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on 27 January 2011
Karen Silkwood (superbly played by Meryl Streep) worked in one of the laboratories of the Kerr-McGee nuclear processing facility in Crescent, Oklahoma and her job involved making pultonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. She became a union activist and became concerned about the lax security and practices within the facility that she regarded as health and safety hazards to the workers there. Without the knowledge of her employers she examined x-rays taken of structures and pipes in the plant and claimed that when faults were found within the facility as revealed by the x-rays the evidence on the plates was removed to save the company the considerable cost of carrying out repairs.
In 1974 she became repeatedly contaminated and accused the management of lacing the urine samples she had to provide following the first contamination. Her house was also found to contain high levels of radiation so she underwent tests at the Los Alamos Laboratory and it was confirmed that she had an abnormally high level of radiation within her body exposing her to the risk of contracting cancer.
She carried on her union activities making herself very unpopular with the management at the plant especially when she gave evidence to the Atomic Energy Commission and she became convinced she was being targeted by the company because of what she was doing. On 13 November 1974 she was killed when her car careered off the road and the circumstances surrounding her death have been the subject of debate and speculation ever since.
On the day she died she met a reporter from the New York Times and took a sheaf of documents with her which were never found when the car was found.
It is at this point that the film ends but events following the crash are just as interesting as the issues covered in the film. The patrolman who found the car said there were two tablets of sedatives in the car and a quantity of marijuana. There were skid marks on the road indicating that the car had careered out of control and damage and traces of paint chips were found on the rear of Silkwood's car which could have been caused by another car ramming into the back of her vehicle.
Silkwood's family took Kerr McGee to court and were awarded $515,000 in damages which was later reduced to $5,000 but in 1984 this decision was reversed and the £515,000 award was reinastated.
Streep plays Silkwood as a committed union activist who may have paid the ultimate price of alienating her employers and it is significant that the facility she worked in was closed a year after her death and is still contaminated ground.
We will never know how her life ended and the director of the film, Mike Nichols, leaves it to the audience to speculate about whether Silkwood was murdered by her employers or was the victim of an tragic accident.