"The Case is Closed"
Within a few months of her death, therefore, the FBI investigation of Karen Silkwood was closed. In response to official inquiries by her parents, the National Organization for Women, and the OCAW, FBI Inspector Al Connally
responded that they "watched too much television" if they expected every case to be completely solved. "In any event", Connally said, "the FBI cannot discuss its investigations into the case, because it is a 'closed' case. And the FBI official policy is not to discuss 'closed' cases.
Unsatisfied with this explanation, the National Organization for Women, the OCAW, the Environmental Policy Center, Critical Mass, and various other interested organizations began to mobilize their constituencies to put
pressure on the Senate Committee on Government Operations to hold a public enquiry into what had really happened. In Nov. 1975, Senator Ribicoff, who chaired the Committee, agreed to hold hearings to find out not only what had happened but to determine how effectively the various federal agencies, including the FBI, had performed their duties.
As soon as the Senate hearings were announced, the KM Nuclear Facility was completely closed down and all of its workers summarily fired. The plant was put into "mothballs", to await the pending investigation. Suddenly, two weeks before the investigations were to begin, Dean McGee flew to Washington and met privately with Senator Metcalf, a high ranking member of the Committee on Government Operations who with Ribicoff was heading the inquiry. The only other person present during this meeting was a Mr. Bennet, the Washington representative of KM. No one knows what was discussed at the meeting. The results, however, were dramatic. The very next day, Senator Metcalf issued a press release announcing that the previously scheduled hearings into the Silkwood matter were "permanently closed."
One of the Congressional investigators for the now closed Senate hearings, Peter Stockton, took the case over to the House of Representatives and got the House Sub-Committee on Energy and the Environment to agree to hold hearings into the Silkwood matter in April, 1976.
The FBI Refuse to Release Files
When the FBI was contacted to provide copies of its Silkwood investigation file, it refused, citing its official policy not to discuss 'closed' cases. The Chairperson in charge of the inquiry, John Dingell, rejoindered by pointing to cases where Congress had been explicitly authorized to obtain copies of 'closed' FBI investigations, when such files were deemed necessary by the Congress for it to perform its responsibilities. Upon receipt of this information, the FBI immediately declared the Silkwood case 'open', refusing to give to Dingell access to its files on the grounds that the FBI had the right to refuse anyone the files of an 'on-going' FBI investigation. When questioned by Dingell how the status of the Silkwood case had suddenly switched from 'closed' to 'open' the Deputy Director of the FBI, James Adams, stated that the case had been re-opened "due to all the inquiries being directed to the Bureau about it. "
Dingell held hearings anyway. One of the witnesses was Jacque Srouji who, according to FBI documents later obtained through supoena power, was sent to testify in order to blast the OCAW and defame Karen Silkwood. In her testimony, she accused Silkwood of being "mentally unstable", of "deserting her husband and three children", and of "using marijuana". She further stated that in her opinion both the contamination and the death of Silkwood had been done deliberately and hinted darkly that perhaps the group responsible was the OCAW which could have done it to somehow embarrass KM in the contract negotiations. Under Cross-examination, Srouji defended her conclusions by stating that they were based on FBI documents. This brought the proceedings to a halt, for if Srouji, introduced to the investigation as a journalist, had seen FBI files, why had these files been refused to the Congress of the United Stated?
A Little Politicking on Capitol Hill
Before the issue could be resolved, Dingell was ousted as the Chairperson of the Committee in a coup d'etat engineered by another member of Congress, Tom Steed, from the fifth District of Oklahoma, the home district of the KM Corporation's international headquarters.
With this ouster, hearings ceased, and Karen's parents, until this time waiting patiently for American justice to deal fairly with the contamination and death of their daughter, contacted legal counsel to file a federal lawsuit designed to obtain justice through the federal courts.
Parents File Law Suit
In Nov., 1976, a three count suit was filed charging first, that KM was legally liable for the plutonium contamination of Silkwood which occurred on Nov. 5,6, and 7, 1974; secondly, that James Reading, Dean McGee, Reading's assistants, and the other members of the KM Board of Directors participated in a wilful and intentional conspiracy to violate the civil rights of Karen Silkwood in her efforts to organize a lawful trade union at KM; and that they then sought to cover-up these
violations. Four FBI agents, including Olsen and Srouji, are named as co-conspirators in the cover-up. The third count charges these same people with an identical conspiracy of attempting to commit and then cover-up a
deprivation of the equal protection of the laws and the right to the equal enjoyment of the privileges and immunities of all those persons, of whom Silkwood was one, who reported violations of the federal Atomic Energy Act by the KM Corp.
4.4KM Showed a Callous Disregard for its Workforce
The first count finally came to trial in the Oklahoma Federal Court in the Spring of 1979. Dr.John Gofman, known to many as the "Father of Plutonium" due to the fact that he was one of its co-discoverers, set the tone for the plaintiff's case by testifying that current government licences to operate nuclear plants conforming to existing standards are "legalized permits to murder". Evidence from the past ten years, he said, shows that federal standards for plutonium are at least 480 times too lenient and that Silkwood was "married to lung cancer'' as a result of her contamination.
Dr. Edward Martell, an environmental radiochemist also testified that existing radiation exposure limits are "misleading and inadequate and have not been reduced because of the government's vested interest" in nuclear power. Dr. Martell called federal standards both in the U.S. and abroad "meaningless" because, contrary to official policy, there is no safe limit for exposure to low-level ionizing radiation.
Dr. Karl Morgan, often referred to as the "father of health physics" for his role in the setting of acceptable standards for radiation releases in nuclear facilities, testified that KM showed a "callous" attitude toward the safety of its workers. He pointed out that the KM training manuals made no mention of the fact that one could contract cancer from radiation exposure, and that because of this refusal to recognize the dangers of radiation both KM management and the workers themselves were lax and in frequent violation of safety regulations.
Former plant workers stated under oath that their training had been so deficient that teenage workers often played at seeing who could get "the hottest the fastest." Workers said that plutonium spills were often painted over instead of cleaned up, workers left the plant contaminated, and plant supervisors were warned ahead of time of upcoming 'surprise' inspections by the AEC. There was also testimony stating that workers used uranium for paper weights, threw it around the rooms at each other, and even took uranium home to show their children.
One of the four plant supervisors, Jim Smith, branded the KM Nuclear Facility a "pigpen", testifying that security was so lax, workers could have thrown plutonium over the fence or taken it past guards simply by telling them it was to be thrown out as waste. Smith also told of numerous incidents where workers were forced to stay in contaminated areas and continue working in order to meet production quotas, their only protection being inadequate face respirators.
The jury was convinced by the combined testimony of expert witnesses and former workers, and on May 18, 1979, awarded $10.5 million in actual damages and $500,000 in personal injury damages to Silkwood's three children. In charging the jury, Federal Judge Frank G. Theis directed them to define "physical injury'' with regard to plutonium as 1 'nonvisible or nondetectable injury .. . to bone, tissue or cells." The implications of this are profound, for it establishes legally that plutonium is in fact a 1 'dangerous material'' and causes "physical injury". This means, on the one hand, that nuclear materials are so dangerous that nuclear facilities are under special restraint to prevent the escape of any of the material, whether intentionally or otherwise; on the other hand it means that workers and members of the public are now entitled to claim damages due to the operation of nuclear facilities i f they can demonstrate that their sickness is attributable to radioactive releases coming from the plant involved. In charging the jury, therefore, Judge Theis stated that they did not have to find that KM deliberately contaminated Silkwood; the mere fact that plutonium had been allowed to "escape" the plant was sufficient to award damages.
The second and third counts have not yet come to trial but a growing body of evidence accumulated by Silkwood investigators is indicating that what was done to Silkwood in terms of covert surveillance and harassment was not unique to her but is a common practice against those who are perceived by either the nuclear industry or the government as a threat to the continued use and expansion of nuclear power.
Much could be said in comment concerning Karen's contamination; concerning the illegal surveillance and harassment effected against her; concerning her death while enroute to take documents incriminating KM to a union official and a reporter; concerning the subsequent coverup by the FBI and the failure of other government
agencies to bring the facts to the light of day; and concerning the finding of a jury that KM was in fact criminally liable for her plutonium contamination. Much could be also said about the implications of the Silkwood case for the civil liberties of persons in democratic societies which seem intent on constructing a plutonium economy,about the growing conviction of many that democratic freedoms and a nuclearized society are a contradiction in terms. Finally, much could be said about the growing disparity between what the nuclear industry claims in terms of a perfectly run technology which, because it is perfectly run, is perfectly safe and the growing body of evidence indicating that in fact the nuclear industry is being run much like any other industry with all this means in terms of sloppiness, inefficiency, and disregard for health and safety. But I do not think that much comment is needed, for the Silkwood case is one case where the facts seem to speak quite adequately for themselves.