Karen Silkwood Case Returns to Haunt...


Almost 20 years have passed since plutonium plant whistle-blower Karen Silkwood died in a car crash on an Oklahoma highway, but her father can’t put her mysterious death behind him.

Even if Bill Silkwood wanted to let go of the past, events won’t let him.

He learned recently that Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico had several bone fragments left behind from post-mortem testing done on his 28-year-old daughter, who thought she had been contaminated with radioactive plutonium.

The lab wanted to know what the family wished to do with the remains. Silkwood is furious that the lab still has them.


“I don’t want them to have it,” he said, his voice filled with anger. “I want it all. . . . It’s the remains of what they did to her.

“They had no business taking her body in the first place.”

The latest disclosure has renewed the pain and frustration Silkwood and his wife, Merle, have endured since the 1974 accident killed their oldest daughter.

“It had gotten better until this happened,” said Merle Silkwood, choking back tears.

Karen Silkwood, union activist and a lab-analyst for Kerr-McGee Corp. at its plutonium processing plant near Crescent, Okla., died Nov. 13, 1974, while driving to meet a reporter for the New York Times.

She had promised to bring evidence proving the plant was unsafe. No documents were found in the wrecked car.

Her family and union officials contended she was forced off the road, but Oklahoma Highway Patrol officials concluded she fell asleep at the wheel after taking sedatives. The Justice Department said there was insufficient evidence to prove the allegations.

Her story later became the movie “Silkwood,” starring Meryl Streep and Cher.

Silkwood, 69, still is convinced someone killed his daughter, and he has a standing $10,000 reward out for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case.


“I thought maybe somebody who had been involved would come forward,” he said. No one has.

As for the Los Alamos lab, site of government nuclear research since World War II, Silkwood is seeking legal advice before he crafts a response about the remaining bones. He also wants 113 vials of tissue samples from his daughter that he believes the lab still has.

Karen Silkwood was buried in the east Texas town of Kilgore after an autopsy was performed in Oklahoma. Some of her organs, including her brain, were removed and taken to the Los Alamos lab for additional testing.

Lab officials insist they did so with the family’s permission, but Silkwood disagrees.

“They’re liars. We only gave them permission to do an autopsy (in Oklahoma). That had nothing to do with stripping her body organs out” and taking them to Los Alamos, he said.

Silkwood said the family didn’t find out that her organs had been removed and taken to Los Alamos until 1979, during the trial of a lawsuit filed against Kerr-McGee. (The company later agreed to pay his daughter’s estate $1.38 million.)

The family didn’t know about the bones until this year.

“I feel now like I felt back during the trial, and that’s pretty dad-gum rough,” Silkwood said.

Over the years, Silkwood has spent his own time and money in his search for answers about his daughter’s death. He said he has lost a lot of his trust in people along the way.


But he can’t give up.

“I’m going to continue as long as there’s a chance. There’s always a chance,” he said.

Silkwood continues to talk about his daughter as he walks outside the home in Nederland, the southeastern Texas town where he and his wife reared their three daughters.

She was just a regular girl, he said. She played the flute, made good grades, married, had three children and got a job at a nuclear plant.

He knew she was concerned about safety at the plant. She had called just a few days before her death to say she was quitting.

She was coming home to Texas.