Turning Techies into Leaders: Blessing White

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These articles were prepared for the May 16, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Radioactive Waste: Perils of Siting

Right along with "the check is in the mail"

are two other laughable lies: "Trust me, I’m in government"

and "Trust me, I’m a scientist." Or at least they are invariably

perceived as lies by a cynical population. And thereon, says John

Weingart, hangs a major national dilemma that is steering us toward


In his new book, "Waste is a Terrible Thing to Mind," Weingart

turns the light on New Jersey’s low-level radioactive waste. Diligently

he documents the problems and attempted solutions of storage and disposal

and selecting containment sites. And in so doing, he reflects on the

public’s failed faith in its institutions and, conversely, those institutions’

frequent contempt for the public’s ability to make a choice.

Whether you are interested in nuclear power plants, the environment,

science, any level of government, its bureaucracy, or social commentary,

John Weingart’s quirky subject may prove fascinating. He speaks at

the League of Women Voters Annual Dinner on Monday, May 21, at 5:30

p.m. at Good Time Charley’s in Kingston. Cost: $25. Call 609-924-6580.

Weingart is a brilliant anomaly. Politically, he is both an analyzer

and a fighter. He served New Jersey as assistant commissioner of the

D.E.P for years, and shouldered the thankless task of chairing the

Radioactive Waste Disposal Facility Siting Board from 1994 to 1998.

At the same time, Weingart graduated from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson

School of Politics and Public Affairs and now serves as associate

director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics.

Weingart is a populist, when the people are fighting for their own

good against a special interest. "Waste is a Terrible Thing to

Mind" was published by the Center for Analysis of Public Issues

— parent of New Jersey Reporter, the environmental and government

watchdog periodical for which Weingart frequently writes. At the same

time, he says that a public hearing, where emotions and a total lack

of knowledge can easily shift into rabble rule, may not be the best

forum for many issues.

Yet the greatest anomaly — so it might seem — shines in his

book. John Weingart labels himself as "environmentally concerned."

One need only tune into 103.3 FM on Sunday nights to hear Weingart’s

show, "Music You Can’t Hear on the Radio" and listen, between

the old classical Bluegrass tunes, to his talks with Pete Seeger and

other environmental purists. He has fought to keep our coastlines

clean and feels for our earth.

Despite all this, John Weingart and his committee spent years trying

to cram a low-level radioactive waste storage site into the backyards

of unwilling New Jerseyans. What’ with this guy?

"The truth is," says Weingart, "that this stuff (low-level

waste) exists all over our state." Over 100 universities, hospitals,

and other labs use small amounts of radioactive material and currently

store their waste at local, temporary sites, infinitely less safe

for the public than the much feared permanent facility.

If you happen to be taking the air along Rutgers’ Busch Campus, you

might stumble through the door of an adjacent greenhouse — or

just break the window. Inside you would behold about 10 blue 50-gallon

drums holding low-level radioactive waste awaiting transport to somewhere.

But whither lies somewhere? Ah, there’s the rub. Historically, New

Brunswick residents who knew of Rutgers’ temporary storage never complained.

But just try to fix them with a permanent storage facility. Came the

cry from every corner of the state, "Not in my backyard!"

This was the state of affairs in l994 when John Weingart voluntarily

accepted the chair of New Jersey’s Radioactive Waste Disposal Facility

Siting Board. "My first job," says Weingart, "was to convince

myself. Could low-level waste be stored permanently, safely, anywhere

with no harm to the workers or residents?" It wasn’t an easy sell.

"I mean, I still had my `No Nukes’ T-shirts in the drawer."

Weingart, more dedicated to truth than dogma, sifted the facts.

Low-level radioactive waste, stored in heavy containers, surrounded

by several feet of concrete, and continuously monitored, is totally

safe. The fact is, if you chained yourself on a short leash to a storage

site filled with this type of waste for one year, you would walk away

with, worst case, no more radiation than that delivered by two chest


When he took the job, Weingart believed our state government

was taking a responsible approach. At that time, New Jersey was sending

all such waste to a permanent storage site in Barnwell, South Carolina

— one of only three in the United States. The state recognized

the hazard and the potential overuse of South Carolina, and decided

New Jersey needed a safe site in-state.

Weingart and his board did away with the original plan of selecting

the "one best site" in the Garden State. Instead they chose

several acceptable ones. One of which was nearby Roosevelt. The proposition:

allow us to build this storage facility here and Roosevelt, a tiny

municipality with an annual budget of less than $1.5 million, will

receive $2 million annually for the betterment of its town.

Weingart called a town meeting to present the plan, and the waste

hit the fan. "Probably the most difficult idea to sell at a public

hearing," says Weingart "is `Don’t worry. It is all totally

safe.’" People instinctively stiffen at this remark — sure,

it’s safe and "the check is in the mail."

The most fearful held the loudest sway. In the case of that tremulous

buzz word "radiation," public perception has been skewed by

half a century of unrelenting Godzilla-size horrors. From Hollywood’s

giant, radiation-induced ants to the tragedy of the Chernobyl melt

down, we have been taught and re-taught one fact: This Monster Never

Totally Dies. Godzilla always rises again to punish Tokyo for the

sin of nuclear energy. And you want to put those barrels HERE?

An incredible paranoia took over, recalls Weingart, "I watched

people who had just downloaded five pages from the Internet given

the same credence as experts brought in from the National Academy

of Science. The whole attitude was summed up by the comment: `I don’t

care what you have to say; I won’t allow it here.’ They only heard

the word `nuclear’ and said no."

Weingart is fond of telling the story how when Nuclear Resonance Imaging

was newly brought to hospitals, fearful patients wouldn’t go near

it. Doctors changed the name to Magnetic Resonance Imaging and now

one out of every three Americans has availed himself of an MRI.

In the end, Roosevelt came close, but the proposition to locate a

site (and an annual $2 million) in town failed in the town council

— by one vote.

Weingart and his crew pitched and tried for four years. They met resistance

everywhere. Today, New Jersey has no permanent storage site for its

low-level radioactive waste.

Barnwell, South Carolina, agreed to take nuclear waste from New Jersey

and Connecticut on the condition that they would have to take none

other. Thus, the remaining 47 states must split their waste between

the only two sites left.

The hazardous waste haulers (paid by the mile) win. The public loses.

John Weingart sits in his office and shrugs. "I’m a man who has

spotted the problem, but I really don’t hold any solutions. Distrust

of government is a bad, but enlarging cycle." A few suggestions

come to mind:

Limit public input. First, he says, people must be made

to know the approval path of an issue. They need to see a flow chart

of how the issue will be decided — when pubic comment is invited,

and when it ends. Every issue must have a deadline where all the studies

and public hearings stop, and boom, the decision is made.

Give government more responsibility. Government has to

be given more responsibility, not less. Endless outside review boards

do more to snarl bureaucracy than bureaucrats. "We’ve got to make

it challenging and fun to work in government," Weingart says.

"We can’t forever tie our government’s hands and expect more of


Limit decision making by a vocal minority. We really have

to decide for what issues, and in what manner, public hearings can

be held. It’s a tricky question, but falling prey to a vocal minority

does not always serve the public good.

Says Weingart: "The pubic must regain a justifiable faith

in its institutions. I know the truth always sounds naive, yet perhaps

we just need more of it."

— Bart Jackson

Top Of Page
Turning Techies into Leaders: Blessing White

Engineers, programmers, chemists, and biologists all

share conflicting needs, says Cate Jones of Blessing White.

They need autonomy but like collegiality. "Managers need to understand

what makes them tick," she says.

Blessing White is the global consulting firm, based on Orchard Road,

that specializes in personal and corporate growth (www.blessingwhite.com).

Its "Technical Leadership" course is based on three years

of research with 300 leaders in 19 technology companies and groups.

"We found that technical professionals have unique needs,"

says Jones, "and that successful managers displayed specific skills.

In every class, when we ask what are the challenges of managing technical

professionals, the managers come up with the same questions we found

in the research. Our research is validated with every class."

Before Jones took the job of marketing director, she was the product

manager for this course. She is a chemical engineer from Columbia

who had worked at Groundwater Technology and Johnson Matthey. (E-mail:

catej@bwinc.com). The current course manager is Crys Sheets,

based in California.

Most of the time, corporations buy this course to use as standard

training, but Blessing White has schedule a course for its Orchard

Road headquarters from Tuesday to Thursday, May 22 to 24, from 8 a.m.

to 5 p.m. It will be limited to 10 to 15 people who manage or lead

technical professionals.

Certain managers were found to be more successful at fostering innovation,

strengthening teamwork, and sustaining commitment. They consistently

used six motivational skills: maintaining and enhancing self-esteem,

focusing on specific behavior and impact, asking appropriate questions,

using "active" listening, communicating benefits, and setting

goals and follow-up dates. Specifically, they learned to do the following:

Delegate responsibility. Giving your employees decision-making

authority and access to resources helps them achieve a higher level

of job satisfaction.

Solicit input. Ask for and respond to concerns, questions,

and suggestions.

Recognize diversity. The most effective coaches recognize

that everyone is different, and respond to the specific needs of each


Value employee ideas. You can encourage potential innovators

by nurturing, facilitating, and protecting your employees creative

and worthwhile ideas.

Empathize. This conveys trust and is one of the most effective

ways of helping team members become self-directing, responsible, and


Set goals. Managers are more effective when they set overall

performance goals, and incorporate goal setting into their communications

with team members. Team members will be more motivated to contribute

when they understand and support a need or objective.

As Jones points out, "people join companies, but leave managers."

— Barbara Fox

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