|HERE IS THE STORY that
answers the basic question underlying the Karen Silkwood controversy.
From covering the first Silkwood civil trial as a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, I knew that Silkwood's serious nuclear safety allegations would only be tested when the fuel rods she was worried about -- especially fuel rod lots 16 and 17 -- were themselves tested through use.
Later, when the fuel rods in question had been through the nuclear crucible at a reactor in Hanford, WA, I followed up with this piece of investigative reporting for the New York Times national desk on December 7, 1985.
I went to Hanford expecting find confirmation of the problems alleged by Silkwood -- in fact, I went because I expected to find the problems. But as it turned out, there were none, which was a bigger story in a way.
Despite the spin-control evident below, this story was a serious blow to the Silkwood camp, for if there were no defects in the Kerr-McGee rods, then the company had no motive for her murder.
|Essentially, this story revealed that the whole Silkwood nuclear safety controversy had no substance at the center. That's not to say that Karen Silkwood wasn't a good person who was tragically murdered. It's just that it probably wasn't Kerr-McGee that did it. It was probably just a plain old American psycho killer out for a good time on the highway that night.
Of course, by then the Silkwood whirlwind had shifted as many times as Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr's Whitewater Investigation of then-President Bill Clinton and taken on a life of its own as a "major motion picture," where the actual facts of the matter have no bearing.
-- Bruce Brown
|As a laboratory analyst and union activist at the Kerr-McGee Corporation plant that manufactured fuel for Hanford, Miss Silkwood became concerned in 1973 about the quality of welds in fuel rods and what she called the falsification of X-ray checks on them.||
"Records show that fuel rods from the Silkwood period, 1972-1974, have been among the best Kerr-McGee performers."
Government inquiries after her unexplained death in 1974 confirmed irregularities in rod manufacture by Kerr-McGee as well as the retouching of weld X-rays. Some experts warned in the late 1970's that it could be hazardous to use the Kerr-McGee fuel. But the United States Department of Energy remained committed to using Kerr-McGee rods to power a Hanford reactor, the Fast Flux Test Facility.
The Fast Flux Test Facility, a 400-megawatt reactor cooled by liquid metal, has been the flagship of America's breeder program since Congress killed the Clinch River project in Tennessee in 1983. The Hanford facility is not flow operating to generate power or as a breeder reactor; it is used only for research.
In the last five years thousands of the pencil-thin, foot-long rods have been put into the reactor, heated to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit and bombarded with sub-atomic particles. Officials here say the rods have posed no hazard and have often exceeded contract specifications for useful life and power production.
Litigation Is Continuing
Some critics of Kerr-McGee question the Hanford reports and suggest that a final judgment on the rods is premature. In any case, they say the fuel rods' performance is not relevant to Miss Silkwood's original charges of flaws and coverups, or to the complicated and continuing litigation between the Silkwood family and Kerr-McGee.
"It doesn't matter to us at all that the Kerr-McGee fuel rods performed better than specifications, and without leakers," said Mr. Jim Ikard, an attorney for the Silkwood family. "What is important is that Karen Silkwood knew shenanigans were going on at the Crescent plant. She saw X-rays being retouched and welds being ground down and knew these things were true."
A spokesman for Kerr-McGee, Rick Pereles, said that in light of the reports on the rods' performance, "we hope that people will draw their own conclusions as to the merits of the other aspects of the controversy."
Miss Silkwood worked at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron plant in Crescent, Okla. She was on her way to deliver documents to a reporter for The New York Times when she died in a crash, but no documents were recovered from her wrecked car. The Oklahoma State Patrol concluded that she had fallen asleep at the wheel, but critics of the nuclear industry suspected that she was run off the road.
In 1979, five years after Miss Silkwood's death, her family won a judgment against Kerr-McGee in Federal District Court in Oklahoma City. A jury found Kerr-McGee negligent in its operation of the Cimarron plant and awarded Miss Silkwood's heirs $10.5 million in damages. The quality of the fuel rods was an issue, but the case came to focus more on the contamination of Miss Silkwood's body with plutonium shortly before her death.
The heirs "haven't seen a penny" from Kerr-McGee since the verdict, Mr. Ikard said. The retrial of the jury's punitive damage award, which constitutes most of the total, will probably not begin until the fall of 1986, he said, and could be delayed longer, depending on the fate of Kerr-McGee's latest petition to the Supreme Court.
As the 1979 trial progressed, the 19,000 fuel rods manufactured by Kerr-McGee for the Fast Flux Test Facility were lying in deep vaults at Hanford, along with an equal number produced by Babcock & Wilcox, the other commercial fuel supplier for the Hanford reactor. Despite evidence of numerous irregularities in Kerr-McGee fuel, the Department of Energy decided against culling the questionable fuel rods. Indeed, the department purchased several hundred rods with known defects at a reduced price because it was "determined that the defects were minor," said Leroy Rice, a quality control official at the project.
From the outset of operation in February 1980, The Hanford reactor has been powered equally by Kerr-McGee and Babcock & Wilcox fuel, said Garland Norman, The Energy Department's head of operations at The facility. So far the facility has irradiated 35,000 fuel rods without a single leak or failure, Mr. Norman said. Approximately 20,000 fuel rods have been expended and 15,000 are still in use, he said. The tests are continuing, but so far the records show the rods from the Silkwood period, 1972-1974, have been among the best Kerr-McGee performers.
Some Voice Skepticism
"I have confidence in the fuel," said Ersel Evans, vice president for Westinghouse-Hanford, the company that operates the facility for the Government. "I'd stake my reputation on it."
Asked to comment on the performance reports, some scientists responded with skepticism. "How do we know what they're saying is the truth?" asked Robert Pollard, senior nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group which has been critical of the nuclear industry. Harry Kendall, a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is a spokesman for Union of Concerned Scientists, said "I tend to be skeptical of these sort of claims until time has had a chance to sort things out."
Miss Silkwood's original allegations, which were made to officials of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union shortly before her death on Nov. 13, 1974, centered on the quality of the welds in the stainless steel tubes containing the uranium-plutonium pellets mat power the reactor.
In October 1974 she told a union representative, Steve Wodka, that Kerr-McGee was still passing welds that were out of tolerance, "no matter what the welds looked like." Alluding to the Government contract requirement that the fuel nod tubes be free of surface grinding or sanding that could obscure the internal nature of me welds, she added, "I would like to see just how far they ground it down."
Some critics of nuclear power contended that such defects could lead to accidents because of the experimental nature of the Fast Flux Test Facility, a breeder reactor that can create more fuel than it burns and is inherently more volatile than conventional water-cooled reactors.
One problem they feared was the shifting of nuclear material. In 1979, Arthur Tamplin of the National Resources Defense Council said, "In a breeder reactor, changes in fuel configuration can lead to a power surge, at the end of which me reactor can become literally explosive." Mr. Wodka, the union representative, said much less catastrophic failures, which the industry calls leakers, would "almost certainly" expose workers to dangerous radioactivity.
Life Expectancy Exceeded
None of these fears has materialized. In fact, the fuel rods from Kerr-McGee have actually exceeded specs.
Most of the fuel rods manufactured at Kerr-McGee in the two years that Miss Silkwood worked there were contained in fuel rod lots 14, 15, 16 and 17, the last two of which were shipped to Hanford lets than a month after her death. Figures recently released by the Department of Energy show that, on the average, the fuel rods in lots 14 and 15 have exceeded rod life expectancy by 12 percent, while the rods in lot 16 exceeded life expectancy by 6 percent. The fuel reds in lot 17 have not yet completed their operational life.
The facility has not had an accidental leak with fuel rods supplied by Kerr-McGee or Babcock & Wilcox, according to Government records.
"Silkwood Epilogue" originally appeared in the December 7, 1985 issue of the New
© Copyright 1985 Bruce Brown
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