Karen Silkwood died on November 13, 1974 in a fatal one-car crash. Since then, her story has achieved worldwide fame as the subject of many books, magazine and newspaper articles, and even a major motion picture. Silkwood was a chemical technician at the Kerr-McGee's plutonium fuels production plant in Crescent, Oklahoma, and a member of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers' Union. She was also an activist who was critical of plant safety. During the week prior to her death, Silkwood was reportedly gathering evidence for the Union to support her claim that Kerr-McGee was negligent in maintaining plant safety, and at the same time, was involved in a number of unexplained exposures to plutonium. The circumstances of her death have been the subject of great speculation.
After her death, organs from Silkwood's body were analyzed as part of the Los Alamos Tissue Analysis Program at the request of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Oklahoma City Medical Examiner. Silkwood's case was important to the program because it was one of very few cases involving recent exposure to plutonium. It also served to confirm the contemporary techniques for the measurement of plutonium body burdens and lung burdens. The following account is a summary of Silkwood's exposure to plutonium at the Kerr-McGee plant and the subsequent analysis of her tissues at Los Alamos.