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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.

4 comments

  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.


    • On one small detail I may have been in error with regard to Miss Silkwood’s story, and whom she was supposedly delivering these “documents” to. She was supposedly going to meet with a New York Times reporter in Oklahoma City for an interview, and hand over the aforementioned documents. Why a NYTs reporter is not explained, why not a Washington Post reporter, Chicago Tribune reporter, or someone else more local to the region?
      How would the bosses at Kerr-McGee know where she was headed, and why? Apparently they had a security force to rival the East German Stasi, stationed between that pair of medium sized industrial buildings? But also apparently, Miss Silkwood could still walk away with hundreds of classified “documents”, and the facility still managed to mislay 50 pounds of plutonium without it being noticed?
      It would seem that the only other witnesses to her having these documents were people that claimed she had a binder, or folder under her arm, at the union meeting an hour or more before. Assuming that she did have a binder or folder, how would they know what the contents were? Where and how did she obtain them, and why didn’t she allow someone else at the meeting to see them? Why didn’t she pass them along to a union official for safe keeping?
      This is the problem with all conspiracy theories, the more you examine the details, and try to establish some chain of logic with the events, the more quickly they fall off the rails. What’s more the advocates usually take the tactic of demanding a reverse onus of proof, unless you prove that it didn’t happen means that it did happen. How does one prove a negative?


  2. Hollywood really does not only the U.S, but pretty well the rest of the Western world, a disservice with films like the aforementioned. If Kerr-McGee had Miss Silkwood bumped off, en-route to delivering some “damning” documents to authorities (something which I could find no independent source to confirm outside the film), how come the medical examiner found Quaaludes in her stomach? If she had such documents why didn’t she make copies, or mail them directly to the NRC, or the media for that matter?
    Now people think she was some sort of top ranking union activist, out to expose crime and corruption. Curious how a 28 year old would have had that stature after only working at the plant for 2-3 years? I do sympathize with her family, and friends regarding her death, it was a tragedy, but if she had not worked at that plant it would have gone down just like thousands of other similar accidents. Once some people hear the word “nuclear” their mind tends to turn off, and they run around like their hair is on fire.
    It reminds me of the movie “Tucker”, thanks to that movie someone who was really just a footnote, and a curiosity in automotive history magically became an existential threat to the “big three” that they couldn’t live with on film. He never did get a production line into operation, he had 52 cars hand built, arranged some splashy publicity, then tried to sell dealerships, and tried to pre sell cars he couldn’t produce. The fact that Kaiser-Frazer was started around the same time, and not only produced and sold cars, but tens of thousands of them, without being shut down by collusion from Detriot, seems to elude most people.


  3. It’s interesting to see what this place actually looks like, it’s really a medium sized industrial building, and probably at the smaller end of that.



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