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New life for Silkwood plant

November 20, 2016
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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.

One comment

  1. Nice article! I was born in Oklahoma (OKC) and have long been interested in the Silkwood story so it’s especially interesting to see the continuing story of the plant. One other coincidence, my father worked for Kerr-McGee in its early offshore oil drilling operations in the Morgan City, LA area.



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