The Year was 1974

Kerr Cabin

“Mr. Oklahoma,” they called him. Robert S. Kerr of the Kerr-McGee Corporation, born in a log cabin in Indian Territory in 1896, became wealthy through oil and other investments and rose to be governor of Oklahoma, and then senator. Through it all, a devout Baptist, he taught a Sunday school class.

Robert S Kerr

But Bob Kerr was not quite as pure as he pretended. When the Savings and Loan Association wanted favorable legislation, Sen. Kerr said they could have his vote. For half a million dollars. Under the table.

Kerr-McGee’s Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site

Kerr fell afoul of a young woman named Karen Silkwood. Her job at Kerr-McGee’s Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site involved plutonium, a key component in nuclear weaponry production. The process required workers to slip their hands into gloves and work inside a closed box so that no plutonium could escape.

Silkwood was not happy with safety and became an outspoken union member, working for better safety standards at the Cimarron facility. In fact, she actually testified before the Atomic Energy Commission in the summer of 1974 about safety lapses and hazards at the Kerr-McGee plant.

A couple of months after Silkwood’s testimony, it was discovered in a routine check after she had finished her day’s work that she was contaminated. Her level was 400 times the legal limit. Her gloves were tested. No holes. Yet plutonium contamination was found on both sides of the gloves. She was decontaminated and sent home.

New York Time’s reporter Robert Burnham

Silkwood accused Kerr-McGee of deliberately contaminating her. Kerr-McGee said Silkwood had done it to herself, to show she was right about safety issues. To prove she was telling the truth, Silkwood put together information in a folder, including photographic proof that Kerr-McGee was doctoring the photos of the nuclear fuel rods to cover up fine line flaws in the rods. Silkwood put the folder on the front seat of her car and left to drive to Oklahoma City, a half hour drive, to show her documentation to David Burnham, a New York Times investigative reporter.

She never got there. Hours after she was supposed to arrive, her car, a new 1974 Honda Civic, was found in a ditch off the road. She was dead and the folder was missing. It has never been found. Twelve years after her death, Kerr-McGee settled out of court for $1.38 million, admitting no fault.

Karen’s story was made into a movie with Kurt Russell, Cher, and Meryl Streep.

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