Environment: The Silkwood Mystery

  • Share
  • Read Later

(2 of 2)

Meantime, the AEC launched its own probe of working conditions at the plant. The commission's records showed that since Kerr-McGee started its plutonium operations in 1970, 17 safety lapses—in which 73 employees were contaminated—had been reported. The union produced a list of 39 additional allegations of sloppiness in plutonium handling. Then in mid-December, two new cases involving five persons were reported to the AEC; Kerr-McGee quickly denounced them as "contrived." Yet the incidents were serious enough to force the company to shut the plant for more than two weeks.

Last week the AEC completed its investigation. It found that only three of the 39 union allegations represented violations of the commission's standards, though another 17 had "substance or partial substance." The report pleased Kerr-McGee, but the union was "not satisfied." Environmental groups also pointed out that the AEC needed the fuel rods and thus had a clear interest in keeping Kerr-McGee's plant in operation.

The most startling finding by the AEC was that Silkwood's contamination "probably did not result from an accident or incident within the plant." There were plutonium traces on her skin though no accidental release had occurred in the plant. In addition, tests showed that Silkwood had "ingested" plutonium. Furthermore, two urine samples were proved to have been contaminated after they had been excreted; this showed that the samples had been doctored by someone. The evidence thus suggests that Silkwood had purposely contaminated herself and had probably smuggled a minute amount of plutonium home from the plant. Why? Perhaps to embarrass the company and thus strengthen the union's bargaining position at negotiations late last November. Or perhaps Silkwood was emotionally unbalanced.

It seems clear that Kerr-McGee has not been as diligent as necessary in protecting its workers from plutonium. The union has nonetheless been overzealous in its allegations of carelessness by the company. And both the AEC and its private contractors need to exercise increased vigilance in guarding the plutonium against theft or misuse by unstable or conspiratorial employees. As for the cause of Silkwood's death, that remains as mysterious as ever.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. Next Page