Book Review: Karen Silkwood’s Story Reconsidered

The Whistleblower's Dilemma by Richard Rashke

The Whistleblower's Dilemma

Richard Rashke’s newest book, The Whistleblower’s Dilemma: Snowden, Silkwood and Their Quest for the Truth, reconsiders Karen Silkwood’s story by drawing parallels to the ongoing case surrounding NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

On November 13, 1974, Karen Silkwood lost her life in a mysterious one-car accident. She was on her way to meet a reporter from the New York Times where she planned to hand over incriminating documents about her employer, Kerr McGee.  Though Rashke’s fans know that he has covered Karen Silkwood’s story previously in The Killing of Karen Silkwood, her story is deserving of an updated look for new audiences.  In his new book, Rashke presents details about the events leading up to her accident and the fallout after against the story of Edward Snowden to probe the consequences and values of whistleblowers.  An urgent thread throughout this gripping book asks: what compelled these individuals to blow the whistle and was their actions worth the price?

Silkwood was propelled into workplace activism following a workplace accident.  She worked as a laboratory analyst for the Kerr McGee Cimarron plant that fabricated plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods during the Cold War when the demand for uranium and plutonium soared.  For Silkwood and her co-workers, this meant “12-hour shifts, seven-day work weeks and uninterrupted rotation from day to night shifts.” Working in these kinds of conditions with radioactive material is bound to lead to disaster, and on July 31, 1974, Silkwood tested positive for radioactive contamination after her shift.

Though she was assured that her contamination posed no personal risk, Silkwood was not satisfied and she went to the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) Union for answers.  In short order, she became the first woman to serve on the OCAW contract bargaining committee. Her first task on the committee was to track and document accidents like the one she experienced. Two months later, she had filled an entire notebook with information about other accidents and egregious safety violations, and she traveled to Washington, DC, to present her findings to the Atomic Energy Commission.

What follows is a harrowing and intense ten-weeks that involves bullying, harassment, and a second more serious exposure to radioactive material before she died in a car accident. Following her death, Silkwood was vilified as a heartless mother, a drug addict, and a plutonium smuggler. Rashke thoughtfully reviews the criticism to her character, the crime scene evidence from her accident, and the lawsuit her father and children brought against Kerr McGee to highlight the dire consequences of her actions as a whistleblower.

Rashke handles Edward Snowden’s saga with the same thoughtful objectivity. Though Silkwood’s and Snowden’s stories are separated by forty years, reviewing their cases side by side reveals striking similarities. Both are controversial figures, for sure, but both believed their actions would save lives. Rashke wants readers to draw their own conclusions about the choices Silkwood and Snowden made in deciding to reveal the truth.

However, while Snowden’s story continues to unfold, Silkwood’s is tragically and definitively over, which made her story more resonant for this reader. Rashke ends his book with Silkwood’s legacy. Her efforts led to new health and safety standards for nuclear workers and the passage of laws that protect future whistleblowers, but her family lost a mother, sister and daughter.

The Whistleblower’s Dilemma: Snowden, Silkwood and Their Quest for the Truth by Richard Rashke is sure to create more important debate about the morality and legality of whistleblowing. I recommend this thoroughly absorbing dual examination of what compels people to risk everything to expose secrets. Now on sale at Amazon.

About Kristen LePine
KRISTEN LEPINE is the co-founder and Executive Director of Historic Heroines. An accomplished writer, educator and mother, Kristen is often inspired by history and current events. She wrote about Nellie Bly and mental health care in CRACKED POTS, a play commissioned by Theatre J in Washington DC. Currently she is working on a historical novel set in ancient Sparta. Visit her at www.kristenlepine.com.
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