Episode 1: The Glow
Tracing the course of the atomic age of human history will also lead you along a timeline of death. There are plenty of accidents—people who got too close to radiation and paid the ultimate price for it. Marie Curie, the Nobel Prize winning physicist whose work led to the discoveries of polonium and radium, and eventually to the development of X-rays, died from aplastic anemia due to prolonged exposure to radiation. She was known to take her work home with her you see, carrying radioactive isotopes around in her pocket, often commenting to friends how pretty she thought the bluish-green light the test tubes gave off looked in the dark. Louis Slotin, a Canadian Physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project developing the first atomic bombs was killed by a lethal dose of radiation during an experiment after his hand slipped while using a screwdriver to separate two half-spheres of beryllium around a plutonium core. I repeat, the man died while using a screwdriver to stop a nuclear reaction between two pieces of plutonium. Sometimes it’s hard to believe the atomic bomb ever got built in the first place. But if you look elsewhere throughout our atomic history, there are other deaths that weren’t accidents at all. People who were murdered because they knew too much.
Coming to you from inside my top secret nuclear fallout shelter, I’m Nate Hale, and this is The Conspirators.
On the night of November 13, 1974, a 28-year-old woman left a union meeting at the Hub Café just north of Oklahoma City clutching a thick manila folder full of documents. She got into her white Honda hatchback and headed to another meeting with a reporter at a nearby Holiday Inn. She never got there.
Not long after the woman left the union meeting, police were summoned to the scene of an accident along Oklahoma’s State Highway 74. The woman’s car skidded off the road and smashed into the wing wall of a concrete culvert. She died there on that lonely stretch of highway. An autopsy would later show that the woman had a large dose of narcotics in her system. Under most circumstances this would have been an open and shut case for the police. But these weren’t normal circumstances. You see, this particular woman had been in a battle with the large nuclear facility where she worked, and it appeared to a number of people that somebody there wanted her dead. Her name was Karen Silkwood, and she may have uncovered secrets that people would kill to keep quiet.
In 1938, a pair of German chemists did something remarkable; they split the atom. It’s impossible to undersell this game-changing moment. The enormous power of nuclear fission was now in the hands of men and the possibilities seemed limitless. In the right hands it could be a source of energy that could power the world and push humanity into a new technological era; but in the wrong hands it could also be the source of its ultimate destruction.
Albert Einstein knew the potential disaster that could result if the Nazis were able to build a functioning atomic bomb, so in 1939 he sent a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt with his concerns. As it became frighteningly clear that a nuclear bomb was not just possible, but a near certainty, Roosevelt initiated the U.S.’s own think-tank known as the Manhattan Project with one clear goal: build a working bomb before the Germans.
The U.S. won the race and the two bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed more than 200,000 people, abruptly bringing World War II to an end. The people caught in ground zero of the explosion were instantly carbonized. Those further away from the blast zone either died from severe burns or were crushed by the concussive force of the blast wave. Many of those who managed to escape the initial blast were still fated to die because of the massive doses of radiation they absorbed. Human beings and radiation don’t mix. Massive doses of ionizing radiation can cause the breakdown of normal cellular replication in living things leading to a horrible, horrible death. Hair loss, skin lesions, anemia, bleeding gums, destruction of stomach and intestinal fluids, the list goes on as the body breaks down and the radiation victim transforms into something that would look more at home on the set of The Walking Dead. Just ask Alexander Litvinenko (Lit-Vin-Nyenko). Oh wait, you can’t, because he’s dead.
Litvinenko had been an officer with the Russian FSB, the successor to the old spy agency known more famously as the KGB. While still living in Russia, he became a vocal critic of the Vladimir Putin regime, which, as you can imagine, was a really bad idea. He fled to London and eventually became a British citizen. While in London, it is alleged that Litvinenko began working with the British Secret Service investigating Spanish links to the Russian mafia. On November 1, 2006 he took tea with a couple other former Russian agents in a London hotel. Soon after, Litvinenko became extremely ill and spent the rest of the night suffering with a bout of severe diarrhea and vomiting. Three days later he was admitted to the hospital where his condition only worsened. He died on November 23, defiantly proclaiming to the bitter end that Putin had him assassinated. Forensic pathologists who studied Litvinenko’s corpse determined that he had been poisoned with a radioactive substance called Polonium-210, most likely administered in his tea during his sit-down three weeks earlier with the former Russian agents. The former agents, of course, denied everything.
There is another case of mysterious deaths which may or may not have involved radiation that bears mentioning. Either way, it’s really freaking weird. On August 20, 1966, a young man from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil found the bodies of two men on Vintem Hill. The young man alerted the police, who investigated but were as much at a loss to explain what actually happened to these two men as everyone else has been for fifty years after. The two deceased men, Miguel Jose Viana and Manoel Pereira da Cruz, were found wearing suits and raincoats, and they both had strange lead eye masks with no holes, such as one would wear to protect them from radiation. The police found near the bodies an empty water bottle, two towels and a notebook. The notebook only deepened the mystery. Inside were a few scribbled notes in Portuguese that translated to: “16:30 be at agreed place,” and “18:30 swallow capsules, after effect protect metals wait for mask signal.”
Toxicology produced no results for poison or other ingested materials, but the coroner’s office delayed doing an autopsy for so long the state of decay in their organs made the tests inconclusive. Police retraced their steps leading up to their death. The two men worked as electronics repairmen in a nearby town. They left town three days earlier telling people they were going to buy supplies for work and a car. Reportedly, they had cash with them, although no money was found at the location where they died. The two men later stopped at a bar where they purchased the bottle of water. They kept the receipt for the bottle, which indicated they planned on returning it later. The bartender told police the men seemed to be in a hurry and that Miguel Viana kept checking his watch. That was the last time anyone saw the men alive.
To this day no one knows how they died, or whom, if anyone, they were meeting that day. Some theories suggest that the men were part of a strange “scientific spiritualist” movement, and that they were attempting to contact extraterrestrials. Indeed, some of the local people claimed to have seen strange lights in the sky around the time the men met their fate on that hill. One other strange item of note, it took several years before grass grew again where the bodies were found. Before you go jumping to conclusions, one of the most logical explanations for this is that the coroner dumped formalin around the area to mask the smell of decomposition and that this contaminated the soil. But really, much like everything else surrounding this case, who knows?
Let’s face it; we all love a good mystery. It’s that not knowing that sucks us into its vortex. It’s the thrill of speculation, of playing detective, and of maybe, just maybe, knowing that we figured out whodunnit. But mysteries are only sometimes wrapped up as tightly as the stories we see on TV. In the case of Karen Silkwood, what we’re left with are more questions, and the disturbing sense that someone may have gotten away with murder.
Karen Silkwood was born in Longview, Texas where she was a straight-A student in high school. She earned a scholarship to attend Lamar College in Beaumont, Texas, where she studied medical technology with dreams of a career in science. She quit school after her freshman year when she met and married her husband, an oil pipeline worker with whom she had three children. The marriage fell apart, and in 1972 she left her husband and kids to start a new life in Oklahoma.
She moved to Oklahoma City where she took a job working for the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site making $4 an hour as a chemical technician. While working for Kerr-McGee, Karen Silkwood began dating a fellow worker named Drew Stephens. Stephens, who often expressed concern over safety issues at the plant, convinced Karen to join the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union. Three months after starting her job at the plutonium plant, Karen took part in a strike for better pay and working conditions. In July 1974, Karen discovered for the first time that she had been contaminated with plutonium. Since she was the sole worker who had been contaminated she began to suspect someone had done it to her on purpose.
Karen was elected to the union’s bargaining committee where part of her responsibilities was to investigate health and safety violations within the company. She soon gained a reputation among her peers as a troublemaking whistleblower, citing in her reports a laundry list of health and safety violations, unsafe storage practices, faulty equipment, and what she believed to be evidence that the company had been doctoring x-rays to hide hairline cracks in the fuel rods. The union enlisted Karen to gather conclusive evidence of the tampering. During her investigation Karen managed to smuggle out a number of sensitive documents from the facility that showed not only had the company been tampering with the fuel rods, but there was also at least forty pounds of the plant’s plutonium that had gone missing.
On November 5, 1974, Karen discovered, to her horror, that her body contained almost 400 times the legal limit of plutonium. Kerr-McGee sent her home with a self-test kit, and although she didn’t handle any dangerous material after that, the following morning she tested even higher for radiation. Later, in court, the company went so far as to accuse Karen of deliberately poisoning herself in order to make them look bad.
Karen agreed to allow her home to be tested where it was discovered that there were high levels of radiation everywhere throughout her house, all the way up to and including the bologna in her refrigerator. Despite the massive contamination, Karen’s roommate Sherri Ellis showed only minor levels of radiation. To Karen, the evidence was clear; somebody in the company wanted her dead.
By November 13, Karen and her union contacts decided to go public with the story. Just after 8 pm, Karen was on her way to meet her boyfriend Drew Stephens, a national union representative and a reporter for the New York Times when her car went off the road, skidding for a hundred yards, before hitting a guard rail and plunging off the embankment. Witnesses who saw Karen earlier in the evening claimed they remembered her carrying a manila folder full of documents with her before she got into her car.
The Oklahoma State Trooper who investigated claimed it was a classic case of the driver falling asleep at the wheel, and, I have to admit, this story does make a degree of sense. Karen was a heavy smoker with asthma who had lost 20 pounds in the weeks prior to the accident. She also had a prescription for Quaaludes and the autopsy would show she had the drug in her system at the time of the crash. Put it all together and it sure sounds plausible that she could have fallen asleep. Plausible, until you hear the other details left out of the official police report.
Later on, a private investigator looked into the matter and concluded that the evidence showed Karen had been awake during the accident. The same autopsy that revealed the drugs in her system also showed that a significant portion of the pills hadn’t dissolved in her stomach yet, indicating she had only taken them a short time before getting behind the wheel. The investigator also discovered damage to the Honda’s rear bumper that indicated it had been struck from behind by another car. The investigator found skid marks on the road matching Karen’s car. He believed that Karen may have tried to regain control of the vehicle after being struck from behind. One other thing to keep in mind, the folder full of company documents Karen had with her mysteriously vanished. A state trooper claimed he had seen a number of papers scattered in the mud, and he actually collected them together and tossed them in the back of Karen’s car, but by the time the wrecked vehicle reached the tow yard, the papers and the manila folder were nowhere to be found.
Months later, government reports would show that many of the problems Karen had reported with the plant had been right on the money. They also noted that Karen could not have irradiated herself as Kerr-McGee claimed because the plutonium she was contaminated with came from a restricted part of the plant that she had no access to. And do you remember the missing forty pounds of plutonium? Well, it never was located, but reporters from Rolling Stone and other publications discovered evidence that suggested Karen may have stumbled onto a plutonium smuggling ring within the plant.
In 1976, Karen’s father and children filed a civil lawsuit against Kerr-McGee and were awarded $10.5 million in punitive damages. Kerr-McGee appealed and eventually the case was settled out of court for $1.38 million. In 1976, Kerr-McGee shut the plant down for good. According to Time magazine, “Westinghouse, which had been buying its fuel rods complained of their poor quality and refused to renew its contract.”
You can make a case either way whether or not Karen Silkwood was murdered. Truth is elusive like that, like trying to catch water between your fingers. If you believe Kerr-McGee’s lawyers, Karen Silkwood was a drug-addled lunatic with a grudge against the company. If you believe the union and Karen’s friends and family, she was a martyr who paid for uncovering the truth with her life.
In 1983, Karen’s story was turned into a movie starring Meryl Streep. It was nominated for five Academy Awards. It didn’t win.
The nuclear fuel rods that Karen Silkwood claimed were damaged in her reports continued to be used for years after in the Department of Energy’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the shadow of the state of Washington’s Rattlesnake Hills, where, officials claimed they performed both safely and well. Although I’m not sure how much stock you can put in that. The Hanford site is currently the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States, with as much as two-thirds of the nation’s high-level radioactive waste by volume. In April 2016 a leak in a nuclear waste storage tank at Hanford grew large enough to set off alarm bells. Cleanup is still ongoing.
In 2006, Anadarko Petroleum Company purchased Kerr-McGee, effectively ending the company forever.
The Conspirators is a bi-weekly podcast produced by me, Nate Hale, an entirely fictional identity.
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