Why New Jersey failed to find a home for its radioactive trash
Archived article from Oct 19, 2001
By Steve Manas
In retrospect, John Weingart wishes that the New Jersey Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Facility Siting Board, which he directed from 1994 to 1998, had at least had a cutesy acronym or camouflaging abbreviation to duck behind. Instead, all it had going for it was an unwieldy name and an unenviable task: to find a volunteer among New Jersey's 566 municipalities as a "final resting place" for the state's low-level nuclear waste, including X-rays, hospital and laboratory radioisotopes and other select industrial "trash."
Efforts to persuade a community to accept the unwanted material was always an uphill battle. When the board approached respected NBC news anchor John Chancellor, then living in Princeton, about narrating part of the 18-minute promotional video "Hosting New Jersey's Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Facility: Would It Be Right for Your Community?" he politely declined. "I can think of no public problem more daunting than yours," he wrote back.
Weingart, now associate director at Rutgers' Eagleton Institute of Politics, details the now-defunct board's "impossible dream" in his book "Waste Is a Terrible Thing to Mind: Risk, Radiation, and Distrust of Government" (Center for Analysis of Public Issues, 2001), an honest and objective retelling of the board's failure to site a single facility.
The edition, complete with a liberal sprinkling of editorial cartoons and newspaper headlines collected during the board's existence, features Weingart's "Bureaucrat's Journal, April 12, 1997-Feb. 12, 1998" and an "Incredible Hulk" green cover with the universal radiation symbol.
Before signing up for this high-visibility job, Weingart was an assistant commissioner at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. No stranger to environmental politics, he chronicles the origins of the low-level radioactive waste problem and its place in popular culture, summarizes federal and state legislation that mandated its disposal, recounts the creation of the state's siting board and analyzes compacts to dispose of the stuff, including a timely deal in 1999 that allows New Jersey to continue dumping waste at South Carolina's all-but-closed Barnwell facility.
Weingart also writes about the siting board's decision to "think outside the box" during its search. Rather than follow traditional "top down" models, whereby local officials were simply informed by state regulators that their community was under consideration or a finalist or actually chosen to host some unwanted project, the siting board sought grassroots support. It undertook a vigorous, thorough and factual public information campaign to gain acceptance, or at least open minds to the possibility of playing host.
Despite these efforts, no New Jersey communities stepped forward to accept a LULU (local unwanted land use). Not the promise of access to unlimited, unbiased scientific information, nor help in siting and building the facility, nor even an annual host fee of $2 million could make residents receptive to the idea.
"The issue is much larger than siting a facility," Weingart says. "It's about our apparent willingness to give credence to people who tell us that some-thing is dangerous and our inability to trust some-one who says something is safe. In an age in which we are bombarded with information about what has gone wrong and what can harm us, how do we absorb data and decide what is correct or acceptable?
"The only workable option for us as a society is to place some trust in government to make necessary decisions that can't be left to individuals," he concludes.