Karen Silkwood

Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp.

On November 13, 1974, Karen Silkwood, a safety inspector and activist with the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, died when her car was run off the road in rural Oklahoma. She was on her way to meet a New York Times reporter and give him a folio containing evidence of health and safety violations at the nuclear reprocessing plant where she worked. It contained documents proving that the Kerr-McGee nuclear corporation was missing 40 pounds of 98% pure bomb-grade plutonium, enough to make four atomic bombs as powerful as the one that destroyed Hiroshima.

Led by its National Labor Coordinator, Sara Nelson, the National Organization for Women (N.O.W.) joined with the union and other allies to generate nationwide demand for an investigation into Silkwood’s murder. The Advisory Board of the Karen Silkwood Fund included the anti-nuclear movement, the Environmental Policy Institute, the Jesuit Office of Social Ministries, the Quixote Catholic Justice Center, the Fund for Constitutional Government, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

After a congressional investigation and two explosive congressional hearings, Daniel Sheehan, attorney with the Jesuit Office of Social Ministries, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Silkwood’s children. He launched a national investigation to discover the truth about what happened to her. The investigation revealed who killed her and why, and where her body went when it disappeared for 48 hours. It uncovered who stole her documents from her car and why. It revealed who contaminated her, her fellow workers, and the public. It exposed a secret national political surveillance organization of off-duty police, the Law Enforcement Intelligence Unit, spying on Silkwood and the union.

Most importantly, the investigation discovered that members of the top management of the Kerr-McGee Nuclear Facility, with the direct participation of the American C.I.A., were smuggling the missing plutonium to Israel, Iran, South Africa and Brazil.

Karen's car after crash, 1975
Karen with her family.

The extensive public education and organizing campaign led by Nelson and others included hundreds of speeches and rallies, a nationwide play, and several No Nukes protest concerts by Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The Academy Award-nominated movie, Silkwood, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Meryl Streep, Cher, and Kurt Russell, shed more light on the murder and the atrocities committed by the nuclear power industry. As a result, Karen Silkwood became the “first nuclear martyr” in the United States, Australia, and Europe, and her story opened the public’s eyes to the dangers of nuclear power and radiation.

In June, 1979, the jury in the Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee trial awarded a record-setting $10.5 million judgement to Silkwood’s estate, the largest in the history of the American judicial system. The case declared the Price Anderson Act unconstitutional, removed the limits on civil liability pertaining to nuclear facilities, and effectively ended construction of all new nuclear power plants in the United States.


Other Landmark Cases

Iran Contra Affair

Under a new application of the provisions of the Federal Racketeer Influenced and Criminal Organizations Act (RICO), Christic brought charges against and exposed 29 people involved with the Iran-Contra Affair. (Avirgan v. Hull, et al)

View Project

American Sanctuary Movement

The first vindicating argument in the American Sanctuary Movement came from Christic’s defense of Catholic workers who provided sanctuary for refugees seeking political asylum. (U.S. v. Stacey Lynn Merkt, et al.)

View Project

Three-Mile Island Incident

When Reactor 2 at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, suffered a partial meltdown on March 28, 1979, the Christic Institute legal team was called in to help oversee the legal proceedings and represent victims of the disaster.

View Project

The Greensboro Massacre

Christic won $350,000 in damages for plaintiffs who brought suit against the City of Greensboro, North Carolina, the Greensboro police department, the KKK and American Nazi Party—a rare verdict in the southern United States. (Waller v. Butkovich)

View Project