THE $10.5 MILLION verdict awarded by a jury to the heirs of Karen Silkwood is not the end of the case. The verdict will be appealed, and legal questions that may determine the future of the nuclear industry will be decided by higher courts. But regardless of how these questions are resolved, the judgement of the jury will haunt proponents of nuclear power. It can be read to mean that the public, of which this jury was a representatives sample, regards nuclear energy as just too dangerous to have around.
Such a reading flows easily from the amount of punitive damages - $10 million - the jury assessed against the Kerr-McGee Corporation and the trial judge's ruling that the jury could hold the company liable even if its safety programs had met federal standards. The ruling left the jury free to decide for itself what Kerr-McGee's safety and security standards should have been, and the jury obviously decided they were not high enough. It tacked on the punitive damages to punish the company and to deter other companies from harming other employees.
So far as the immediate future of the nuclear industry is concerned the ruling by the judge, and the instructions he gave the jury, are the critical issues in the case. The judge said Kerr-McGee was liable for any radiation injuries Miss Silkwood suffered unless it could prove she deliberately contaminated herself . The jury decided she did not do so, despite Kerr-McGee's contention she had taken a container of highly radioactive plutonium home, and apparently decided the company had been negligent in the controlls it exercised over that plutonium.
It is unlikely that the amount of punitive damages awarded will survive; the history of jury verdicts of this size is that they are sharply trimmed by trial judges before the cases are appealed.But the standard of liability, if it is sustained on appeal, will create substantial difficulties for all companies in the nuclear industry.It might make them totally uninsurable, which would drive up the costs of all nuclear construction and could drive many companies out of business.Thus it becomes even more important for Congress to review the whole question of insurance coverage in nuclear accidents, a review that has already begun because of the Three Mile Island accident. The future of the nuclear industry should not, after all, be decided by the courts as a matter of tort law, but rather bythe Congress as a matter of public policy.
Part of the trouble with the Silkwood case is that there has been much mystery about it from the beginning and, despite a trial that lasted almost three months, that is still true. There are disputes over what caused the automobile accident in which she was killed and over how that plutonium got into her refrigerator. There are disagreements over the quality of safety programs at the Kerr-McGee plant and, indeed, over the committment of the company to safety at that particular plant. None of these was resolved by the jury's verdict.
But there is no mystery about this: Combined with the Three Mile Island accident, the Silkwood verdict puts the whole nuclear industry on the spot. It may be that indifference to the risks of nuclear power is the key to both situations;the rest of the big nuclear companies have been less than eager to jump to the defense of safety practicesin Kerr-McGee's Cimarron plant where Miss Silwood worked. If that is so, the companies that make up this industry had better face the safety and security problems a lot more vigorously and forthrightly. It is not getting any easier to argue their case.