Plutonium vault in the former Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Plant. Some 50 lb. of plutonium went unaccounted for at the Cimarron plant during the Silkwood years due to sloppy handling and accounting uncertainties.
Stigma has a long half-life. 42 years ago, a young woman named Karen Silkwood was found dead in her wrecked car on the side of Oklahoma State Highway 74. She had been a laboratory worker at the nearby Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Plant as well as an OCAW union officer, and at the time of her death she was on a journey south to Oklahoma City, purportedly carrying evidence of unsafe work conditions and nuclear material diversion to a meeting with union representatives and the press. After Silkwood’s death, the alleged smoking-gun documents were nowhere to be found. Conspiracy theories blossomed in the absence of conclusive understanding into the circumstances of her death. The idea that Kerr-McGee management had her “bumped off” gained a major following, despite no evidence underpinning this suggestion and a competing toxicology finding of methaqualone in Karen’s blood. Two years later, in 1976, the Cimarron plant shut down in ignominy.
In 1983, Meryl Streep played Karen Silkwood to critical acclaim in a major motion picture that served to cement the murder theory in the popular imagination. While the basic plausibility of the alleged murder conspiracy fades with each passing year, it endures as fact in the folk wisdom of numerous anti-corporate and anti-nuclear advocates. As for the Kerr-McGee plutonium fuel plant, it too endures; and after decades of vacancy, is poised to rise from the ashes of its scandal-ridden nuclear past as a manufacturing facility for aircraft parts. This is particularly remarkable, as very few former nuclear facilities survive cleanup intact, and few structures survive decades of neglect to the elements. (Some of the surrounding lands, however, remain under NRC license and are still being remediated for contaminants.) I visited the site in the fall of 2016, and would like to thank Jeff Lux, project manager and engineer, for his generosity and willingness to take me around this landmark in the cultural history of nuclear technology in the USA.
Facade of the Kerr-McGee Cimarron plutonium fuel fabrication facility of Karen Silkwood fame, seen in the fall of 2016. The structure has been gutted, meticulously cleaned, sold for $6000 at auction, and is now being outfitted for manufacturing avionics.
Front office of the former Kerr-McGee plutonium fuel fabrication facility in Oklahoma. The building is being reused by an aviation company.
This vast open room in the southeastern quadrant of the plutonium plant was once a warren of analytical laboratories, and the workplace of Karen Silkwood within the Kerr-McGee plutonium fuel fabrication facility. The room is being outfitted now as a machine shop by the new owner.
Finished fuel storage room and shipping/receiving bay. Some original signage from the operating days remains on the wall. Also on the wall are grid lines used for conducting contamination surveys.
A sign still on the wall from the operational days of the Kerr-McGee plutonium fuel plant, when finished fuel elements were stored in this room.
This wall shows grid markings and radiation survey measurements (presumably in units of disintegrations per minute per 100 sq. cm.).
Fuel element fabrication area. Notice grid lines on the walls for radioactive contamination surveys.
Pu fuel pellet fabrication area, showing sand-blasted and removed non-structural walls from plutonium cleanup efforts.
Looking north across the Cimarron River floodplain, dotted with groundwater sampling wells behind the Pu facility.
The most contaminated water on the former Kerr-McGee site is found in this area toward the northeast. We can see a lot of sampling well head covers in this photo looking north toward the Cimarron River.
Fire-suppression reservoir that was part of the original plant works. The fishing is said to be great here, but the NRC won’t allow it.
Corner marker for an underground radioactive waste disposal area on the former Kerr-McGee plant property.
The Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Facility plutonium plant seen from the east in 2016. The companion uranium facility was to the left, but no longer stands on the site.
Sampling wells with color-coded caps that denote their depth. These wells lie near a solid radioactive waste burial area on site.