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Kerr-McGee Cimarron Nuclear Fuel Fabrication Site in Oklahoma, USA


The Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site, owned and operated by the Kerr/McGee Corporation (KMC) from 1965 to 1975, was a nuclear fuel production facility located by the Cimarron River near Cimarron City, Oklahoma. The site, at the time one of Oklahoma’s most-known and top employers,  is most known for huge scandals brought to national attention by one of its workers, Karen Silkwood [1]. Karen Silkwood was a metallography laboratory technician making plutonium pellets. As one of the first female members and a leader of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, she participated in a union strike against the company for its history of numerous health and safety issues such as exposure of workers to contamination, faulty respiratory equipment and improper storage of samples. She also believed the lack of sufficient shower facilities could increase the risk of employee contamination [2]. Other union members also claimed that  "the Kerr-McGee plant had manufactured faulty fuel rods, falsified product inspection records, and risked employee safety” [3].

On November 5th, 1974, she had been grinding and polishing pellets when during a regular self-check, a contamination detector read that she had been contaminated with almost 400 times the legal legit for plutonium contamination. Further testing at the plant’s Health Physics Office showed that not only did she test positive for contamination, but also her gloves did not have holes yet there was contamination leakage inside of them. She was sent home for urine and feces analysis over the next five days. The next morning, as she headed to a union negotiation meeting, Silkwood again tested positive for plutonium, although she had performed only paperwork duties that morning. She was given more intensive decontamination. On November 7, as she entered the plant, she was found to be dangerously contaminated, even expelling contaminated air from her lungs. A health physics team accompanied her back to her home and found plutonium traces on several surfaces, especially in the bathroom and the refrigerator. She said the contamination in the bathroom may have occurred when she spilled her urine sample. When the house was later stripped and decontaminated, some of her property had to be destroyed [4]. Kerr-McGee’s management accused Silkwood of contaminating herself to give the company trouble [2]. 

During this time, Silkwood was also investigating how the plant had been severely breaking federal nuclear regulations for a long time. Former department heads also confirmed that the plants regularly forced workers to continue working despite there being leaking pipes, leaking containers, spills, and defective equipment, causing frequent contamination [5]. In March and in September, the plant had to close temporarily when the company could not account for 20 kilos of missing plutonium. Kerr-McGee convinced the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) that the nuclear material had been lost when it got stuck in some pipes while supposedly flushing the pipes with acid, but the pipes had never been flushed [5]. Silkwood began collecting evidence in a large binder, including company papers,  that the management had actually been illegally selling the plutonium, enough to make a nuclear bomb, to a plutonium smuggling ring [4]. After days of several threatening phone calls, on November 13, 1974, she arranged to meet New York Times reporter David Burnham to go over the case after work that evening. Fellow union members who had seen her that day reported that they witnessed her getting into her car with her binder of evidence and watched her driving away after she put it in the front passenger seat [2]. However, she never arrived to meet Burnham because of her instant death in a mysterious car crash. Her binder of evidence was missing from the wreckage. Investigations concluded that someone rammed into her car from behind several times, pushing her car off a cliff. An autopsy of her body indicated that not only was she highly contaminated with plutonium in many vital organs, but she had also been drugged with an excessive dosage of sleeping pills at the time of her collision [6].  

After her death, Silkwood’s relatives and former union members filed a lawsuit against KMC for company negligence, violation of civil rights, and violation of health and environmental regulations [5]. The highly controversial case was settled two years later in the Supreme Court for $1.38 million, though KMC refused to admit liability. Further investigations conducted by the AEC also later confirmed most allegations that Silkwood and the union made [7].  Various former union members and witnesses then received threatening phone calls and also were blacklisted and unable to find any work after the incidents [5].  The plant was finally shut down in 1976 owing to bankruptcy caused by negative public opinion, investor withdrawals, and fraud convictions [5].

Basic Data

Name of conflict: Kerr-McGee Cimarron Nuclear Fuel Fabrication Site in Oklahoma, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:Oklahoma
Location of conflict:Cimarron City
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Nuclear
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Nuclear power plants
Specific commodities:Plutonium

Project Details and Actors

Project details

The Atomic Energy Commission awarded Kerr-McGee a $9.6 million contract to produce fuel rods for experimental nuclear reactors using plutonium instead of uranium. The plant was built twenty miles outside Oklahoma City on a 900-acre site next to an existing uranium plant. Transients and students were often hired to work in the plant and allegedly most workers were generally unaware of the risks of plutonium exposure because they were improperly trained. Under AEC rules, all contamination incidents should have been reported and, except in minor cases, production should have halted while leaks were fixed. The company frequently ignored these guidelines, however, because the company was under intense pressure to produce as much as possible [5].

Project area:365
Level of Investment for the conflictive project$9,600,000
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:287
Start of the conflict:05/11/1974
End of the conflict:03/01/1976
Company names or state enterprises:Kerr-McGee Corporation (KMC) from United States of America - Perpetrator
Relevant government actors:Atomic Energy Commission
United States Department of Energy
U.S. Supreme Court
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Industrial workers
Trade unions
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Other Environmental impacts
Other Environmental impactsPlutonium contamination
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Occupational disease and accidents
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Specific impacts on women
Potential: Violations of human rights


Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Court decision (undecided)
Violent targeting of activists
Project cancelled
Trade unionist and plant worker Karen Silkwood died in a mysterious car crash in 1974
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:The lawsuit carried out by Karen Silkwood's supporters resulted in financial compensation, but that did not directly cause the plant to shut down. The plant only shut down from bankruptcy later on. Furthermore, plant workers making legal claims for compensation for health effects suffered from working there to this day are still waiting for justice.

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

[8] Cimarron (Kerr-McGee) Decomissioning

U.S. Department of Energy Report on Decontamination and Decommissioning of the Kerr/McGee Plant

Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 485 F. Supp. 566 (W.D. Okla. 1979)

US Supreme Court: SILKWOOD v. KERR-McGEE CORP.(1984)

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

The case of Karen Silkwood (Public Health)

[4] The Karen Silkwood Story

[5] Karen Silkwood Was Right in Plutonium Scandal

[7] A.E.C. Finds Evidence Supporting Charges of Health Hazards at Plutonium Processing Plant in Oklahoma

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

[6] Video: 44 years later, the death of Karen Silkwood is still a mystery

Movie trailer: Silkwood (1983, starring Meryl Streep, Cher, and Kurt Russell)

Podcast: Questions Linger About The Death Of Karen Silkwood

Meta information

Contributor:Dalena Tran, ICTA, [email protected]
Last update29/12/2019
Conflict ID:4871



Karen Silkwood

Nuclear News Net (2016)

Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site

Neha Patil (2018) on Alchetron: Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site

Movie poster

Film Affinity