Nation: Poisoned by Plutonium

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Was Karen Silkwood a willing or innocent nuclear victim ?

The car had careened off a country road in Oklahoma and crumpled against a culvert. Its sole occupant lay dead, surrounded by a litter of papers she had been carrying. Karen Silkwood, 28, a lab technician in a plant producing fuel rods for nuclear reactors, had been driving to meet a New York Times reporter. She hoped to document her charges that officials at the installation, owned by the Kerr-McGee Corp., had continually and carelessly exposed their employees to one of the world's most dangerous metals: plutonium. But after the car was towed from the ditch, the papers could not be found.

Those bare facts seemed suspicious enough in 1974 to touch off a series of newspaper and magazine articles by investigative reporters. The Silkwood case was quickly embraced by environmentalists, nuclear energy foes, feminists and civil libertarians. They saw the Kerr-McGee facility near Crescent, Okla., as an ugly symbol of an industry seeking profits while endangering its employees and nearby communities. Last week, for the first time, the case moved into a public courtroom. Silkwood's family is seeking $11.5 million in damages from Kerr-McGee for exposing her to dangerous levels of plutonium. Its other aim, as its lawyer put it, is "to stop this conduct by that industry forever."

Unfortunately for those who see the Silkwood saga as a puzzling mystery story, the current trial has been so narrowed that it may not answer some of the most perplexing questions of the case. It will not try to resolve whether Silkwood was so tranquilized by pills to calm a nervous stomach, as Oklahoma state police contend, that she ran off the left side of the highway. It will not decide whether, as a union investigation claims, the fresh marks on her car's rear bumper were evidence that she had been forced off the road. It may not explain why police officials first dispatched their tow-truck operator to the wreckage and then called him back, or why Kerr-McGee personnel were at the scene within minutes, or where the documents went.

Instead, the trial will center on a fact not in dispute: that Silkwood had been exposed to enough plutonium to make her fear that she might be dying. The courtroom clash will come over just how that contamination occurred and whether it meant that the plant was negligent in handling the potent metal, which is used in atomic weapons. Plutonium is considered some 20,000 times more deadly than the venom from a cobra if ingested, and even minute quantities can cause cancer years later. As testimony opened in a federal court in Oklahoma City last week, Dr. John Gofman, a scientist who has done pioneering work with plutonium, testified that Silkwood's lungs had contained almost twice as much of the dangerous metal as the amount that can induce cancer. "Anyone exposed to that amount of plutonium is married to lung cancer," he said. "It is then an inevitable process."

Just nine days before her death, Silkwood told company officials she feared she had been contaminated. A check showed that her apartment in Crescent contained fragments of the metal in the bathroom, kitchen and in a bologna-and-cheese sandwich in her refrigerator.

In its defense, Kerr-McGee argued that it had observed safety rules, but that

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