Nation: Poisoned by Plutonium

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Silkwood had carried small amounts of plutonium out of the plant and had deliberately contaminated herself and her apartment. Why should she act so bizarrely? Defense Attorney William Paul argued last week that she was emotionally unstable and possibly had been affected by the use of tranquilizers. Paul said she had become deeply involved in a bitter fight between her union and the company, and charged that she had set out to prove that the plant was dangerous by making herself seriously ill. She was, he suggested, kinky.

In turn, the family will produce witnesses who will contend that Silkwood had been too horrified by the contamination to have possibly caused it herself. The family concedes that it cannot prove who planted the poison, but suggests that someone was out to scare Silkwood—and had certainly succeeded. The Silkwood lawyers will also try to turn Kerr-McGee's argument against itself. If Silkwood could have slipped lethal quantities of plutonium out of the plant, they will ask the jury, does not that mean that any employee could do so? And would not that prove that the "highest due care" as specified in the negligence statutes, had not been exercised?

The family intends to show that the papers Silkwood was carrying on the night of her death would have demonstrated the company's carelessness. Lawyer Gerald Spence claimed in court that Silkwood wanted to "tell the public" that a startling 40 Ibs. of plutonium was missing from the plant. Spence also said she had X rays of fuel rods that had been retouched by the company to conceal faulty seals. Her point: a defective rod could cause a catastrophic accident. The family also intends to call former company employees, including a plant manager, to testify to these and other mishandlings of the fuel. The witnesses are expected to tell, for example, of the night that workers were dispatched by the company to retrieve dead fish from the nearby Cimarron River in an unsuccessful attempt to conceal the dumping of radioactive wastes into the stream.

Ironically, the Kerr-McGee plant now under legal attack no longer exists:

it was closed in 1976, 14 months after Silkwood's death, when Westinghouse, which had been buying its fuel rods, complained of their poor quality and refused to re new its contract. Nevertheless, the entire nuclear power industry, increasingly embroiled in controversy over its handling of radioactive materials, is watching the suit closely. If the judge and jury accept the claims of the company's liability made by the Silkwood lawyers, the case could force the industry to make drastic and costly revisions in its process of producing the highly radioactive metal that is used in breeder reactors. —

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