A Blast From the Past: The Scarlet on November 16, 1978

Karen Silkwood and the dangers of nuclear power

Julia Baldacci, Managing Editor

The main story on this issue of The Scarlet revolved around a group of 150 people that gathered in Worcester Common Center to listen to Nobel Laureate George Weld and others speak on the dangers of nuclear power. The event was reported on by Scott Campbell in the front page article titled “Atomic Tragedy.”  The rally was sponsored by the Central Mass. Citizens Against Nuclear Power, and the Central Mass Medical Society to commemorate the “mysterious” death of Karen Silkwood.

Silkwood was a plutonium fuel rod tester at the Kerr-McGee plutonium facility in Crescent, Oklahoma. She was killed when her car ran off the road November 13, 1974 on her way to meet New York Times reporter David Burnham to present him with documentation regarding health and safety hazards at the Kerr-McGee plant. The documents she was carrying were never recovered, and while local police claimed she fell asleep at the wheel, crash experts hired by the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union say she was run off the road. They further charged that Silkwood was killed because she had stumbled onto evidence of a plutonium ring within Kerr-McGee.

By the time this article was written, the story had received widespread attention as it called into question the government’s legitimacy and ability protect its citizens. The Silkwood family filed a lawsuit in an attempt to resolve the mystery in an Oklahoma City district court, charging officials at Kerr-McGee with violating Silkwoods’ civil rights. Kerr-McGee eventually settled out of court for $1.38 million, while not admitting liability, and closed its nuclear fuel plants in 1975.

Key speaker George Weld believed that Silkwood was murdered, stating, “Murder is the simplest way to get rid of people who know too much.” Weld believed that nuclear energy was being forced on citizens by the government and utility companies when it was unnecessary and unwanted. “I was born at the same time as gasoline,” remarked Weld. “Gasoline was just a waste product of oil that no one knew what to do with. It was considered too dangerous and flammable to be used until Henry Ford came along. Now we can’t get along without it, but there was a decent civilization before that we forget. It’s the same thing with nuclear power. It’s being forced on us. Everyone says we need it.”

Weld asserted that plutonium 239, one of the byproducts of nuclear generation, is the most toxic substance known to man. The inhalation of a particle smaller than a pinhead will cause death within hours by lung fibrosis. Plutonium is also the fuel used to make nuclear weapons. Weld also cited storage problems: plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years. “It would have to be stored longer than man has been civilized,” he said. “What nation has that kind of political stability?”

Of those who spoke at the rally, Kip Hedges of the United Steel Workers local 31 in Chicago stated that there was considerable sentiment among labor leaders and rank and file workers to call for a strike if a nuclear plant is activated near Lake Michigan. He also reminded the audience of the anniversary of WWI, feeling that this would be a good time to reflect on the nature of war in perspective with nuclear weapons. Hedges also urged the audience to resist the implementation of nuclear power with all their strength.

Songs were also performed protesting nuclear energy were performed by Charlie King and a group named The Steamboat Symphony. An exhibition displaying solar power technology was also set up in the square.