Mazzocchi knew from experience that Kerr-McGee would probably catch wind of Karen Silkwood's efforts. If management found out too soon, the scheme would collapse, and Silkwood would be fired. Mazzocchi told her that under no circumstances was she to tell a soul—not Tice, not Brewer, not even her best friend. She would report only to Wodka.
Tony put a great deal of trust in Karen. She was “forceful,” he said, and very smart. The later depiction of Silkwood as a wild child did not do her justice. Mazzocchi and Wodka saw immediately that she was levelheaded, conscientious, and tough. Mazzocchi felt that if Silkwood had “the goods,” they just might turn around this loser of a struggle.
Wodka also sensed these qualities in Silkwood—and more. She had an attractive, alluring edge. After that first conference in Washington and a working dinner with the group, he showed her the town. They hit it off and began a clandestine relationship. It was heady stuff for Silkwood. She had come to Washington as the lowly third wheel of a delegation representing only 20 of 150 workers at a little-known plant. In a matter of hours she was working with the best minds in her union—and being wooed by one of them. And she was being enlisted as a secret source for The New York Times.
But first she had to return to hell in Oklahoma: Management was applying the screws to the union as the decertification election neared.
Silkwood prepared for the educational meetings with scientists that Mazzocchi had set up for the Cimarron plant workers. And on the sly, she continued to collect evidence on the company's faulty fuel rods. Her lifeline was Steve Wodka, whom she called regularly. With her permission, Wodka recorded Silkwood's detailed reports about conditions in the plant. On October 7, 1974, Karen let Steve know that there were “no repercussions from the trip to DC,” but that the workers were “still a little scared of us. They think we're trying to shut down the plant and take away their jobs.”
As she itemized a string of incidents and grievances, Silkwood displayed an acute analytical understanding. She knew, for instance, that the company violated the law when it refused to allow the union to talk to workers during lunchtime and breaks. And as for quality control: “We're still passing all the welds [on the control rods] no matter what the pictures look like,” she told Wodka. “I've got a [bad] weld I'd love for you to see.”
That was the smoking gun. Kerr-McGee was cheating on their qualitycontrol tests, and if those faulty rods failed inside an experimental fast-breeder reactor, it could spark a nuclear nightmare.
Silkwood also described to Wodka extremely dangerous conditions in which “people were walking into hot rooms” where plutonium had been released without protective gear. “We've got eighteen- and nineteen-year old boys . . . They didn't have the schooling. They don't understand what radiation is.” She told Wodka that the company monitored workers through radiation nasal tests, then told them, after the numbers went down, that the radiation “all came out in the nasal smear.”
Silkwood herself worked in the quality-control lab, not in production. She was most concerned about those who were regularly exposed to plutonium when pipes leaked and gloves ripped. “What about those other boys?” she asked Wodka. “It works on their genes? It accumulates in their genes? ”
“It sure as hell does,” he said.
Silkwood said she was worried about what would happen to them over time as they “breathe [plutonium] in once a week, every week. You're out there and you're goddamn well gonna have something,” she said to Wodka.
Wodka had just returned from visiting Dean Abrahamson and Donald Geesman, the two atomic scientists from the University of Minnesota who soon would speak to the Cimarron workers. He responded to Karen bluntly. “The whole point is that plutonium is so carcinogenic, so potent . . . that the conditions you work under . . . you don't have to work there for five years. You might only have to work there for one friggin' month and you've got enough of a body burden to cause cancer. ”
In a flash, Silkwood realized that not only were all those unschooled farm boys in danger, but so was everyone in the plant—including her. With a hint of panic, she shot back, “Steve, don't tell me that shit!”
“That shit” was the main weapon in Mazzocchi's strategy to win the decertification campaign. The unionists needed to prove to Cimarron workers that their health was in danger and that they needed the union to protect them.
Silkwood arranged for the workshops with the scientists to be held near the facility—one session before work and another after. The workshops were public, and management would know every word that was said. On October 10, Silkwood and one hundred of her co-workers came to hear Abrahamson and Geesman talk about the toxicity of plutonium. Tapes of the workshops revealed that Silkwood had quickly absorbed the gravity of the situation. She asked key questions and offered useful comments.
But the tapes also revealed how clueless other workers were about the dangers they faced. They were stunned to learn that plutonium could cause cancer. Once they realized the severity of their exposure, nearly every question they asked focused on possible cures. Could chelated compounds clear out all the plutonium from their bodies, as management had told them? No. Could they get the plutonium out of their lungs? No. When the company gave them a few days off until their readings went down, did that mean the problem was gone? No .
As the questions cascaded, it started to dawn on these workers that the company had done everything possible to downplay the problem. As Professor Geesman later stated on ABC TV's Reasoner Report: “You've got a management that just manages to be aware that plutonium is different from soybean meal. You've got a weak local union plant situated in a dirt-poor area of the state with basically a captive labor force. The labor force is highly transient with a substantial turnover every year . . . It's not my image of the nuclear priesthood.”
For workers, two worlds of authority had collided. The paternalistic company, which had assured everyone they were safe and protected, had been challenged by the scientific experts, who told them that inhaling a microscopic grain of plutonium could cause lung cancer.
As Mazzocchi envisioned, the briefings gave workers a new framework for comprehending the lax safety conditions at the plant. For the first time, many of them realized the company would not protect them, but the union just might.
Support grew. Just one week after the presentations, workers voted against decertifying the union by a margin of eighty to sixty-one.
Karen continued to secretly collect data for her upcoming meeting with New York Times reporter David Burnham. She sensed that the company was on to her. In her conversations with Wodka and others, Karen said she also feared for her own health, as she realized how much she had been exposed to lethal substances at Kerr-McGee. She wanted to have more children but now was afraid her reproductive organs might already be damaged. One more severe plutonium exposure, it seemed, could send her running from the plant for good.
As if on cue, just as she was preparing for her first meeting with the Times, Silkwood was contaminated—repeatedly. On November 5, her arm, neck, and nose emitted high levels of radioactivity. She learned from Abrahamson that high nose readings were extremely dangerous because they signified that plutonium had already entered the lungs. The company then put her through a decontamination shower using a wire brush dipped in a mixture of Clorox and Tide. The readings went down.
The next day, after only one hour in the plant, her readings increased again. This time she scrubbed down with stronger chemicals: potassiumpermanganate and sodium-bisulfate. She called Abrahamson in tears. On November 7, Silkwood returned to work with urine and fecal samples to be tested, and took another nasal smear. The results were more than three hundred times higher than the day before. Her hands, arms, chest, neck, and ear were red hot.
The company searched for the source and could not locate it inside the plant. It checked her car and several other places where she had traveled. Still negative.
Kerr-McGee then sent a team in full protective gear to search Silkwood's home. They discovered extremely high readings in her bathroom and in her refrigerator—especially in a baloney sandwich. They tore her house apart, put all her belongings in drums, and carted them away. They brought lawyers to the scene who grilled her. They cordoned off her home but did not offer her alternative accommodations.
Silkwood was in serious distress. She believed someone had deliberately contaminated her and her house. For the first time, she thought the exposures she received might kill her.
The timing of the contamination and the locations all indicated that she had not poisoned herself, but had been poisoned deliberately, and more than once, by someone else. “They put something in her refrigerator, contaminated the baloney,” Mazzocchi said. “She was eating baloney with her hands, it got all over the house. Under AEC regulations, you could get into the house if it was contaminated. It was a perfect setup for them. But they didn't find the evidence. They knew she had it. They had been tapping her phone. ”
Mazzocchi wasn't paranoid. James Smith, a Kerr-McGee manager, later said in a sworn affidavit that a special Kerr-McGee inspection team had read Silkwood's personal letters, notes, diaries, and other documents. Then they gave the papers to James Reading, Kerr-McGee's chief of security and a former lieutenant in the Oklahoma City police. According to Smith, they wanted anything that could incriminate Silkwood.
Kerr-McGee officials wanted to interview Silkwood more fully. They implied that they suspected her of deliberately taking plutonium home with her. (Their accusation was self-implicating. Were their security procedures so lax that employees could walk right out of the plant with plutonium? Yes. Investigations would show that any number of employees, corporate officials, agents, or security personnel could have taken the plutonium from the plant and placed it in Silkwood's home.)
When Karen called Steve Wodka after the search, her calm, analytical demeanor was eroding. She feared the worst.
Wodka told her to refuse to meet with the company unless he was present. Mazzocchi suggested that she immediately get tested by doctors with no connection to Kerr-McGee.
“I was in Reno, Nevada, at the time,” Mazzocchi said. “Steve called me and said, ‘Karen's been contaminated.' I said, ‘Demand that they fly her to the whole-body counter at Los Alamos,' which I figured was the nearest place she could get a whole-body scan. It's similar to a CAT scan. You go through this dark tube, and it measures your radiation. ”
At Wodka's persistent urging, the company agreed to fly Silkwood, her boyfriend Drew Stephens, and her roommate Sheri Ellis, to Los Alamos on November 10, 1974, for testing. The results, they were told, showed small but statistically insignificant readings for Sheri and Drew. Karen had higher readings, about a quarter of what the AEC then allowed for a lifetime of exposure. Nevertheless, the Los Alamos doctors assured Karen that she had nothing to fear. Karen tried hard to believe them.
What they didn't tell her was that there was little evidence that these standards were safe even for healthy, nonsmoking males—let alone a ninety four-pound female with asthma who smoked heavily. But Karen had desperately needed some good news. She and Sheri, leaving Drew behind, went out partying on that cool November night, a small respite from the plutonium plague.
Mazzocchi realized that time was not on their side. Silkwood no longer was working quietly behind the scenes. She was the scene. The sooner she handed over her evidence to the Times, the better .
“I thought we needed to push up our time line,” Mazzocchi recalled. He wanted Wodka to make sure that Silkwood had documentation. If she didn't, “I'm not going to send Burnham down there. We can't deal with allegations, only facts.”
During a series of conversations, Wodka gave Silkwood every opportunity to back out. She assured him that she had real evidence and was ready. The Burnham rendezvous was moved up to November 13, 1974, at the Holiday Inn in Oklahoma City, only thirty miles from Cimarron. Drew would pick up Wodka and Burnham at the airport and take them to the hotel. Karen had a union meeting to attend that day; afterward she would drive to meet them.
In violation of Mazzocchi's gag order, Karen had already confided in her friend and co-worker Jean Jung about her undercover mission. Later, in a sworn affidavit, Jung recounted that Silkwood “told me . . . she had photographs of defective welds on sample fuel pin claddings taken from lots which were passed by quality control. She once told me about a particularly bad batch of rods . . . which she said should never have been allowed to leave the plant.”
Jung reported that after the union meeting, Karen had come over to her, crying quietly, to let her know that she was contaminated and that she was frightened. Despite the good news from the Los Alamos tests, Karen believed she would die of cancer.
According to Jung, Karen then pointed to documents in a dark brown folder she was carrying and said “there was one thing she was glad about. That she had all the proof concerning falsification of records. As she said this she clenched her hand more firmly on the folder and notebook she was holding. She told me she was on her way to meet Steve Wodka and the New York Times reporter . . .”
Then Silkwood got into her white 1973 Honda to complete her mission.
Steve Wodka, Karen's boyfriend Drew Stephens, and reporter David Burnham had arrived at the Holiday Inn around 8:30 pm and ordered take-out food. They hoped Silkwood might already be there, but they knew being late wasn't unusual for her. By 10 pm , however, they began to worry. Wodka called the cafe where the union meeting had been held, but everyone had left .
He then reached Jerry Tice at home and got the jolt of his young life.
Karen had been in a bad accident on Highway 74. She was taken to Logan County Hospital, where they pronounced her dead on arrival .
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