightening. She was working alone in the Emissions Spec Lab that day with her hands inside a sealed glove box.  Her task was to pulverize plutonium pellets, then examine the dust through a spectrograph to make sure the pellets were not overly polluted with other metals such as nickel and chromium.  If they were, she rejected them.  After she left the lab, technicians made a routine check on the air-sample filter papers used in the lab radiation monitor while Silkwood was working there. They were “hot.” Silkwood had been breathing radioactive air during her shift.

Following company protocol, a health physics technician took nose and mouth swabs.  They were positive.  Then the tech ordered Silkwood to take a shower, scrub with a wire brush, and provide urine and fecal samples for testing by an outside company.  A few days later, the results came back—positive.  But not to worry, the head of the health physics department assured her in a private conference; her contamination was insignificant by AEC standards.

When union elections rolled around the week after her contamination in the Emission Spec Lab, Silkwood was mad—and ready.  Negotiations for a new two-year contract with Kerr-McGee would begin in three months, and health and safety were at the top of the union’s list of demands.  Silkwood didn’t campaign for a spot on the three-person OCAW bargaining committee.  But she was so disillusioned about the ballyhooed commitment of Kerr-McGee and the AEC to the health and safety of their workers that she let it be known she wouldn’t turn the position down if elected. She won—the first female committee member in Kerr-McGee history.  Her assignment was health and safety.  Jack Tice, who chaired the union’s bargaining committee, asked Silkwood to keep her eyes open and to take notes.  He had a plan.

For the rest of August 1974 and well into September, Silkwood tracked contamination accidents, questioned health physics technicians, interviewed workers during coffee and lunch breaks, and scoured the plant for safety violations.  She wrote her dated observations neatly in a small spiral notebook.  She made no attempt to hide from Kerr-McGee management what she was doing.  Plant managers had to be blind not to notice.

By late September, armed with a notebook filled with duly dated descriptions of contamination and health and safety violations at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron plant, Karen Silkwood was ready and eager to blow the whistle.

The Whistleblower’s Dilemma by Richard Rashke is available for presale at Amazon.com for $16.

About Richard Rashke
RICHARD RASHKE is a lecturer and author of non-fiction books including RICHARD RASHKE is a lecturer and author of non-fiction books including THE WHISTLEBLOWER'S DILEMMA: SNOWDEN, SILKWOOD AND THEIR QUEST FOR THE TRUTH, ESCAPE FROM SOBIBOR, THE KILLING OF KAREN SILKWOOD, and USEFUL ENEMIES: JOHN DEMJANJUK AND AMERICA'S OPEN-DOOR POLICY FOR NAZI WAR CRIMINALS. His works have been translated into eleven languages and have been the subject of movies for screen and television. He is also an alto sax player and composer. He lives in Washington, D.C. His latest book, CHILDREN'S LETTERS TO A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR: DEAR ESTHER will be released on April 19. 2016.
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