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Karen Silkwood dies in mysterious crash

November
13
1974

On this day in 1974, union activist Karen Silkwood died in an automobile accident. Silkwood, born in Longview in 1946, was a laboratory technician at a Kerr-McGee Nuclear Corporation plutonium plant in Oklahoma. She joined the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union and became the first female member of the union bargaining committee in Kerr-McGee history. On her first assignment to study health and safety issues at the plant, she discovered evidence of spills, leaks, and missing plutonium. As environmental concerns increased in the 1970s, Kerr-McGee faced litigation involving worker safety and environmental contamination, and Silkwood testified to charges before the Atomic Energy Commission that she had suffered radiation exposure in a series of unexplained incidents. She died en route to a meeting with an AEC official and a New York Times reporter. Speculations over foul play in her death were never substantiated, but an autopsy showed her body had been contaminated by plutonium, and Kerr-McGee eventually closed the plant. Her life was the subject of a motion picture, Silkwood, released in 1984.

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