Thursday, September 25, 2014
Time Magazine - Karen Silkwood
January 20, 1975, Time, Environment: The Silkwood Mystery,
May 24, 1976, Time, The Press: A Special Relationship,
May 31, 1976, Time Magazine, Intelligence: A Watchdog at Last,
April 9 1979, Time Magazine, Three Mile Island: Nuclear Nightmare,
April 30, 1979, Time Magazine, In Oklahoma: The Pangs of Bearing Witness,
May 28, 1979, Time Magazine, Nation: Nuclear Setback,
March 30, 1981, Time Magazine, Law: The Fastest Gun in the West, by Bennett H. Beach,
September 7, 1981, Time Magazine, What Makes Meryl Magic, by John Skow,
December 7, 1981, Time Magazine, Books: Notable: Dec. 7, 1981,
November 14, 1983, Time Magazine, In New Mexico: High-Tech Junkyard, by Jane O'Reilly,
December 19, 1983, Time Magazine, Cinema: A Tissue of Implications, by Richard Schickel,
January 23, 1984, Time Magazine, Milestones: Jan. 23, 1984,
December 1, 1986, Time Magazine, Video: What If Oswald Had Stood Trial?, by Richard Zoglin,
November 30, 1987, Time Magazine, Environment: Making Fertilizer from What?, by Michael D. Lemonick,
April 1, 2011, Time Magazine, Couch Potato Briefing: Covert Ops, Cricket and Learning from Lawrence, by Tony Karon,
January 20, 1975, Time, Environment: The Silkwood Mystery,
At 7:30 in the evening of Nov. 13, a white Honda automobile swerved off Oklahoma state highway 74 and crashed into a concrete culvert wall, killing Karen G. Silkwood, 28, its sole occupant. Silkwood's death had a far greater impact than most highway fatalities. It brought to light a bizarre mystery that has touched off a series of investigations. It also resulted last week in a special Atomic Energy Commission report about Silkwood and her contamination by one of the most dangerous substances known to man—plutonium.
Karen Silkwood was a $4-an-hour technician at Kerr-McGee Corp.'s Cimarron River plutonium plant about 30 miles north of Oklahoma City. The facility makes plutonium pellet fuel rods for the breeder reactor, a second-generation nuclear power plant now being developed. Silkwood was one of the most active members of local 5-283 of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union. She was deeply concerned about how plutonium was handled. And with good reason. Inhalation or swallowing of a few specks of the radioactive element can result in cancer. Exposure to slightly greater quantities can cause radiation sickness and death. Furthermore, an amount of plutonium about the size of a softball is enough to make an atom bomb.
Though Kerr-McGee installed safeguards to protect its employees from the hazards of plutonium, Silkwood was critical of the plant's health and safety procedures. Last September, in testimony before the AEC, she complained about unsafe working conditions. In early November, she became living proof of those dangers. On two consecutive days, as Silkwood was leaving work, sensitive plant monitors detected that she was slightly contaminated by radioactivity. She was promptly scrubbed clean. Later, she brought in urine and fecal samples; they proved to be radioactive. On a third day, the monitors clicked when she entered the plant; a subsequent investigation showed that her apartment had become contaminated too.
All the while, Silkwood continued to report to the union on safety problems in the plant, claiming definite instances of company sloppiness. At the time of her death, in fact, she was on her way to a meeting with a union official and a New York Times reporter to document her charges.
Murder or Accident?
Union officials were suspicious about her fatal car crash; they called in an independent accident investigator, A.O. Pipkin of Dallas. After inspecting the skid marks and finding a telltale dent in one of the Honda's rear fenders, he concluded that a second car had forced Silkwood's auto off the road—thus implying that Silkwood might have been murdered. But the Oklahoma state highway patrol cited an autopsy showing that her blood contained traces of alcohol and methaqualone, which a doctor had prescribed as a sedative. To the police, it seemed evident that she had dozed off at the wheel. The FBI is pursuing the matter further.
Meantime, the AEC launched its own probe of working conditions at the plant. The commission's records showed that since Kerr-McGee started its plutonium operations in 1970, 17 safety lapses—in which 73 employees were contaminated—had been reported. The union produced a list of 39 additional allegations of sloppiness in plutonium handling. Then in mid-December, two new cases involving five persons were reported to the AEC; Kerr-McGee quickly denounced them as "contrived." Yet the incidents were serious enough to force the company to shut the plant for more than two weeks.
Last week the AEC completed its investigation. It found that only three of the 39 union allegations represented violations of the commission's standards, though another 17 had "substance or partial substance." The report pleased Kerr-McGee, but the union was "not satisfied." Environmental groups also pointed out that the AEC needed the fuel rods and thus had a clear interest in keeping Kerr-McGee's plant in operation.
The most startling finding by the AEC was that Silkwood's contamination "probably did not result from an accident or incident within the plant." There were plutonium traces on her skin though no accidental release had occurred in the plant. In addition, tests showed that Silkwood had "ingested" plutonium. Furthermore, two urine samples were proved to have been contaminated after they had been excreted; this showed that the samples had been doctored by someone. The evidence thus suggests that Silkwood had purposely contaminated herself and had probably smuggled a minute amount of plutonium home from the plant. Why? Perhaps to embarrass the company and thus strengthen the union's bargaining position at negotiations late last November. Or perhaps Silkwood was emotionally unbalanced.
It seems clear that Kerr-McGee has not been as diligent as necessary in protecting its workers from plutonium. The union has nonetheless been overzealous in its allegations of carelessness by the company. And both the AEC and its private contractors need to exercise increased vigilance in guarding the plutonium against theft or misuse by unstable or conspiratorial employees. As for the cause of Silkwood's death, that remains as mysterious as ever.
May 24, 1976, Time, The Press: A Special Relationship,
For a part-time, night-shift copy editor who rarely did any reporting, Jacque Srouji, 31, had remarkably good sources at the FBI. Hardly had she rejoined the Nashville Tennessean last fall after five years as a housewife and freelance writer when she was able to give its editors late-night details about a statewide FBI strike against illegal betting parlors and tip them off about a raid on a local business suspected of fraud.
Last week the secret of Srouji's success was out--—and so was Srouji. For more than a decade she had been acting as an FBI informer, receiving bureau leaks in return for information on black activists, student radicals, dissident groups and, possibly, her professional colleagues. Srouji thus became the first journalist to be identified as an FBI informant since the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence recently disclosed that the bureau has for years been using reporters and editors in various collaborative roles. And she became the first journalist to be fired for such activity when Tennessean Publisher John Seigenthaler summarily dismissed her.
Srouji's ties to the FBI might have gone undetected if she had not been involved in another sensitive matter: the mysterious death of Karen Silkwood (TIME, Jan. 20, 1975). An Oklahoma plutonium worker active in her union, Silkwood was killed in a 1974 auto accident while on the way to tell a reporter about alleged health and nuclear safety violations in the plant where she worked. Just before returning to the Tennessean, Srouji finished writing Critical Mass, a paean to the nuclear industry to be released this summer by Aurora Publishers Inc., a small Nashville concern. The book casts Silkwood in an unflattering light, raising questions about drug usage and her sex habits. Called last month to testify before a House subcommittee investigating nuclear safeguards, Srouji disclosed that the FBI had shown her nearly 1,000 pages of bureau documents on the Silkwood case for use in her book. When Agent Lawrence J. Olson Sr., 43, was called before the sub-committee staff, he disclosed the FBI had a "special relationship" with Srouji.
Free Ride. That relationship apparently began in 1964, when Srouji joined the Nashville Banner as a reporter soon after graduating from high school. In 1971 Srouji told a journalist neighbor that the late James Stahlman, president and publisher of the Banner, had encouraged her to turn over her notes on civil rights demonstrations to the FBI. Her contact was Agent Olson, with whom she developed a close personal relationship. Though it is believed she was never paid for being an informant, she has said the FBI underwrote a 1964 trip to Michigan, where she spied on a meeting of New Left activists.
Srouji joined the Tennessean in 1969 as a copy editor but left a year later because her husband, S.H. Srouji, a state highway engineer, did not like her working at night. A year and a half ago, she sold two articles about the nuclear safety controversy to Nashville! magazine. It was when Aurora asked her to write a book on the subject that she reestablished her contact with Olson, now assigned to the FBI's Oklahoma City office, where he helped conduct the bureau's Silkwood investigation. Over a two-month period, Srouji testified, she was allowed to photocopy bureau summaries of the inquiry. Some months before Srouji rejoined the Tennessean last fall, she began passing information to the FBI. This included details of interviews for her book that she conducted at the Soviet embassy with a Russian nuclear physicist. One chapter title: "My Friend, the Russian."
After Srouji's cover was blown last month by her own congressional testimony, Publisher Seigenthaler questioned her and learned that the FBI recently had asked her about the political views of two Tennessean staff members: Columnist Dolph Honicker, an outspoken critic of nuclear power; and Jerry Hornsby, a copy editor who was until recently a member of the Socialist Party, U.S.A. Srouji insisted that she had defended the pair, but Seigenthaler dismissed her on the spot. "The moment it appears that the FBI is using any member of this staff as a conduit to check on any other member, then I have to cut off that conduit," he said.
By week's end it was beginning to look like Srouji might have been more than a conduit—even an agent provocateur. Hornsby recalled she was conspicuously active in left-wing politics, and recently delivered a bitter diatribe at a public meeting against police surveillance of left-wingers. Honicker said that this spring she suggested that the two of them tear down a Gerald Ford photograph in the Nashville Federal Office Building as a protest act. They went to do it at midnight and found the building, customarily locked at 5:30 p.m., wide-open. Suddenly suspicious, Honicker said he quickly departed.
What motivated Srouji to become an FBI spy? "Back in the 1960s the FBI had a better image," suggests Dominic de Loranzo, publisher of her book. "You take an 18-year-old reporter and tell her you're going to hook her up with the FBI--—is she going to say no?" And colleagues at the Tennessean suspect that Srouji was trying to impress her editors with her FBI sources last fall in order to be made a full-time reporter. The one person who knows the answers was not around to offer them. Two days after she was fired, Jacque Srouji bundled up two of her three children and drove off: destination unknown.
May 31, 1976, Time Magazine, Intelligence: A Watchdog at Last,
For a while it looked as if all the investigations, all the headlines, all the public agonizing over U.S. intelligence abuses would come to nothing. The vexing question was whether the 15-month inquiry conducted by Frank Church's Senate Select Committee would lead to the creation of a truly effective congressional committee with oversight powers on the intelligence agencies. But for the efforts of a few Senators who dug in their heels--—Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, Government Operations Committee Chairman Abraham Ribicoff and California's Alan Cranston among them--—the answer might well have been an emphatic no. Yet last week, acting out of a palpable frustration caused by the long trail of illegalities starting with Watergate, the Senate finally redeemed itself. By 72 to 22, it voted to establish a permanent committee to oversee the budgets and operations of all U.S. intelligence bureaus. The 15-member committee is expected to be in business by early June.
When the proposal to set up this powerful watchdog unit emerged in March from Ribicoffs committee, it was a bright red flag to some of the Senate's old bulls—especially those whose committees had long held jurisdiction but seldom exercised it over the intelligence community. A few, like Barry Goldwater, charged that the new committee would lead to more harmful intelligence disclosures. Snapped Goldwater: "I don't care if you have a committee of one. It's almost impossible to stop leaks." John Stennis, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, attacked the committee's right to oversee military intelligence; that was the preserve of his panel. The Senate Judiciary Committee fought equally hard against relinquishing its control over the FBI. Finally the conservative Rules Committee, in a series of 5-to-4 votes, stripped the new watchdog group of whatever authority remained.
Then Mansfield stepped in and, in one of his last major accomplishments before retiring at the end of this session, persuaded the chief antagonists to compromise. He suggested clipping some authority from the proposed new committee: it would share FBI oversight with the Judiciary Committee and defense intelligence oversight with the Armed Services Committee. But the new committee would be the exclusive overseer for the Central Intelligence Agency, and it alone would be empowered to authorize funds for the CIA. It would also be advised in advance of the plans for all U.S. intelligence agencies. No penalties for leaks, however, were outlined in the approved legislation.
Fumble or Fortify
Mansfield's settlement quickly generated Senate support. The new committee will be composed of eight Democrats and seven Republicans. Members would be limited to eight-year terms to prevent the growth of cozy relationships between the watchers and the watched. Among those legislators picked at week's end were Democratic liberals Birch Bayh, Adlai Stevenson, Gary Hart and Joseph Biden, and Republicans Clifford Case, Howard Baker, Mark Hatfield, Strom Thurmond and Goldwater. Though Church might be a natural candidate for chairmanship of the new committee, he ruled himself out. The expected choice is Democrat Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, a tough skeptic, who served on Sam Ervin's Watergate Committee. After Inouye, another possibility for the chairmanship is Democrat Walter Huddleston of Kentucky.
The Senate's resolution generally ensured a forceful watchdog committee. Still, the central question remains: would this intelligence panel fumble the oversight responsibility or fortify it?
April 9 1979, Time Magazine, Three Mile Island: Nuclear Nightmare,
In the dead of night, the hulks of four 372-ft. cooling towers and two high domed nuclear reactor container buildings were scarcely discernible above the gentle waters of the Susquehanna River, eleven miles southeast of Harrisburg, Pa. Inside the brightly lit control room of Metropolitan Edison's Unit 2, technicians on the lobster shift one night last week faced a tranquil, even boring watch. Suddenly, at 4 a.m., alarm lights blinked red on their instrument panels. A siren whooped a warning. In the understated jargon of the nuclear power industry, an "event" had occurred. In plain English, it was the beginning of the worst accident in the history of U.S. nuclear power production, and of a long, often confused nightmare that threw the future of the nuclear industry into question.
There was no panic at the plant, situated on a stretch of muddy soil called Three Mile Island in an otherwise scenic bend in the river. The men in the control room had heard those sirens before. They went about their task of meeting what looked at first like just another "transient," a minor glitch somewhere in the complex system like so many they had dealt with in the past. Unit 2's huge turbine, which generates 880 megawatts of electricity, had "tripped," shut down automatically, as it should when the steam that turns it has somehow been cut off. The technicians assumed that the cause would be easy to find and correct.
They could hardly have been more wrong. For the next several days, radioactive steam and gas seeped sporadically into the atmosphere from the plant. Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh advised the evacuation of all pregnant women and preschool children living within five miles of Three Mile Island, and thousands of people fled the area. As tension mounted, engineers struggled to cool the reactor's core. There was a genuine danger of a "meltdown," in which the core could drop into the water coolant at the bottom of its chamber, causing a steam explosion that could rupture the 4-ft.-thick concrete walls of the containment building; or the molten core could burn through the even thicker concrete base and deep into the earth. In either case, lethally radioactive gases would be released, causing a nuclear catastrophe.
At week's end officials insisted that while the danger of a meltdown had not vanished, it was receding. Nevertheless, suspense as to the eventual outcome buttressed the claims of nuclear power's foes that all the wondrous fail-safe gadgets of modern technology had turned out to be just as fallible as the men who had designed and built them. Declared Nuclear Power Critic Ralph Nader: "This is the beginning of the end of nuclear power in this country."
That, of course, was a considerable rush to judgment. But the already beleaguered nuclear power industry had clearly suffered a crippling setback. Not only are its plans for expansion now in grave doubt, but the Three Mile Island accident came at a time when President Carter was about to propose a new approach to the nation's energy problems. He had already urged a speedup in putting new nuclear power plants into operation by reducing the years it takes to pass through all of the regulatory challenges. While a case could still be made that bureaucratic indecision and delay ought to be minimized even tougher safety standards would almost inevitably be one result of the Pennsylvania breakdown. Wrote Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy in a letter to Energy Secretary James Schlesinger: "It s more important to build these plants safely than to build them quickly."
Three Mile Island also comes at a time of renewed interest in the case of Karen Silkwood, who was killed in 1974 when her car ran off a road as she was on her way to meet with a reporter to discuss the unsafe handling of highly radioactive plutonium at a Kerr-McGee Corp. plant in Oklahoma. The trial in an $11.5 million suit filed by Silkwood's family against the company is now under way in Oklahoma City.
The industry has been battered further by recent reverses in fights with Government regulators. Last January the Nuclear Regulatory Commission withdrew its endorsement of a bench mark 1974 study by about 60 scientists, headed by Norman Rasmussen. a professor of nuclear engineering at M.I.T. The report rated the chance of a serious nuclear accident about the same as the probability of a meteor hitting a major city (one in a million). An opposing group of scientists, led by University of California Physicist Harold Lewis, had convinced the NRC that the Rasmussen study, while not necessarily wrong, had insufficient statistical basis to necessarily be right. Three weeks ago, a Government task force reported to President Carter that the problem of disposing of radioactive waste from nuclear plants was far more complex than either the industry or the Government had believed. At about the same time, the NRC shut down five nuclear power plants in the East because it was not certain they had been designed so that their coolant pipes could survive an earthquake.
Whatever the final report, months from now, on what went wrong and how at Three Mile Island, the way in which federal and plant officials seemed to handle the breakdown will not help the industry's image. The trouble was dismissed at first by Jack Herbein, Metropolitan Edison's vice president for power generation, in a memorable engineer's euphemism, as merely "a normal aberration." Reassuring statements spewed from the plant's press spokesmen, sounding as if they were taken right out of the script for the film The China Syndrome, a thriller that depicts nuclear plant officials as placing greed for profits far above their concern for public safety. But if the movie, starring real-life Antinuclear Activist Jane Fonda, is unfair in its villainous caricature of power-and construction-industry officials, its basic premise will no longer seem so farfetched to those moviegoers until now unattuned to the nation's debate over nuclear power. The premise: that a nuclear power plant is not nearly as accident-proof as its builders proclaim and that "the China Syndrome," a total meltdown that causes the core to sink lethally into the earth (hence, fancifully, toward China), is not a totally outlandish possibility. Ironically, though the film's fictional plant is located in California, the example that is offered of the devastation a meltdown could cause is an area the size of Pennsylvania. Even more ironically, given the bias of the film makers, what actually happened at Three Mile Island is far more serious than the "event" portrayed at the fictional plant.
The stock market indicated the public's response. Shares of Columbia Pictures, which gained a publicity bonanza for its movie, soared by $2.74 in two days, to $24.75. Stocks of nuclear power companies declined sharply. General Public Utilities, which owns the damaged plant, dropped 50¢ a share, while the stock of Kerr-McGee plunged $4.12, to $51.
When the first alarm sounded inside Unit 2 at 4 a.m. on Wednesday, only about 60 employees were at work. Precisely what the engineers at the control panels did to find out why the turbine had tripped—and just what steps they took next—will be the object of long investigations. Company spokesmen insisted that most of the procedures had been automatic, implying that all of the complex machinery, with its multiple, supposedly infallible back-up systems, had flipped into computer-controlled action.
Don Curry, Metropolitan Edison's top public relations man, explained initially that a pump had broken down in the reactor's secondary loop, which carries nonradioactive water into the steam generator, where it absorbs heat that is transferred from the nuclear chain reaction in the core by the primary loop, turns to steam and drives the turbine that generates electricity. Lacking the steam's push, the turbine automatically shut down. This, said Curry, was regarded by the engineers as a routine mechanical failure that under the plant's safety rules did not have to be immediately reported to state or federal authorities.
Not until 6 a.m., said Curry, did workers notice that "a small amount" of radioactive water had leaked onto the floor of the containment building. That meant the primary loop, which brings cooling water into direct contact with the radioactive reactor core and keeps its temperature at a safe 600° F., had been affected in some unexplained way. Curry insisted that an emergency was declared almost immediately and the proper state and local authorities promptly notified. State police immediately blocked off the two bridges leading to the 600-acre island, letting through only plant officials.
The company then issued a statement that was intended to head off public concern. "There have been no recordings of any significant levels of radiation and none are expected outside the plant," it said. "The reactor is being cooled according to design by the reactor cooling system, and should be cooled by the end of the day. There is no danger of a meltdown. There were no injuries, either to plant workers or to the public." Declared Curry: "Everything worked. The shutdown was automatic." Added David Klucsick, another company spokesman: "We are not in a China Syndrome situation."
Shortly after the company released its soothing statement, officials of Pennsylvania's department of environmental resources flew over the plant in a helicopter, carrying a Geiger counter. They reported detecting "a small release of radiation into the environment."
How had that happened? Curry and other company spokesmen began to backpedal and offered a new explanation. When the secondary loop lost pressure and the turbine stopped, they said, this caused a rise in both pressure and temperature in the primary loop. This, in turn, automatically opened several relief valves, letting some contaminated water leak onto the floor of the reactor building. Just "a small amount"? Well, no, conceded a company engineer. It was 50,000 gal. of water, and it accidentally overflowed the drainage tanks, covering the floor to a depth of "several feet." Later an NRC official said the leak was 250,000 gal.
How had the radioactive steam escaped from the reactor building? Again, said the company spokesmen, this was intentional. The control rods had automatically dropped into the core and stopped the chain reaction. But the loss of water in the primary loop allowed the reactor to get too hot. When more water was pumped into the system, the pressure rose —and other relief valves opened. These valves vented some of the radioactive steam out of the top of the dome. When the core temperature continued to rise, employees deliberately vented more steam in brief bursts. Some of the spilled radioactive water from the primary loop was automatically drawn from the containment dome's floor into the neighboring pump-house building, which does not normally handle radioactive material and is not radiation-safe. The water gave off radioactive xenon and krypton gases that escaped through the plant's ventilation system into the atmosphere.
How much radioactivity leaked?
"I'll be honest about it, I don't know," replied Metropolitan Edison President Walter Creitz when reporters persisted. The first estimate came from William Dornsife, a nuclear engineer who had flown in the state helicopter. He put the radiation reading taken downwind from the plant at 1 millirem per hour—not an alarming or unalarming level. By 3 in the afternoon, Creitz put the reading at 2 to 3 millirems per hour, measured at the outer edge of the 200-acre plant site on the island.
By this time, in Harrisburg, Lieut Governor William Scranton III expressed alarm that he might be getting inaccurate reports from plant officials. He told reporters: "This situation is more complex than the company first led us to believe. Metropolitan Edison has given you and us conflicting information." Indeed federal investigators from the nearby headquarters of the NRC in King of Prussia reported later in the day that radio activity had been detected as far as 16 miles from the plant, and claimed that radiation within the reactor containment building had risen to a startling 1,000 times its normal level. At one point operators in the nearby control room had to put on protective gas masks.
By Thursday an NRC official was calling the plant failure "one of the most serious nuclear accidents to occur in the U.S." Nevertheless, at a jammed press conference in Hershey, an uncomfortable Herbein still contended: "We didn't injure anybody. We didn't overexpose anybody. We didn't kill a single soul. The release of radioactivity off-site was minimal." He said only 15 employees had even been exposed to enough radiation to require them to take showers and discard the clothes they had worn at the time of the accident. His biggest worry seemed to be what to do with the 250,000 gal. of contaminated water on the floor of the reactor building.
Inescapably parodying The China Syndrome, Herbein expressed concern over the fact that the plant could be shut down for several weeks and over the multimillion dollar cost of decontaminating the two buildings. He did not rule out the possibility that consumers might have to shoulder the expense. Both company officials and investigators from NRC again assured the public that the reactor was cooling and should be down to its normal shut-off temperature within a day.
By this time, hundreds of reporters from as far away as Britain and Japan had rushed to Three Mile Island. Said a genuinely startled Creitz: "We're simply aghast at the number of people we've had to deal with." The visitors found the residents, as well as workers at the plant, surprisingly calm. "There was an accident, not a disaster," insisted William Metzger, a maintenance man on Three Mile Island. "I'm not afraid. I think these plants are safe." Asked Co-Worker William Wilsbach: "Do you think I'd work here if I thought it was dangerous?" In Harrisburg, Secretary Margaret Duffy dismissed the whole fuss as "much ado about nothing." Mary Anne Koehler, who is seven months pregnant, said she would worry a lot more about damage to her unborn child "if I worked in a chemical plant."
Between sips of coffee at a roadside diner in the rich farm land near Three Mile Island, area residents kept citing the reassurances of company officials that there was no need for concern. As Vice President Herbein had been saying: "This accident is not out of the ordinary for this kind of reactor. It was not unexpected.' President Creitz meant to be equally low key, but in retrospect his words were unwittingly chilling. Said he: "The same occurrence happened two or three times in 1974 on Unit No. 1, but the tanks didn't spill." It was about this time, 11 a.m. on Thursday, that plant officials first disclosed that some of the fuel rods had been damaged on Wednesday, when the emergency cooling system had been briefly shut off, apparently because of an equipment failure that was quickly corrected. Company officials said less than 1% of the 37,000 rods had been damaged; by week's end NRC investigators increased the estimate to 60%.
By Friday all of the sanguine assurances were blown away by additional releases of radioactivity into the skies above the plant. According to NRC spokesmen, early morning workers had been trying to remove some radioactive water from the pump building. As the water flowed into a storage tank, the temperature and pressure rose. A valve automatically opened, letting some of the gas escape. The building's ventilation system sucked up the gas and blew it out a stack. At that moment, a state and federal monitoring crew flying over the stack recorded an alarming increase in radiation.
Soon there were reports of "uncontrolled new radiation" from the plant. Screamed a headline in the New York Post: NUKE LEAK GOES OUT OF CONTROL. Company officials insisted again that an emergency back-up system had worked as planned and nothing was out of control. Once more there was confusion as spokesmen for the various parties involved in coping with the crisis argued about whether or not the release had been unexpected or intentional.
For the first time company officials conceded that the reactor core was not cooling down, as they had been assuring the public for three days. The average temperature in the core had remained stubbornly at 280° F., while some of the core's fuel rods, which are filled with fissionable uranium, showed spots as high as 600°. When reporters pressed for more information, Vice President Herbein turned hostile. Said he: "I don't know why we need to tell you each and every thing we do. People around the plant have to recognize that we have to get on with our job."
In Harrisburg, Governor Thornburgh, who had carefully avoided any statements that might cause panic, even while remaining skeptical of the utility company's pacifying pronouncements, decided it was time to warn people living near Three Mile Island to take prudent precautions. First, he asked all residents within ten miles to remain inside their homes with their windows closed (though in fact that provides scant protection from radiation). Then he urged pregnant women and young children within a five-mile radius to move out, and closed schools. He also took the broader step of advising the four counties in the area, where nearly 900,000 people live, to prepare for evacuation. The Harrisburg airport was closed for several hours because of the radiation hazard.
Why the possible full-scale flight from the region? The first explanation came from NRC officials. They said the reactor had unexpectedly developed an 880-cu.-ft. gas bubble, which was compressed between the water covering the reactor's core and the top of its steel housing. Acting like a lid on a pressure cooker, the bubble was maintaining high temperatures and pressures. NRC officials warned that there was a very remote but frightening possibility that the bubble would grow big enough to block the flow of water. In that case, the temperature in the core could rise high enough (3,000°) to begin a meltdown, which would require the large-scale evacuation.
The bubble problem had not been anticipated in engineering studies. Said Dudley Thompson, an executive officer of the NRC: "We are in a situation that is not a situation we have ever been in before." As officials studied the complex hazard, they discovered yet another ominous possibility: if the amount of hydrogen in the reactor kept growing, it could reach a level at which only a spark would be needed to set off a hydrogen-gas explosion. If the explosion were powerful enough, the core vessel might rupture and the concrete walls of the container building might break, exposing the surrounding area to the reactor's escaping radioactivity. One NRC official saw this eventuality as in some ways worse than a meltdown. Said he: "With a meltdown you get a warning of four to five hours that it has begun. There's no warning at all of an explosion of hydrogen gas."
Various ways of eliminating the problem were considered by the increasingly anxious engineers. One was to try burning off the hydrogen under controlled circumstances. The second was to gradually raise the pressure inside the reactor to the point that the hydrogen would dissolve in the water at the bottom of the reactor room. The third choice was to lower the water level at the floor of the reactor room and pour fresh water in from the top, thus pushing the bubble toward the bottom and away from the fuel rods. Another possibility was to restart the reactor, generating heat and steam that might break up the bubble. But this option was ruled out because of fears that the control rods might be too bent to be lowered again; if so, the chain reaction could not be controlled.
On Saturday, the engineers began preparing yet another approach to getting rid of the bubble. They continued to vent some of the gas from the containment building in controlled steps. This meant that low-level radiation was still being released from the plant. But it also caused the bubble to shrink slightly. When it became small enough, the engineers hoped that it could be siphoned into a tank in the pump building. Since the gas in the bubble was highly radioactive, a wall of lead bricks had to be built around the tank.
Because preparations would take several days, the engineers said they would not make an attempt to remove the bubble until this week. When they do, said NRC Chairman Joseph M. Hendrie, all people within ten or 20 miles downwind of the plant may be evacuated "if we determine that the process of getting rid of the gas bubble has unsafe elements."
State and federal officials were readying evacuation plans, in case the situation at Three Mile Island took a turn for the worse. Carter ordered the creation of a White House task force to coordinate all federal assistance. The group's first move was to send the NRC'S chief operations officer, Harold Denton, to Three Mile Island. He carried with him legal authority to take complete charge, overruling plant officials if he thought it necessary. Carter also called Governor Thornburgh and asked how the state could be helped. Citing overloaded telephone circuits, Thornburgh asked for a clear line. Carter dispatched an entire communications team to tie the Governor's office in to the plant, NRC headquarters in Washington, and the White House.
Although the Defense Department was preparing plans to feed and house evacuees, any decision on evacuation remained with the Pennsylvania Governor.
On Sunday, the President helicoptered from Washington to visit the ailing plant. The former navy nuclear engineer toured the control room, was briefed by the experts in charge of solving the reactor problems and afterward issued a reassuring statement. Even if an evacuation is ordered of the Three Mile Island area, Carter said, "This will not indicate that danger is high. It will be strictly a precautionary measure."
When the emergency is over, the President promised, "I will be personally responsible for informing the American people" about the results of the investigation, which he said will be "conducted thoroughly."
While there was no panic, thousands of residents left the endangered area of their own volition. In the countryside near the disabled plant, once complacent families were now both worried and angry. "You hear one thing from the utility," protested Suzanne Machita, as she began packing a suitcase. "Then one thing from the Government, another thing from Harrisburg and something else from civil defense. I don't know what to believe, what to do, so I guess the best thing is to go It's better than doing nothing." She said she had often argued with her husband Harry when he raised questions about living so close to the plant. "I just believed the company when they said it was safe Now I don't believe it."
Next door, Karl Krodel, a computer technician, his wife and three children had piled travel clothes on chairs in their living room. But Krodel was reluctant to evacuate. "We're ready to go if they tell us to," he said. "But we're not going before that. If it is dangerous, we already got it Wednesday. We just built this home two years ago and we're not about to desert it."
Some refugees went to Hershey Park, twelve miles from Three Mile Island, where an evacuation center was set up in a sports arena built by the chocolate company. As children played ring-around-a-rosy on the arena floor, Charles Noon said angrily about the nuclear plant: "They ought to shut that damn thing down." He had fled his home in Middletown with his wife and two children. "We came here as soon as we heard the warning on the radio," he said. "We didn't want to take any chances."
In Middletown (pop. 11,000), the streets were unusually empty. Some teenage boys played basketball outside an elementary school. Many residents were following instructions to remain inside their houses and to keep air conditioners turned off to limit the intake of any contaminated air. To prevent looting, Mayor Robert Reid imposed a 9 p.m.-to-7 a.m. curfew. The Red Cross was ready for any full-scale evacuation. It was no new thing, in a way; the town had been cleared during several recent floods, dating from the big one of 1972. Across the river, tiny Goldsboro (pop. 600) was virtually a ghost town.
Some residents had an I-told-you-so attitude toward the accident. They had opposed the building of the plant from its start. They failed to prevent Unit 1 from being placed in operation in 1974. When construction of Unit 2 began in 1970, the opponents renewed their fight, but to no avail. Some 100 people from the Goldsboro area rallied in protest on May 31, 1977, and released balloons into the air that carried tags advising any finder: FALLOUT FROM A NUCLEAR ACCIDENT MAY TRAVEL THIS FAR. Chauncey R. Kepford, a leader of the local protesters, warned more than a year ago before the NRC appeal panel: "Unit 2 is an accident just waiting to happen. And when it does, the glib assurances that the public health and safety are being protected will not suffice."
Afer preliminary tests were conductid on Unit 2 last year, Harrisburg area opponents went to court to try to prevent it from being put into full operation. They lost again, and Unit 2 was placed on line last Dec. 30. It had been operating at full capacity for only about five weeks when the accident happened.
Sensing that the nuclear power industry had been badly wounded by the events at Three Mile Island, antinuclear groups moved into action across the country. Near Minneapolis and Eau Claire, Wis., they demonstrated against nuclear power plants, crying, "It could happen here!"
Once again, Folk Singer Joan Baez lent her plaintive voice to a rally in San Francisco, where her colleagues staged a "die-in," falling under the onslaught of an imagined nuclear disaster. Plants from Oregon to New York and Connecticut came under fire from the antinuclear brigade. Said a TVA official about last week's accident: "This will be just another piece of ammunition that the protesters can use. But frankly, it has a lot more substance than most of the things they've had."
The antinuclear movement, already thriving as an amalgam of the intellectually concerned and the idealistic young, who can scarcely find any other cause available that is both so tangible and satisfyingly anti-government and anti-Establishment, doubtless will now gain new recruits, especially from people who live near the 39 proposed sites for plants across the U.S. In Washington, some of nuclear power's newly acquired friends, reluctantly won over by arguments that atomic plants were necessary to cope with the energy crisis, were wavering. One was Arizona Congressman Morris Udall, chairman of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, which must approve parts of any Carter energy package. Said Udall after the Three Mile Island accident: "We may have rushed headlong into a dangerous technology without sufficient understanding of the pitfalls." Both Udall and Alaska Senator Mike Gravel demanded an outright moratorium on all new nuclear power plants.
Whether such a drastic step, with all its consequences for America's energy future, might be prudent cannot be determined until both the final outcome and the precise causes of the failure at Three Mile Island are known. By the company's own version of events, there were at least five equipment breakdowns—of valves, pumps and fuel rods. Moreover, the engineers should have been able to cool the reactor to a safe level within twelve hours. Only after the reactor core has fully cooled and the abnormal radiation levels within the container building have been reduced will investigators be able to pinpoint the sequence of mechanical failure, as well as any human mistakes that might have been made. On that issue—human error—there are contradictory statements as well.
But what is already evident is that the engineers at Three Mile Island, for whatever reason, were confronted by a situation they had not foreseen, were uncertain at first how to handle—and most unsettling of all, perhaps did not even understand. At the least, the eight other plants using the same design, and built by the firm of Babcock & Wilcox, might be taken out of operation until the problem is thoroughly analyzed. This is the approach used by the aviation industry, which sometimes grounds all planes of a given model when a dangerous structural or mechanical defect is found in one of them. The potential human tragedy in an aircraft accident, of course, is dwarfed by the possible consequences of a nuclear catastrophe.
President Carter acknowledged the new reality in a talk with a group of editors. He said the accident "will make all of us reassess our present safety regulations ... and will probably lead inexorably toward even more stringent safety design mechanisms and standards." Said Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd: "We've been assured time and time again by the industry and federal regulatory agencies that this was something that was impossible, that could not happen, but it did happen. There's going to be great difficulty on the part of the American people to feel absolutely reassured about nuclear power."
It is clear that the grounds of the long national debate over nuclear energy have now shifted drastically. For many years the foes of nuclear power, for all their protest rallies, "clamshell alliances" and sit-ins, were very much on the defensive. Their complaints about plant safety had lacked credibility; the exigencies of the nation's energy crisis were unarguable; the fragility and risk, to some degree inherent in many parts of an advanced industrial society, had a common-sense acceptance as inevitable. But the price of progress, like the price of anything, has a ceiling, and for the nuclear power industry, the radioactive gases drifting from Three Mile Island have undeniably raised the price—and public consciousness about the risks—of nuclear power. Just how high rests in large measure on how Pennsylvania's nightmare ends.
April 30, 1979, Time Magazine, In Oklahoma: The Pangs of Bearing Witness,
It is Saturday morning, and Jim Smith stands at his stall in the Old Paris Flea Market, a recycled warehouse near Oklahoma City's railroad yards. Before him are tables laden with things to sell or swap: beer mugs, some tiny and some as big as umbrella stands, plus old bottles, crystal goblets and ceramic figurines.
A young man in tight blue jeans and tooled leather boots approaches not to buy but to gab. "Say, Jim. You want a full military funeral when Kerr-McGee gets done with you? We'll have to find you a lead coffin so you don't contaminate the cemetery. How many pall bearers you figure it takes to haul a lead coffin?"
That bit of morbid humor refers to possible resentment by the Kerr-McGee Corp., a major energy conglomerate, over testimony Smith has given in a bitter trial. It is the celebrated $11.5 million negligence suit brought by the heirs of Karen Silkwood, a former employee at a Kerr-McGee plutonium-processing facility in nearby Crescent (pop. 1,568). She accused the company of being cavalier about worker safety, and then died at 28 in a still mysterious car accident in 1974. The trial, however, focuses on charges that Kerr-McGee was negligent in a series of plutonium contaminations that took place in the nine days before her death.
Because Smith served for almost six years as a plant supervisor with Kerr-McGee, he was briefly last month the main event in Oklahoma City's federal courthouse. Neither accused nor accuser, he was required to tell the truth about subjects he would rather not have discussed. Now the witness is finding that day in court still intrudes on his life, even at the Old Paris Flea Market.
"Hey, Jim," a woman with strawberry blond hair knotted atop her head calls from a nearby stall. "You're our star. I want to shake your hand, honey. You're a celebrity. They even had you on TV." Putting out one cigarette, Smith then lights another. At 47, a short, broad-shouldered man in tan dungarees, he has the look of someone who could have spent his life punching in at an automobile plant or a paint factory. But Smith is a celebrity because the assembly lines he manned produced goods made of plutonium, a radioactive element so deadly that even microscopic doses can be lethal.
Formal schooling ended for Smith at the tenth grade. Then, through more than 20 years of self-education and training programs, he learned to master topics like atomic weights, valences and isotopes. Ironically, Smith loved the work. His testimony may have made him a hero to antinuclear activists—and all the more so in the wake of Three Mile Island—but for Smith the workaday life with plutonium fulfilled that old American dream of self-made success.
Childhood was orphanages in Wyoming. "When Mamma died, Daddy boogied," he explains. Later he caught up with Daddy for a night, just long enough to get a signature allowing him to join the Army at 17. Before he was 20 he had a bronze star and two Purple Hearts in Korea. Smith still bears a military imprint. He is intensely patriotic. The old pistols, swords and insignia patches he sometimes sells at the Old Paris provoke a special delight. He reads war histories, likes to carry a gun and believes deeply in following procedures. Just married and out of uniform in 1952, Smith stumbled into a job at the Rocky Flats, Colo., nuclear arsenal, a manufacturing plant for atomic warheads. "I'd heard about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but like everyone else back then I was dumber than a box of rocks about anything nuclear."
Smith learned. He soon switched to the production staff as a helper. Over the next 17 years he worked up to foreman and finally supervisor. He was present as scientific knowledge of plutonium grew from infancy, and he remembers these as his golden days. Smith worked at purifying plutonium and mixing it with other elements. He changed it from liquid to powder to metal and molded it into the workings of atomic weapons. Like most Americans, but in a more immediate way, he has made concessions to the nuclear hazard. "There's no way to get that plutonium out of me now," he says, knowing he was probably contaminated. "Only time will tell what it's doing to me."
When Smith left Rocky Flats for Oklahoma in 1969, he commanded several dozen men and made $12,000 a year. He had similar responsibilities with Kerr-McGee, where his crews produced fuel pellets for experimental reactors. When the plant closed in 1975, Smith was furloughed. His wife Phyllis, 43, a tall brunette with fashionably frizzed hair, carried the family finances with her job as a district manager for Avon. Smith began doing the family cooking. He also kept busy taking his motor home to auctions, picking up stuff for the flea market. He and Phyllis spent a lot of time working on a rambling clapboard house they bought in Shawnee (pop. 25,100).
This quiet life was disturbed two years ago by the visit of an investigator for the Silkwoods. Smith made a decision that swept him into a complex legal fight. "I figured if somebody, no matter who, asked a question, I ought to answer," he recalls. "Well, pretty soon it was the Silkwood people, the Kerr-McGee people and the reporters, and then I'm in court. If nobody had found me to ask questions, I wouldn't be involved in the damn thing."
In court he showed little enthusiasm. He sat with hands folded, spoke in monotones, invariably addressed his questioner as "Sir." The Silkwood attorney often had to egg him on for details. Nevertheless, his testimony seemed chilling. He told of workmen leaving the plant for lunch in plutonium-laden clothes. The restaurant where they ate was never checked for contamination. Teen-age farm boys, he testified, were put to work with no safety training. Once he and his men were ordered to don coveralls and respirators and work in a contaminated room for several days. They had to meet a production schedule instead of immediately cleaning up the contamination. Smith said his pleas for better equipment went unheard and life became "a continuous battle against leaks." Even the concrete walls were impregnated with plutonium. Smith claimed that to eliminate the plant as a possible source of contamination, "you'd have to break it up and put the whole thing in a nuclear burial ground," a conclusion substantiated by an expert witness, Professor Karl Morgan of Georgia Tech.
Whatever happens to the suit, Jim Smith wants nothing more to do with the Silkwood controversy. "I'm no crusader. I'm not antinuclear," he says. "The trouble is the regulatory people played Keystone Kops and gave licenses to a bunch of dummies who got real sloppy. Now the public is riled up. They've gone against nuclear. And this trial isn't helping."
Plutonium was unknown, Smith points out, until man learned to tinker with the atom. It has strange properties. A quantity of plutonium that is perfectly safe in one container will emit a deadly blast of radiation when put in a container of a different shape. It would be natural to assume that Smith would be happy never to see the stuff again. Not so. He speaks of the substance with something bordering on affection. "Plutonium is weird—and interesting. Every day it's a different challenge because it's temperamental. You can't just relax around it."
His only serious run-in with the deadly metal came when a chunk of it had to be surgically removed from his right thumb. More than a decade later the scar is well worn but still ugly. He could be in great danger from invisible specks of plutonium that may have found their way to his lungs, but he is blunt and fatalistic about it. "I'd go back to plutonium work any day," he says, "but at a first-class No. 1 outfit." With obvious dejection he adds, "After what I did in court, no place is going to give me a job. No place. I consider the nuclear door closed to me."
There are less important but more immediate problems too. Those kidding voices, for instance, that call out in the street, "How much the Silkwoods gonna pay you if they win?" He waves that scarred thumb in the air and yells back, 'I've still got some of that good stuff in there. I'll stick it in your beer. Then you watch how you feel next week."
May 28, 1979, Time Magazine, Nation: Nuclear Setback,
Kerr-McGee found liable
In the wake of Three Mile Island, the battered nuclear power industry suffered another blow last week, this one in a court of law. A federal jury in Oklahoma City handed down a finding in the celebrated case of Karen Silkwood that vastly increased the chances that a company using nuclear materials might have to pay heavy damages for harming not only its employees, but people in surrounding areas.
The jury found Kerr-McGee Corp. negligent in the handling of highly radioactive plutonium because it did not protect Silkwood, a lab technician, from contamination. The jury awarded her three children $10.5 million. She herself was killed mysteriously in 1974 when her car ran off a road as she was on her way to give evidence of the plant's carelessness to a New York Times reporter.
During the eleven-week trial, the manner of Silkwood's death was not an issue. The case centered on how she had become so poisoned by plutonium that she was, in the words of one expert witness, "married to lung cancer." Lawyers for both Silkwood and the corporation agreed that the young woman's apartment had been contaminated by plutonium from the plant, which has since been closed. The company contended that she had carried the metal out of the plant in small quantities and had, either intentionally or accidentally, poisoned herself. Why? "Maybe she was simply trying to create an incident to embarrass the company," suggested Kerr-McGee Attorney Bill Paul. Scoffing at that notion, Silkwood Attorney Gerald Spence hinted that the company had deliberately contaminated the lab worker because she was trying to reveal unsafe company practices. Asked Spence: "Did she know too much?"
The jury seemed impressed by the testimony of witnesses claiming that Kerr-McGee had carelessly handled radioactive materials. But the decision awarding damages to Silkwood's heirs went far beyond the simple finding that the company was guilty of negligence. Kerr-McGee was liable, Judge Frank G.Theis instructed the jury, even if the company had followed all safety rules, so long as Silkwood had not contaminated herself.
That point and the fact that the case involved radioactive poisoning outside the plant itself have enormous implications, if the finding is sustained on appeal: a company might be held liable for the harm it caused employees and people outside the plant, no matter how stringently it obeyed regulations.
Kerr-McGee plans to appeal the case. Dean McGee, co-founder and current chairman of the company, had declared that, whatever the verdict, his firm did not expect to make any changes in its operating practices.
March 30, 1981, Time Magazine, Law: The Fastest Gun in the West, by Bennett H. Beach,
Cowboy Attorney Gerry Spence mows down corporate giants
He failed his first bar exam. When he walks into the courtroom, he sports snakeskin cowboy boots, a knee-length beaver coat and a ten-gallon Stetson. His outside interests have included selling bull semen. During one trial, he kept an intriguing box on the table in front of him. The contents: the embalmed leg his plaintiff had lost in the accident at issue. He won some $300,000 in damages.
Gerry Spence, 52, of Jackson, Wyo., is part cowboy, part actor and all lawyer. Says one of Spence's victims: "He's so good that he shouldn't be permitted in a courtroom." He has not lost a case before a jury in twelve years, even though he regularly takes on the polished lawyers who represent powerful corporations. The multimillion-dollar losers include the Kerr-McGee energy conglomerate, for allowing Employee Karen Silkwood to be contaminated with plutonium; Squibb, for marketing an inadequately tested pregnancy-detection drug (Gestest) that apparently caused birth defects; and, most recently, Penthouse magazine, for a 1979 article that libeled a former Miss Wyoming, Kimerli Pring. The jury awarded her $26.5 million last month, a record if it survives court challenges by the magazine. Next month in Salt Lake City, Spence shoots for his biggest haul yet—$110 million—when he squares off against Utah officials on behalf of the widow and children of a man shot by Utah police.
The primary factor in Spence's prodigious success rate appears to be his way with juries. A commanding 6 ft. 2 in. and 225 lbs., he is in constant motion in the courtroom, sometimes edging up to the jury railing to make a point in the deep, reassuring baritone that almost led him into a singing career, or to confess disarmingly: "I'm a little anxious about whether I can represent my client—I just wanted to share that with you." Says a former partner, Robert Rose, now chief justice of Wyoming's supreme court: "He comes off as so real that jurors trust him. They have to decide which side to be on, and if he wants to be your friend, you can barely resist him." Spence likes to illustrate his arguments with graphic props, such as an old milking stool whose legs he removes, one by one, to show how his opponent's case collapses without certain supports. He also favors folksy sayings like "You've got to get the hogs out of the spring if you want to get the water cleared up."
In the Penthouse trial, Spence used a typical strategy: portraying his client as a simple, small victim of big malign forces. To the six Cheyenne jurors, he characterized Penthouse Publisher Bob Guccione, 50, as an arrogant, unprincipled New Yorker, "the gentleman sitting over there in the velvet pants." When Guccione suggested that only people with the intelligence of a "flatworm" would think the disputed article was nonfiction, Spence, a University of Wyoming law graduate, began to refer to himself and fellow state residents as mere flatworms. He also listed 15 similarities between Pring and the protagonist of the article, which described how a baton-twirling Miss Wyoming used her sexual prowess to try to win the Miss America Pageant.
Another key to Spence's success is exhaustive preparation. In readying the Penthouse case, he and the staff (two investigators, six aides) at his six-lawyer firm amassed 25 boxes of evidence, including transcripts of interviews with some of the 111 witnesses questioned. For ten days before the trial began, Spence closeted himself in his office and in his new 21-room home at the base of the Teton Mountains and studied every detail. He called in his wife Imaging, 39, and two of their six children to screen "home movies"—videotaped interviews with witnesses—in search of inconsistencies. He also prepares physically by running 15 miles a week and shunning alcohol and tobacco. The cost of all this is reflected in Spence's fees: usually 50% of a winning judgment, rather than the standard 33%. His hefty annual income, he says, is confidential.
Spence's golden years came only after a shattering midlife crisis. In 1968 his 20-year first marriage was failing. He had become a heavy drinker. His effort to be appointed a judge had failed. He closed down his firm, sold all his property and headed for California. When he returned soon thereafter he lost three straight cases —and what was left of his self-confidence.
Spence credits three things for reversing his tailspin. One was his 1969 marriage to Imaging (a name Spence gave her after it came to him in a dream). Another was a change of mission: he rid himself of insurance company clients and began representing underdogs. The third was some sensitivity training that he claims enables him to be open and genuine in front of juries. "You can't fool twelve people very long," he says. "That's the beauty of our system."
His detractors see his courtroom behavior in a different light. "He pushes people to the wall; he creates his own rules," charges one critic. Even admirers concede that Spence is aggressive. Sometimes, says Wyoming Governor Ed Herschler, "he has one foot in the jury box." Replies Spence: "A lawyer who fails to work right on the edge and leave no margin is failing his client." In the little free time Spence allows himself, he likes to write poems and photograph flowers and birds.
In his next big case, Spence will be trying to prove that state and county police shot Polygamist John Singer, an excommunicated Mormon, in the back without justification in the climax of a dispute over whether he could educate his children at home. Viewed in advance, it looks to Spence the way all his cases look: "Absolutely frightening." To hear him tell it, he approaches the trial arena in a state of high tension and fear that he may lose. "All the basic feelings of combat and death are there," he says. And now that many consider him the best in the West —perhaps even in the nation—his anxiety only increased: "Every young gunfighter wants me." —By Bennett H. Beach.
Reported by Richard Woodbury/Cheyenne
September 7, 1981, Time Magazine, What Makes Meryl Magic, by John Skow,
Actress Streep brings passion and skill to her richest role yet
The camera sees gray clouds, a churning gray sea, the spray-lashed stones of a harbor breakwater, and at the breakwater's end, facing seaward, the cloaked and motionless figure of a woman. A storm is blowing up. There is danger. A passerby, a tall, mustached young man, makes his way out along the breakwater to warn the solitary watcher. Over the rising wind he calls out to her that she is not safe. Now the mysterious figure turns, plucks aside the rough cloth of her hood and stares at the man, or through him, for a few moments. Then she turns again, having found no reason to speak, and once more looks out to sea. The young man, confused and troubled by what he has seen in her face, rejoins his fiancée, with whom he has been strolling, and retreats distractedly to the solidity of the shore.
This moody and romantic tableau, which is instantly recognizable as the opening scene of John Fowles' novel The French Lieutenant's Woman, is a cinematographer's delight. The breakwater exists, just as Fowles described it, at Lyme Regis, the small English sea-coast town of which he wrote. A film company needs only to go there, dress its actors in the costumes of 1867 (the story is a 19th century period piece, seen with irony through the filter of 20th century conceptions and misconceptions) and wait for dirty weather. All true, with only one complication: the look that Sarah Woodruff, the distraught figure on the breakwater, directs at Charles Smithson, the aristocratic young idler who approaches her there, must be so devastating that his comfortable life tumbles into chaos. He must, as the result of this unexpected collision with a woman of whom he knows nothing, begin a slide that leads him to jilt his wealthy fiancée, confess publicly to dishonor and lead the life of a lonely exile.
Clearly nothing as simple as mere beauty, or sensuality, or torment, or any ordinary combination of these qualities will reduce both Charles and cynical 20th century filmgoers to the requisite mush. Fowles uses a good many words and some carefully worked literary effects to evoke Sarah's strangeness: "It was an unforgettable face, and a tragic face. Its sorrow welled out of it as purely, naturally and unstoppably as water out of a woodland spring. There was no artifice there, no hypocrisy, no hysteria, no mask; and above all, no sign of madness. The madness was in the empty sea, the empty horizon, the lack of reason for such sorrow."
Does that do it? No, Fowles is not yet satisfied, and he goes back to work. "Again and again, afterwards, Charles thought of that look as a lance; and to think so is of course not merely to describe an object but the effect it has."
A screenwriter, on the other hand, can give the cinematic Sarah no help at all. She must lance Charles on her own, without the assistance of metaphor, and without a line to speak. Worse, she must do it wearing unflattering makeup, eyes and nose reddened from the rough weather and, perhaps, from weeping. An actress who can manage this adequately is a remarkable technician. One who can do it well is a rarity of the sort who comes along once or twice in a decade. What Charles sees when the cloaked woman turns toward him is an alarming, elemental Sarah who blows through the film like a sea storm, a Sarah who defines the role for all time. Her name is Meryl Streep.
There is a sensible tradition among movie people to say, always, that the actors who are finally cast for a film were the only ones ever considered. This avoids needlessly affronting the actors who were considered but passed over, or admitting that some actors turned down the preferred parts. It also shields audiences from the dampening perception that they are getting second choices. In the case of the extraordinary new film of The French Lieutenant's Woman, however, when Director Karel Reisz swears that when he undertook the project he never thought of casting any other actress as Sarah, the tendency is not only to believe him, but to think, "Yes, of course, that's obvious."
What is remarkable about Meryl Streep's brief film career—Sarah is her first really big role—is that she has brought this same feeling of inevitability even to relatively minor parts. In The Deer Hunter she had only a few important scenes, but it requires a wrenching effort now to imagine another actress playing Linda, Christopher Walken's shy girlfriend. Casual television viewers, who cared not at all that she had made her reputation as a stage actress at the Yale School of Drama and at Joseph Papp's Public Theater in New York City, were struck by her portrayal of a gentile woman married to a Jew among the haunted faces of the Holocaust series. As Woody Allen's lesbian ex-wife in Manhattan, she was chilling and funny, and an exquisite counterpoise to the agitated femininity of Diane Keaton. In The Seduction of Joe Tynan, she was utterly convincing, cornpone accent and all, as the other woman, a Southern civil rights lawyer who falls in love with Alan Alda, a liberal Senator from New York. But to be convincing is merely to be competent, and Streep managed to give enough humanity to a routine role that when the cardboard Senator predictably told her that he was returning to his cardboard wife, viewers worried about what would become of the seductress.
Well before she played Joanna, the wife who walks out on Dustin Hoffman and their son in Kramer vs. Kramer, an astonishing public clamor had set up around this almost gawky-looking blond, all bones and angles. When Kramer opened, the outcry redoubled. Though the script was weighted too much toward sympathy for Hoffman and the boy, Streep brought the film back into balance. By playing Joanna as a woman baffled and hurt not simply by her husband's shortcomings but by her own failures, she gave it a subtlety it would not have otherwise possessed.
The reviews of Kramer were rapturous, and she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. But the din from feature writers eager to probe her personal life was oppressive to Streep, a private person who feels (following the fashion of Actor Robert De Niro and some lordly professional athletes) that newsprint could wrap fish even better if reporters did not go through the messy and wasteful process of putting ink on it.
"For a while there it was either me or the Ayatullah on the covers of national magazines," she says with no pleasure. "It was excessive hype." Of course, the line between excessive hype and just the right amount of hype is difficult to draw in show business. But the excitement Streep stirs whenever she appears on a screen or a stage has nothing to do with puffery. It is a real, if sometimes clumsily expressed, response to an artist of rare skill and presence. Film Maker Robert Benton, who directed Streep in Kramer and a thriller called Stab, to be released next spring, calls her "one of a handful of really great actresses." It is nearly impossible to find a knowledgeable person in the film and theater worlds who does not use superlatives when talking about her. "There's nothing she can't do," Benton goes on. "Like De Niro she has no limits. I've watched Meryl over the years, and she's so staggeringly different in Kramer from the way she is in Deer Hunter—and try as I might, I can't figure out why. She has an immense backbone of technique, but you never catch her using it."
A viewer finds himself watching Meryl Streep much more closely than he is accustomed to watching actresses. More seems to be going on. It is not simply that she manages to make her face an astonishingly clear reflection of her character's complexities. It is not merely that this pale face, with its small, amused eyes and its nose long and curved as a flensing knife (when she kissed Alan Alda injudiciously in Tynan, this precarious nose displaced the flesh of his cheek up toward his eyeball), is poised fascinatingly between beauty and harshness. What makes the viewer sit forward in his seat is that Streep is so thoroughly a creature of change. Her expression is shadowed by a dizzying mutability. There is no doubt that in an instant this woman could take flight toward any state of emotion or mind.
In The French Lieutenant's Woman, a film in which the sanity of her 19th century character is in grave doubt, what Streep manages to convey when she is not speaking is extraordinary. She is pleased with the performance. "I luff effrythink I do, darlink," she says, giving a brief Zsa Zsa Gabor imitation. Then she lapses into the somewhat prosy shoptalk of a college-educated actress: "When I read the book, it elicited an emotional reaction in me and I determined to re-create it for someone else through thinking and design, thought and craft. The arc I designed for the character went up and happened." Then the arc-and-craft jargon drops away, and she says a bit wistfully: "Watching the film, I couldn't help wishing that I was more beautiful. There comes a point when you have to look the part, especially in movies. In Victorian literature, passion, an illicit feeling, was always represented by darkness. I'm so fair that dark hair makes me look like some old fish, so I opted for auburn hair instead. I really wished I was the kind of actress who could have just stood there and said it all."
Streep's unusual looks give her, at 32, the flexibility to play anything from a hag to a beauty, and she is aware of this. "I know I'm good-looking enough to play any of the women I usually play—individuals in the world. But for this character with her intense beauty, it wasn't enough." She laughs at herself. "I once went up for King of the Gypsies, a Dino De Laurentiis film. His son, who has since died [in July] in a plane crash, remarked to his father in Italian, 'But she's not beautiful.' It didn't bother me as much that he said it, as that he said it in Italian. I did Italian 105 at Vassar. I told him I understood and that it didn't matter anyway. But I never forgot it. 'What does he mean?' I told myself, 'I was voted Best Looking in my high school.' "
The remark is made with airy irony, but the fact is that she went through an ugly-duckling stage in late childhood—glasses, fat cheeks, permed hair and a bossy, show-offy disposition, as she recalls it. "She was pretty ghastly," admits her younger brother "Third" (Harry Streep III), 30, a modern dancer who heads the Third Dance Theater in Manhattan. It was by no means a terrible childhood, Streep says now. The family lived comfortably in a succession of pleasant New Jersey towns. Harry Streep II was a pharmaceutical company executive, and his wife Mary Louise a commercial artist. The parents were "fond of us, to put it mildly; they thought we were the greatest thing ever born," says Meryl. The elder Streeps, now retired and living in Mystic, Conn., were forever taking Meryl and their two boys (Brother Dana, 28, is a bonds salesman who lives in New Jersey) to museums, the theater, the ballet and ball games. But Meryl had few friends, and as far as anyone knew only one asset, a "nice, light, coloratura voice." At twelve she began taking singing lessons in Manhattan with Voice Coach Estelle Liebling (and gradually became aware that the "nice lady who had the lesson before me" was Opera Star Beverly Sills).
Singing was not enough, however; a complete transformation was required. The passage of time and the ingestion of enough peanut butter sandwiches usually do transform twelve-year-old children, of course. But Streep sees what she calls "my makeover" as a willed act, accomplished with contact lenses, a bottle of peroxide and an iron determination. By the time she entered Bernards High School in Bernardsville, N.J., she had indeed become "the perfect Seventeen magazine knockout," acting out what she calls "my first characterization; I played the blond homecoming queen for several years." It was not a mindless, giddy time, however; a highly developed sense of irony intruded, she says, with the result that "I haven't felt young since I was 13." But high school was an improvement. "I had friends, sort of." She was a cheerleader, she was popular with boys, and best of all, she was the star of all of the high school musicals. She had seen The Music Man on Broadway and had fallen in love with Star Barbara Cook. Now at 15, she won the Cook role of Marian the librarian.
"If I can locate the moment when I was first bitten, that was it," says Meryl. "The whole audience stood up when I came out. Mind you, I've never had that experience since. It must be like what Lady Diana felt on the balcony." English Teacher Jean Galbraith recalls dropping in on a rehearsal and hearing her sing Till There Was You. "I thought, that can't be the kid in the first row who sits next to the windows? I mean that's professional, that's fantastic." Brother Third, who played Winthrop, Marian's little brother, says that there was some jealousy when she went on to get the leads in Li'l Abner and Oklahoma. The present Bernards High drama teacher, a veteran road-company actor named Dick Everhart, happened to be applying for a job when Meryl played Laurie in Oklahoma. Her enormous natural gift was clear even then. Says he: "When she walked on the stage there was nobody else there."
Streep's career had begun, and its record since then has been a matter of theater people of increasing authority repeating those first cries of astonishment. She enrolled at Vassar, then a college for women. In the nonconformist atmosphere of the late 1960s she was able to slop around there in jeans, with an old felt hat pulled down to her ears, and drop her pom-pom girl impersonation for good. She established herself quickly as an actress at Vassar. She never seemed to care especially about being a star, recalls Clinton Atkinson, who directed her in the demanding lead role of Strindberg's Miss Julie. But it was clear that she would go beyond college theater. "Onstage," says Atkinson, "something happened within her that glowed. Men were always falling in love with her. I found her acting hair raising, absolutely mind-boggling."
After Vassar she toured Vermont colleges and ski areas for a few months with the Green Mountain Guild, a rep company, playing Shaw and Chekhov for $48 a week—"and it wasn't even the Depression." Then she made her commitment, and sent off an application to the Yale School of Drama. Yale awarded her a three-year scholarship and, as it turned out, the privilege of playing twelve to 15 roles a year.
"It was terribly intense," she says now. "Those years made me tired, crazy, nervous. I was constantly throwing up, on my way to an ulcer." She loathed the infighting for roles, she says; but she got the roles. Robert Lewis, a Yale drama professor, recalls a scene she did playing Alma in Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke. "It was certainly the best I ever saw that part played, and that's a reaction you don't usually feel when acting students do scenes, you know. It was so clinical you could hardly look at it. It was like looking into somebody's life." Lewis also marvels at Meryl's range. He recalls her flying about in a wheelchair, playing a crazy, octogenarian translator of Russian literature in a Christopher Durang play. "It was really the most imaginative farcical performance I've ever seen."
By the time this favored child of a dozen college directors received her degree from Yale in 1975, she was, in that odd way common to sensitive people who have received a great deal of praise, choking on success. "I resign myself to being lousy on opening nights," she says. "It's not getting easier, but harder. You look out and see people with pads in their laps judging you." That the judgments are nearly always ecstatic does not really help. She seems uncomfortable with the fact she was praised so highly (she received an Obie award) for her rousing performance last winter in a Public Theater musical, Alice in Concert, for which the playwright, her friend Elizabeth Swados, was roundly panned. "It's insane to have winners and losers in art. We live in a society plagued by sports mania. To say that one performance is better than another is just plain dumb. You wouldn't think of comparing two colors in a painting, would you; this blue is better than that blue?"
As a matter of fact, yes, you would. And Streep's remarkable parade of successes marched without a pause from Yale to New York. It does not seem accurate to speak of lucky breaks. Streep talked herself into a Public Theater audition for Pinero's Trelawny of the Wells and Impresario Joe Papp asked her to play a featured part. But the truth surely is that if it had not been Papp who took her in hand, it would have been some other director. The Trelawny role was followed by a spectacular success at Manhattan's Phoenix Theater, when she played two utterly different characters on the same evening, a sexy secretary in Arthur Miller's one-act A Memory of Two Mondays, and a 170-lb. floozie in Tennessee Williams' 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. Playgoers were shocked to realize that they were seeing the same actress. "That sort of thing is done all the time," she says now, "but to do it on the same night was considered pretty impressive."
Papp's Shakespeare in the Park gave New York some of its most exciting theater a few years ago, and the 1976 production of Measure for Measure, with Streep as Isabella, was one of the high points of the series. Also in the cast was John Cazale, who had played Fredo, the weak brother, in the Godfather films. They fell in love and lived together until Cazale died of bone cancer two years later, at 42. By the time they worked together in Michael Cimino's Deer Hunter, Cazale was fighting for the strength to say his lines. Streep had contracted to film Holocaust in Austria, where, as Cazale was dying in the U.S., she played a woman whose husband was imprisoned in a concentration camp. It was a grim experience, but, says Actor Fritz Weaver, who worked with her, "there was not one moment of self-pity. She has tremendous professional devotion." Back in the U.S., she dropped her career to stay with Cazale for the months that remained until he died, in March 1978.
Afterward, she says, "I was emotionally blitzed. All my energy was channeled into my work. I was doing Joe Tynan at the time. It was a selfish period, a period of healing for me, of trying to incorporate what had happened into my life. I wanted to find a place where I could carry it forever and still function."
Within a few months her life changed again. She began keeping company with Don Gummer, a sculptor friend of Third, a tall, dark-haired fellow in his early 30s, who had graduated a few years before from Yale's School of Art. After a couple of months the two were married, and late in 1979 Henry Wolfe Gummer, called Gippy, was born. When she was in England during the next spring and summer portraying the unhappy outcast Sarah, she was, in fact, a contented young mother, who breast-fed her baby during lunch break. Her husband stayed with the film company for the first month, then had to return to New York to get his own work—architectural constructions, mostly of wood or stone—ready for shows. Says Streep: "He felt so cut off . . . the phone bill for five weeks in Lyme Regis was $500."
Confecting an English accent was easy for her; "I think of myself as a great mimic." Classical training also helped, "primarily in getting me used to wearing a corset for hours at a time." Playing Sarah posed problems "because the reasons for her actions were so vague. I knew only that she was 'ambitious.' And because so much was covered up during Victorian times, I had to come on as though there was a fire inside, while remaining outwardly calm. I had, as the English say, to be careful about not going over the top. I played the monologue like a dialogue with myself. What my eyes said was the truth, and what came out of my mouth wasn't." Says Fowles, who is well satisfied with Streep's Sarah: "She was very shy about me. When I appeared on the set, she'd hide. She had some extraordinary notion that I didn't want an American actress. But there's no English actress of her age group who could have done it."
Now, with The French Lieutenant's Woman opening across the U.S. and Stab in the editing stage, Streep is enjoying a few months without professional commitments. She plays with Gippy, escapes with her husband whenever they can to a tree farm they bought not long ago in Dutchess County, and when she is in Manhattan tries to stay out of midtown, where every tourist comes equipped with a celebrity detector. She and Gummer are moving from his loft in Tribeca, an area in downtown Manhattan favored by artists, to a larger but equally unpretentious place just to the north, in Little Italy. Streep is now and forever a New Yorker, without a trace of a tan or of West Coast show-biz gloss. She bounces into a magazine photo session, wearing a dime-store sun dress and dark glasses held together by a safety pin. She is a fan of egg creams (a New York soft drink made of seltzer, chocolate syrup, milk and, of course, no eggs), and a resolute rider of subways; if the middle class and the rich don't use the subways, she argues, they will continue to fall apart and so will her beloved city. Streep is a liberal who is outraged by the Reaganauts in Washington, and a feminist who supports the ERA and who gets angry at the way films exploit women in sex scenes.
When she talks about herself nowadays, it is to tell about blowing sky high—not remembering her speech—when she presented an award at the Tony ceremonies a few months ago. Or to describe how, on the set of Stab, "I just couldn't get a scene right. The dialogue seemed false. I got madder and madder because I knew the answer lay within me, but I couldn't wrestle it up. I sulked all day—something I never did before. There's a lot of tension toward the end of a film, because the answers have to be there."
The privacy that she folds around herself falls away when she talks about her next project, which is to play Sophie in Director Alan Pakula's film of the William Styron novel Sophie's Choice. She says with deadly intensity, "I really wanted that part." She obtained a pirated copy of the script "through nefarious means," and, she continues, "I went to Pakula and threw myself on the ground. 'Please, God, let me do it,' I begged." Her own part secure, she urged that Actor Kevin Kline, 33, play opposite her as Nathan. ("The man's mad, he's brilliant.") Streep has the professional weight to do that now and make it stick, and Kline, who has been playing the pirate king in Papp's production of The Pirates of Penzance, got the part. The Sophie-Nathan pairing should be a memorable collision. Since Sophie must speak with a Polish accent, Streep plans to study Polish five days a week for three months before filming begins. "I don't know how I see the character yet," says Streep. "I'm still in the 'intuit' stage, and I haven't picked her apart yet. First I'll learn Polish. Then I'll forget me. Then I'll get to her. That's my plan of action."
Beyond Sophie? There is a film on the horizon about Karen Silkwood, an antinuclear activist who was mysteriously killed in an auto crash while working on an exposé in 1974. And afterward? It is a little startling to realize that Meryl Streep has appeared in only one Broadway show (Happy End in 1977). Another Broadway musical? A filmed musical? Some really alarming risk-taking on one of Joe Papp's stages? Say her friend Papp: "I'm convinced we haven't yet begun to see the richness of her talent." In fact, says this cheerfully biased stage director, "in films—which always do the obvious—we've only seen about ten percent of her."
—By John Skow. Reported by Elaine Dutka/New York
December 7, 1981, Time Magazine, Books: Notable: Dec. 7, 1981,
WHO KILLED KAREN SILKWOOD? by Howard Kohn Summit; 462 pages; $14.95
"Some circumstantial evidence is very strong," said Thoreau, "as when you find a trout in the milk." In Who Killed Karen Silkwood? the odor of rotten fish is overpowering. Outside Oklahoma City, on a cold November evening in 1974, Silkwood drove along Highway 74 to meet a New York Times reporter. Her mission: to present evidence of safety violations at a Kerr-McGee nuclear processing plant. She never arrived. Her car swerved on the dry, straight road and plowed into a culvert. Almost immediately, according to Howard Kohn, company, state and federal officials began frenzied work, not to find out what truly occurred but to prove that Silkwood's death was accidental. Many of the officials also loudly raised questions about her character, digging up and releasing details of a failed marriage and past sexual conduct. Their efforts only raised questions; the case, unlike the victim, would not die.
Kohn, an editor of Rolling Stone, has spent the past six years studying the Silkwood story. He documents his claims of a vast cover-up that followed the accident and proves beyond any reasonable doubt that many people had reasons for wanting Silkwood silenced. The case was so volatile that a jury awarded the Silkwood family damages of $10.5 million. But should there be a charge of murder? Kohn cannot be sure. Ultimately, he fails to finger a culprit or offer a principal suspect. All he can do is present a detailed and disturbing mystery story.
November 14, 1983, Time Magazine, In New Mexico: High-Tech Junkyard, by Jane O'Reilly,
The salvage yard at Los Alamos is open from noon to 4 p.m. on Thursdays. The regulars start arriving early, staking out their positions at the head of the line, which by noon stretches across the parking lot. When the door opens, they trot forward, gaining speed as they gallop through the warehouse, swerve around the cash register and slide past a World War II-vintage sign of a cutout policeman holding up a warning DO NOT RUN OR PUSH. One by one they pop out into the yard, their shirts and hats festooned with bits of masking tape made into instant claim markers. SOLD: JDGL. The rule, only occasionally broken, is that the person who marks it first gets it. What they do with "it" after that is their problem. Sometimes the problem is figuring out what "it" is, among the refuse of the work of the lab, the source of the material on sale.
"It's a gamble," says SOLD: JDGL, who is Jim Lindsay, a retired physicist. His wife Jeanette, a retired schoolteacher, is reassuring: "It looks like a dogfight, but there is a lot of sharing too. People help each other." The Lindsays have been regulars for 20 years. The 12-ft. butcher-block counter they bought today for $50 will go under, or on, or behind the piles of salvage that fill their own basement and the basement in the house next door.
Salvage day is a social and psychological event in Los Alamos. Once upon a time, before Galileo changed everything, the people who are now seduced by salvage would have worn long, pointy sorcerers' hats and worried about perpetual-motion machines and the best way to turn lead into gold. Nowadays they call themselves scroungers and arrive for the weekly salvage ritual in white pickup trucks, wearing clothes suitable for labor in a wood lot. Many of them also wear Los Alamos National Laboratory security badges on their down vests and flannel shirts. Their reflexive tendency on being introduced, to reveal whether or not they have a Ph.D., hints that this is not just another junkyard.
This junkyard of high-tech effluvia is 7,500 ft. above sea level, occupying three acres of the Pajarito Plateau in northern New Mexico. The Jemez Mountains and the Sangre de Cristo range rise from the Rio Grande Valley, the gray-green slopes splashed with yellowing aspen. The incomparable clouds of the high desert float over the city on the hill. Los Alamos, birthplace of the atomic bomb, is a 40-year-old company town (pop. 17,500). The company is the U.S. Government, and the main business is nuclear weapons. The lab's Bradbury Science Museum has all kinds of hands-on exhibits explaining peacetime uses of magnetically confined plasma, inertial fusion and lasers. But weapons are the cornerstone, accounting for more than half of this year's $517 million budget. Scarcely anyone would live on the hill if it were not for weapons.
In July a White House Science Council review of the quality of the work done at most of the major national laboratories, including Los Alamos, pointed out serious deficiencies. Last month the man who originally requested the review, the President's science adviser, Dr. George Key worth II, a former physics-division leader at the lab, warned the badge holders to prepare for changing times. The lab should "deeply think through its mission," he said in a speech at Los Alamos.
Keyworth objected to the press's use of the phrase Star Wars to describe what he called the President's new defensive concept. Admitting "the American people are not likely to enthusiastically support the placement of nuclear weapons in space," he urged the assembled scientists to start thinking instead about ways to get their share of the huge research-and-development money involved in putting laser beams in space. In Los Alamos, weapons are bread and butter.
Thirty-four miles southeast, the selfconsciously self-aware Anglos who live in Santa Fe like to talk reverently about "the energy that comes off the mountains." They mean spiritual, natural, ancestral energy, not the kind that could come off the high-tech Machu Picchu on the hill. In Los Alamos, the holistic weapons careerists in the cafeteria choose beansprouts and yogurt and reject actual nuclear war as theoretically implausible. It is downright rude in Los Alamos for an outsider—or even an insider—to raise questions concerning war or peace. The first causes moral qualm, the second unemployment.
Living on the edge of contradiction is not easy, even for people who like to describe themselves as high-performance professionals. A trip to the yard seems to offer a chance to domesticate some of that contradiction, to turn some small piece of it into something comprehensibly useful.
None of the stuff in the salvage yard is radioactive. It does not directly bear any functional relationship to an atomic bomb. The prices are dirt cheap, but it is not fair to view the yard as another glaring example of Government waste. Compared with the military, for example, the lab, which is managed by the University of California for the Department of Energy, is positively thrifty. Or so insists Allen Wallace, property disposal supervisor for the Zia Co., the contractor that serves, to use local parlance, as the interface between the lab and the outside world. Says Wallace: "It is important to understand this is the last step." Before this, usable surplus has been offered to other Government agencies through excess-property catalogues, and then to state and local agencies. Finally, it goes to the yard.
Five minutes after noon the scroungers have established territorial piles of gleanings. Inside a dumpster filled with old electronics (40¢ per lb.), three men are crawling around stripping out switches, relays and diodes. In the steel pile (7¢ per lb.), a swarm is hauling off a transformer cabinet, a 16-in. pipe and a chunk of plate steel left in fanciful cookie-cutter shapes by a plasma-arc cutter. Two men are momentarily baffled by a machined piece. "I don't know what they could have meant to do with this," says one. "It could have been a detector, something to let low-energy particles through. . ."
Rich Hassman, a computer-systems manager in the waste-management group, is taking apart some Unistrut metal framing with a socket wrench. "Right now," he says, "I'm thinking of using this as a base for a water bed. I like to make things. A friend of mine is building a 35-ft. steel ketch, and he turned me on to metal welding. So I got a Heliarc." A steel ketch? In New Mexico?
David Loya, a lab technician, holds up a sheet of copper (90¢ per lb.) and says to a friend: "Wow! Did you ever see the kitchen hood I built from this stuff?" Musing about copper planters, he stacks up a roll of Nalgene chemical-resistant plastic, and a couple of xenon flash tubes used to trigger ruby lasers. "It's fascinating what you can do with these," he gloats. "You can make a short-duration light-pulsing device." For fun? "Oh, yeah."
The biggest pile of all belongs to the legendary Ed Grothus, a former machinist who spent 20 years building "better" bombs ("Be sure to put in the quotes," he says). He has been coming to salvage for 25 years, and his business, the Los Alamos Sales Co., by now claims to offer the "world's most diversified stock of scientific equipment!" Grothus, 60, is the ultimate Los Alamos contradiction. He has collected five warehouses of salvage even as he has become vociferously more antinuclear, pro-peace and technodoubtful.
His acquisitions today—a helium-neon laser, a flow meter, some bookends, a Rolodex, a light table, a 3-ft.-tall thermos for liquid nitrogen, a massive pneumatically operated vacuum valve—will go into storage with the rest, waiting for a buyer. "I've got $20 million—that's Government cost, not mine—worth of stuff," says Grothus. "I'm looking for someone to sell it to for 10¢ on the dollar. I'm trying to sell it to the People's Republic of China. It's usable. It would fill the technical and scientific needs of a sizable developing nation."
In one warehouse, an A-framed former Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, Grothus points out things at random. "Boron-loaded polyethylene, a neutron absorber. Who the hell wants it? I've got twelve or so 400-channel analyzers. Stacks of nuclear-instrumentation modules. IBM card punches and readers—obsolete by our standards. But if a country has nothing? Scintillation crystals. Electronic balances." Grothus supplied the technical props for the Karen Silkwood movie. He was horrified when they were returned. "You can't get rid of this stuff," he moans. "Do you need a five-beam oscilloscope? Nobody on earth has as much stuff as I do, and I'm not sure technology has any value at all." He pauses to admire a high-speed camera that takes 1,000 frames a second. "You can watch dynamite explode. Wow! So what? Does it feed more people?" He edges around a high-voltage power supply. "This stuff is under reinforced concrete. If the Bomb goes, the little green men will find the largest time capsule in Los Alamos.'' —By Jane O'Reilly
December 19, 1983, Time Magazine, Cinema: A Tissue of Implications, by Richard Schickel,
SILKWOOD Directed by Mike Nichols Screenplay by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen
In the nine years since her death, it has pleased many people to think of Karen Silkwood as a sort of Joan of Arc of the nuclear age, an ignorant peasant lass who was martyred after she heeded the voice of a developing conscience and dared to point out the lack of adequate safety measures and quality controls in a plutonium-recycling plant where she was employed. This facility was owned by a corporate giant (Kerr-McGee) working under a Government contract, and Silkwood died in an auto accident on her way to show a New York Times reporter supposed documentary evidence of her charges. Thus, the possibility that someone may have murdered her in order to silence her has occurred to many on the left and among feminists, who were quick to claim Silkwood for their own. Sooner or later she was bound to become the subject of that final step in the canonization of secular saints, a major motion picture.
One rather imagines that the people who undertook this task in Silkwood may now wish they had waited until later. For rarely has the desperation to square inspirational myth with provable, nonlibelous reportage been more apparent. And rarely has the failure to do so been more dismaying. All they can say without fear of litigious contradiction is that there were obvious defects in the way
Plutonium was handled in the Crescent, Okla., plant that employed Karen Silkwood; that this woman, whom they cannot show as anything but neurotically self-centered and very messy both in her private life and in her relationship with peers and superiors at work, for reasons of her own decided to take a leading role in her union's campaign to remedy these defects; that thereafter she began to suffer from radioactive contamination, which may have been caused by someone in the company, but could possibly have been self-induced; that on the night of Nov. 13, 1974, she lost control of her car and crashed into a wall (the only concrete object in this case) with instantly fatal results.
What they cannot say, however, is whether the working conditions under protest were the result of deliberate policy or middle-management bungling of an unmalicious kind. Nor can they identify a moment when Silkwood made a conscious commitment to a coherent program of opposition to the status quo, which would, naturally, have included a knowing (and thus heroic) acceptance of the risks she might possibly be taking. Shorn of the ability to make direct statements on these matters, the film, in its climactic accident, is robbed of its capacity either to instruct or to move. Unable to prove a corporate conspiracy against Silkwood, or even individual violence by someone whose job was threatened by investigations, the movie must content itself with showing, without comment, mysterious headlights appearing behind her car just before the crash. And then admit, on a concluding title card, that an autopsy revealed a large amount of tranquilizers as well as a small amount of alcohol in the system of this demonstrably unstable woman. This is the most significant set of contradictory implications in a movie that is a tissue of them. And they leave the viewer about where he began, free to consult his own paranoia, or lack of it, for an interpretation of her life and death.
If Silkwood aspired merely to documentary honesty, this approach would be entirely honorable, perhaps even praiseworthy. But it will not do for a film that feels a powerful obligation to politicized mythmaking and must, in any case, try to involve the audience at a more intense and immediate dramatic, emotional and intellectual level. The strategy, therefore, is to treat the particulars of its heroine's political activities and her death almost as irrelevancies. The important thing, we are supposed to believe, is that Silkwood somehow redeemed an inconsequential life, a life the film makers are at pains to treat disdainfully, by a miraculous, inexplicable focusing of her energies on a significant issue of social conscience in its final months. Again, this is not an interpretation proved by any of the facts the film can set forth. So Nichols starts sneaking in the strains of Amazing Grace over his concluding images, and they swell mightily over the end credits.
Amazing grace, indeed, that saved a wretch like the one we are shown. And amazing (if possibly unconscious) patronization on the part of the film's creators. There is none of the affectionate respect for working-class life and values that marked the similar, and far superior, Norma Rae, nor any of that film's sense of felt reality either. One senses that Nichols and his colleagues are reporting on a sociological field trip, that they made no instinctive emotional connections with Silkwood's milieu.
This is a criticism one extends to Meryl Streep in the title role. She is an actress of calculated effects, which work well when she is playing self-consciously intelligent women. But interpreting a character who abandoned three children, shares a house with a rather shiftless boyfriend and a lesbian (Kurt Russell and Cher, both of whom are easier and more naturalistic performers) and shows her contempt for Authority by flashing a bare breast at its representative, she seems at once forced and pulled back.
But the entire film has that air about it, caught as it is in a double bind. The facts it can lay its hands on do not support a politically alarming or dramatically compelling conclusion to the mysteries of this case. Nor do they lead to a very uplifting statement about the motives and character of its central figure. On the other hand, the passage of time has not yet burnished away the ambiguities surrounding this affair, which might have permitted a purely mythic, Gandhi-like approach. In short, the moviemakers are backed into a corner from which neither show-biz sophistry nor a resort to the kind of radical-chic attitudes Nichols has always favored, nor yet a hundred hymns, can lift them. The final unspoken implication of this film is that Karen Silkwood's tragedy lay in the fact that she was cut down just short of the point at which she would have attained that truly amazing state of grace where she would have become a suitable speaker for fund raisers in the Hamptons or Beverly Hills. The humblest among us deserves a better apotheosis than that. —By Richard Schickel
January 23, 1984, Time Magazine, Milestones: Jan. 23, 1984,
DECISION REVERSED. For Kristi, 17; Michael, 14; and Dawn Meadows, 13, children of the late Karen Silkwood (eponymous heroine Of the movie Silkwood), alleged victim of radiation at the Kerr-McGee nuclear plant near Crescent, Okla.; by a 5-to-4 U.S. Supreme Court affirmation of a $10 million award won in a 1979 negligence suit against her employer, but overturned by a federal appeals court. Kerr-McGee plans to challenge the award.
December 1, 1986, Time Magazine, Video: What If Oswald Had Stood Trial?, by Richard Zoglin,
Twenty-three years after the fatal shots rang out in Dallas, questions about the assassination of John F. Kennedy still reverberate. The 1964 Warren Report concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, shot the President from the Texas School Book Depository. But 15 years later, the House Select Committee on Assassinations, while agreeing that Oswald was the murderer, decided he was most probably part of a conspiracy. Though some of the evidence leading to that finding has been discredited, conspiracy theories continue to proliferate, tracing the crime to everything from a Mafia cabal to the CIA.
Now an extraordinary television trial has tried to shed some light on the controversy. In On Trial: Lee Harvey Oswald, a two-part, 5 1/2-hour program that debuted on Showtime last weekend and will be repeated several times in upcoming weeks, the case against Oswald is argued for the first time in a courtroom setting under the rules of courtroom evidence. Real witnesses are examined by real attorneys, and the testimony is evaluated by a jury. The verdict: guilty of murder. Polled on a separate question, the jury decided by a majority vote that Oswald was the sole assassin.
This unique experiment in reality programming was conceived by London Weekend Television, which staged a mock trial of Richard III for British TV in 1984. Looking for another historical crime to "try" on TV, the producers turned to the Kennedy assassination. Unlike earlier fictional treatments like the 1977 ABC movie The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, the program has no script and (except for extras) uses no actors. Two prominent attorneys were enlisted to argue the case. For the prosecution: Vincent Bugliosi, 52, the former Los , Angeles deputy district attorney who prosecuted Charles Manson. For the defense: Gerry Spence, 57, who successfully represented Karen Silkwood's family in a suit against the Kerr-McGee Corp. Lucius Bunton, 61, a U.S. district judge from Texas, was selected to preside, and a jury was chosen from the Dallas jury rolls. (Oswald is represented by an empty chair.) All of them were flown to London for the three-day taping, which resulted in 18 hours of testimony; Showtime, the program's co-producer, plans to air the full-length version next year.
The program's research staff spent 18 months tracking down some four dozen witnesses, 21 of whom appear in the TV trial. Those testifying for the prosecution range from experts in pathology and ballistics to former Oswald acquaintances like Buell Wesley Frazier, who drove him to work on the day of the assassination. The defense witnesses include Dr. Cyril Wecht, a pathologist, who argues that a single bullet could not (as the official version states) have struck both Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally, and others who give evidence suggesting that Oswald was the patsy in a conspiracy, possibly involving Oswald's killer, Jack Ruby. The trial includes a detailed examination of the famous film taken by Abraham Zapruder, including the horrific frames in which the President's head literally explodes from a gunshot.
Though most of the witnesses have testified previously, they have never before faced crossexamination. Both attorneys are persuasive advocates. Bugliosi deflates some of the more outlandish conspiracy theories with rapid- fire probes. Spence, a drawling, flamboyant courtroom performer, homes in shrewdly on ambiguities and unanswered questions in the official account.
Some questions seem rather conclusively settled. The Zapruder film, for example, shows Kennedy lurching backward after the shot to his head, implying that the bullet came from somewhere in front of the car. But the medical evidence leaves no doubt that both shots came from the rear; as one expert explains, the backward lurch could have been caused by an involuntary neuromuscular reaction to the devastating bullet.
Other testimony has the drama of the unfathomable. Perhaps most compelling is the appearance of Ruth Paine, the school psychologist with whom Oswald's wife Marina lived before the assassination. Holding up bravely under Spence's prickly cross-examination, she describes Oswald's actions before the assassination in articulate but quavering words.
Paine: It's important that people understand that Lee was a very ordinary person, that people can kill a President without that being something that shows on them in advance.
Spence: Is it really your purpose to try to defame this man in some way?
Paine: I think it's really important for history that a full picture of the man be seen.
Spence: Yes, so do I.
The show-biz demands of television do some damage to the program's credibility. Because it is not a real trial, witnesses could not be subpoenaed (Marina Oswald was among the few who refused to appear). The lawyers agreed to adhere to a time limit on questioning, and the number of witnesses was streamlined. Complained Spence after the taping: "All kinds of inadmissible hearsay got into evidence, necessitated by the fact that this was a three-day trial instead of a three-month trial."
Nevertheless, the participants contend, the program contributes importantly to the assassination record. "I defy anyone who is familiar with the Kennedy assassination," says Bugliosi, "to look at the 18 hours of tape or examine the trial transcript and say that the gut issues of the case were not addressed or were treated cosmetically." Even for casual observers raised on Perry Mason, On Trial: Lee Harvey Oswald provides a fascinating lesson in history and the law. And, not incidentally, TV's best courtroom drama ever.
November 30, 1987, Time Magazine, Environment: Making Fertilizer from What?, by Michael D. Lemonick,
Two years ago Justin Suddeth, then 14, found a deformed, nine-legged frog at a pond near the Sequoyah Fuels plant in Gore, Okla. In 1981 an eyeless baby girl was born to parents living a few miles from the same plant. The National Cancer Institute has reported that the leukemia rate for white men in counties surrounding Sequoyah Fuels is five percentage points higher than the national average. Is there a connection? Local residents think so: Sequoyah Fuels processes uranium concentrate into ingredients for bombs and nuclear-power-plant fuel. The factory has been cited in the past for safety lapses, including a 1986 leak that killed one worker and released toxic uranium hexafluoride gas into the environment. Moreover, it is owned by Kerr-McGee, the Oklahoma City-based company implicated in the radioactive contamination of 73 workers at another facility -- the case uncovered in 1974 by the late Karen Silkwood.
But if Kerr-McGee hoped its $1.38 million settlement with Silkwood's heirs had lifted the cloud of controversy from its operations, the furor that erupted last week dashed that hope. A spate of news reports revealed that Sequoyah has for more than a decade, with Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approval, been converting radioactive wastewater, called raffinate, into fertilizer and spraying it over company-owned fields. Hay grown on the fields has then been sold as feed to farmers and ranchers. Nearby residents charge that the fertilizer may be contaminating the Arkansas River and the water table near the Oklahoma-Arkansas border. Local Veterinarian Gary Johnson is concerned that the "hay is getting into the food chain." Jessie Deer In Water, who chairs the local Native Americans for a Clean Environment, calls it the "ultimate in cheap waste disposal."
Nonsense, responds Kerr-McGee Spokesman Rick Pereles. "Our product is no more dangerous than normal fertilizer." Indeed, company tests show the substance to be no higher in radioactivity or most toxic heavy metals than many other fertilizers. Aberrations like the freak frog occur naturally, note company officials; no one has conclusively linked the product to environmental or health problems.
Sequoyah has been converting its wastewater into fertilizer since 1973 by chemically removing most of the uranium and heavy metals and adding potash and phosphate during application. The liquid was first tested on small plots of company land. In the early 1980s the NRC, finding "no adverse environmental impacts," authorized more widespread testing. That assessment was circulated to the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and each passed it with no comments.
It is just this seemingly lackadaisical review process that concerns critics. According to Oklahoma Congressman Mike Synar, who headed an investigation of the 1986 incident, the EPA and other agencies tend to defer to the NRC in matters involving radioactive materials. But the NRC, he says, "fixes almost exclusively on the radioactive, not chemical, hazards," which may be more to the point in this case. State efforts to regulate the spraying have meanwhile been stymied by jurisdictional questions, which were finally resolved last spring, when the Oklahoma water resources board asserted its right to address the possible threat to groundwater. Its decision on whether the spraying can continue is expected in the spring. "The question is whether raffinate is toxic," says Board Spokesman Brian Vance. "We don't know that yet."
Indeed, the only information available about the fertilizer comes from its manufacturer. According to Herschel Elliott, an agricultural engineer at Penn State University, data released so far inadequately address organic pollutants, in which case, he says, "we should look for mutagenic and carcinogenic effects." Elliott notes that the studies show near unsafe levels of molybdenum. Such heavy metals can cause birth defects.
Even if there are no such dangers, the public relations fallout for Kerr-McGee might be worrisome -- except that the company announced last week an agreement in principle to sell the Sequoyah operation to GA Technologies of San Diego. The agreement's scheduling, says Pereles, is "absolutely coincidental." But for Kerr-McGee, smarting from its earlier run-ins with an angry public, it may have come just in time.
April 1, 2011, Time Magazine, Couch Potato Briefing: Covert Ops, Cricket and Learning from Lawrence, by Tony Karon,
It may seem Mike Nichols week on the Couch Potato Briefing, but 1983’s Silkwood is another timely look at the nuclear industry in a week where the terrifying effects of radiation from a stricken Japanese reactor complex are only just beginning to make themselves known. Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep) works at a plant manufacturing nuclear fuel rods for use in reactors, when she becomes ill after being exposed to radiation along with co-workers. When she discovers that her employers are seeking to cover up the the incident, she gathers evidence and contacts the New York Times, but is killed in a mysterious car accident before she can relay it. In a week in which it became clear that a number of the heroic Japanese plant workers are likely to die as a result of their exposure to radiation, Silkwood is a grim reminder that it’s the working stiffs, not the owners, who pay the ultimate price when things go wrong. – T.K.