One dry, cold November night in 1974, Karen Gay Silkwood left a union meeting at the Hub Café in rural Crescent, Oklahoma, jumped into her white Honda Civic, and headed down Highway 74 toward Oklahoma City. It was 7:30 p.m., the last day of her life. On the seat next to her were the documents she had stolen from her employer, Kerr-McGee, a contractor that manufactured fuel rods filled with plutonium pellets for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Silkwood planned to deliver the sensitive documents to a New York Times reporter waiting at the Holiday Inn Northwest. Her documents included doctored quality-control negatives.
Silkwood may also have had classified or government-protected Kerr-McGee inventory reports showing that forty pounds of plutonium, called “material unaccounted for,” or MUF, was missing from the plant. It was an open secret among Silkwood’s fellow workers that plutonium was missing. Silkwood discovered the actual size of the shortfall.
A little more than seven miles out of Crescent, Silkwood’s Honda Civic crossed over to the left side of the road, straightened out, traveled more than 240 feet down a washboard shoulder, and smashed into the cement wall of a culvert
running under the road. She died instantly.
Did Karen Silkwood fall asleep at the wheel as the Oklahoma Highway Patrol ruled, or was she wide-awake when her car sped down the shoulder of the highway, as an independent accident investigator determined? Was it a one-car crash as the state police reported, or did someone force her off the road as the accident investigator concluded?
The answers to these questions still lie buried under layers of secrecy in the files of the FBI, the Justice Department, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, which are protected by loopholes
in the Freedom of Information Act and Oklahoma’s Open Records Act. Those laws allow federal and Oklahoma government officials to exclude from public disclosure—at their own discretion—their secret and possibly embarrassing
Forty years after Karen Silkwood’s death, the questions remain: What are government agencies still hiding? Whom are they protecting?