Union activist Karen Silkwood's fight 25 years ago for safe working conditions at Kerr-McGee Corp.'s Cimarron Nuclear Facility in Crescent, Okla., was no different than the struggles many workers face today to correct workplace hazards.
Silkwood was killed in a suspicious auto accident on Nov. 13, 1974, while on her way to meet with a reporter from the New York Times and a representative from her union, the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union.
Reportedly, she had in her possession, documents proving Kerr-McGee had falsified quality control records concerning the plutonium nuclear fuel rods it manufactured at the Crescent plant.
The records were never found, and a union investigation turned up evidence of possible foul play in her death.
On Dec. 17, actress Meryl Streep, who played the title role in "Silkwood," the 1983 movie based on Karen Silkwood's struggle and people who had worked with Silkwood, paid tribute to her courage and willingness to stand up for her co-workers at a sold-out fund-raiser in New York.
Also recognized at the event was Jim Key, the health and safety coordinator for PACE Local 5-550, whose members work in the federal government's uranium enrichment plant in Paducah, Ky.
"Everything Karen Silkwood was saying 25 years ago about the lies told to workers and communities throughout the nuclear industry is being proven true today," said Key.
Union investigations in the 1990s have uncovered documentation of multiple hazards that were kept secret from the uranium used in the manufacturing process in Paducah.
"There is a memorandum dating from the early 1960s that says they didn't want to tell workers about the plutonium because they were afraid the union would demand hazardous duty pay," said Key.
Years of campaigning have won medical monitoring for workers and former employees at most of America's nuclear material plants.
The Kerr-McGee Crescent Facility was closed in 1975, a year after Silkwood's death. However, the former Kerr-McGee workers have yet to be included in any medical monitoring programs.