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Atomic Protagonist

Karen Silkwood exposed health violations and faulty equipment at the Kerr-McGee fuel fabrication facility.

© Mark Peterson/Corbis

In 1972, Karen Silkwood was an employee at the Kerr-McGee fuel fabrication facility in Oklahoma, where she made plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. She was also leader of the worker's union there, a position that she used to broadcast concerns about health violations, faulty equipment and subsequent poor-quality products, as well as employee radiation exposure.

She gathered documentation that she said supported all of the problems. Then, the worker's union threatened Kerr-McGee with a lawsuit.

At around the same time, Silkwood was following standard safety procedures, testing herself for radiation exposure, when she discovered that her body showed high levels of plutonium contamination. She suspected that someone was intentionally poisoning her to cover up problems at the plant.

The same day that Silkwood planned to meet with a New York Times journalist to discuss the story, she was killed in a suspicious car accident; her body was found in her car at the bottom of a ditch.

Because of the claims, the Department of Energy opened an investigation and ultimately shut down the facility. Although Karen Silkwood lost her life in the process, she brought to light the hazards of a poorly managed nuclear plant and likely saved many lives.

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