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Nov. 13, 1974 OK Activist's Death Fuels Nuclear Fear

Lisa Tatum Published: April 18, 1999
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Whistle-blower, troublemaker, folk hero or fable - Karen Silkwood has conjured conflicting images in Oklahomans' minds since her death in 1974.

From the beginning, her story had all the makings of a Hollywood movie.

A young, pretty woman, unknowingly contaminated by radiation at a small-town nuclear plant, takes on the role of super sleuth as she tries to prove the state's richest energy conglomerate operates its nuclear facility under lax safety conditions.

Secret meetings with union officials culminate in a promise to deliver proof of her claims to an investigative reporter from The New York Times.

A single-car accident kills the 28-year- old mother-turned-activist on her way to a meeting with the reporter. The evidence she promised him is never found.

The mystery and intrigue surrounding Silkwood's death did make it to the silver screen. The 1983 movie "Silkwood," starring Meryl Streep, dramatizes the events leading to Silkwood's death. While some believe Silkwood was run off the road by a mysterious killer, as the movie suggests, her death was ruled accidental.

Reports by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol that said she fell asleep at the wheel after taking sedatives later were dismissed by the U.S. Justice Department because of insufficient evidence. They didn't know whether she was asleep when the crash occurred.

However, an autopsy showed she had 0.35 milligrams of methaqualone (Quaalude) in her blood stream when she died.

Silkwood moved to Oklahoma from Texas after a divorce in 1972. She took a job as a lab analyst at the Cimarron Nuclear Facility plutonium plant near Crescent.

After two years at the plant, she became active in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union. Silkwood told union officials that no one warned her the plutonium she was working with could cause cancer, according to later testimony of union officials in federal court.

She began documenting safety practices at the plant and reporting back to the union, which brought in nuclear scientists to explain the hazards of plutonium exposure to union members.

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