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A Long Island family sits in a ‘Kidde Kokoon,’ an underground bomb shelter manufactured by Walter Kidde Nuclear Laboratories, Garden City, New York, 1955.. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Nuclear Fallout Shelters

On September 15, 1961, millions of Americans who subscribed to Life magazine pulled the latest issue from their mailboxes and beheld something remarkable inside: a letter from President Kennedy addressed to them. But if the fact of the letter was a pleasant surprise, the glow wore off quickly: JFK’s news wasn’t good. “My Fellow Americans,” he wrote, “nuclear weapons and the possibility of nuclear war are facts of life we cannot ignore today.”

Kennedy went on to explain that the federal government would soon begin a program “to improve the protection afforded you in your communities through civil defense.” A national survey was in the offing, one that would identify “all public buildings with fallout shelter potential,” and mark them accordingly.

In other words, the federal government was devising a way for 50 million Americans to survive a nuclear war by scurrying to the nearest basement. The National Fallout Shelter Survey and Marking Program had begun.

It’s the stuff of nostalgia now. Kennedy’s letter and the shelter program he announced happened 56 years ago. It’s a Cold War footnote, a misty memory lost in the era of bouffant hairdos and Gunsmoke.

Or perhaps not.

Complete 34-p. guide to family protection against fallout and nuclear attack, including: -Area and effects of fallout -Types of shelters -Food, water requirements -Sanitation and ventilation -Financing Only 25 cents.

With North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, pointed west and President Trump’s atomic sabre-rattling, fears of nuclear war have crept slowly back into the public consciousness. If the headlines rekindle some of the old unease about air-raid sirens and mushroom clouds, they’re also an occasion to consider a singular relic of the period that, oddly enough, never left—the fallout-shelter sign.

Kennedy was privately skeptical about the value of a public shelter program. A surer way to protect Americans from a nuclear attack—which, with the Berlin crisis of 1961, looked increasingly possible—was to build reinforced-concrete blast shelters around the nation that could actually withstand an explosion. But the price tag for those was prohibitive ($200 billion by one estimate), so the feds opted for the next-best thing: shelters that would shield citizens from the radioactive particulates likely to be blowing around in the weeks after an attack. While fallout shelters would do nothing to safeguard people from an actual bomb, they would, in the words of JFK’s civil-defense chief Steuart L. Pittman, give “our presently unprotected population some form of protection.”

Americans got their first look at that protection in January of 1962, when fallout-shelter signs began appearing in 14 cities across the country. Designed by Robert W. Blakeley of the Army Corp of Engineers, the signs featured three yellow triangles inscribed in a black circle—an arresting image approved by government psychologists. As a test, Blakely had envisioned the signs put up in downtown Manhattan “when all the lights are out and people are on the street and don’t know where to go.” And since half of Americans at the time were smokers, Blakeley specified the use of yellow reflective paint to make the signs visible in the glow of a cigarette lighter. The 3M corporation (best known today as the maker of Scotch tape and Post-It notes) manufactured 400,000 shelter signs, for which Uncle Sam paid less than a penny apiece.

Underground School: October, 1963. At the new Abo elementary school in Artesia, N. Mex., the children go up to the roof to play–and underground to study. The country’s first underground school, it is also the largest fallout shelter. It accommodates 540 children through sixth grade, can house 2,160 adults and children for two weeks as an emergency shelter. It’s built to withstand blast and fallout from a 20-megaton bomb.

The signs popped up everywhere. In New York alone, the Army Corps of Engineers contracted with 38 architectural firms to inspect 105,244 large buildings. Eventually, some 19,000 of them would become shelters.

And what sorts of quarters awaited those who staggered down the stairs? Only a handful were relatively posh; Chase Manhattan Bank, for one, dropped $49,000 on “compressed” wheat biscuits in banana and chocolate flavors to stock its five-story shelter. But most citizens would find only dank, low-ceilinged basements equipped with the barest necessities: bedding, drums of potable water, medical kits and government-issue wheat crackers. And while Uncle Sam thoughtfully provided toilet paper, the toilets themselves were harder to come by. A handy tip from a government booklet advised: “Make a commode by cutting the seat out of a chair and placing the pail under it.” It’s little wonder that the medical kits also included phenobarbital to chill everybody out.

How to Shelter 1960. Any cover is better than none when the fallout rains down. Where the fallout falls depends on where the bomb hits and which way high-altitude winds blow.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the trouble with such crude accommodations became obvious almost immediately. Mere months into the program, reports emerged of leaking water drums and shelters that had never received any supplies. In a New York Times story in June of 1963, a Harlem woman asked, “Who’d want to go down there?” referring to the fetid tenement cellar meant to serve as her shelter space. The “rats are as big as dogs,” she said. “If fallout came, I’d just run.” In fact, the untenability of the shelters was public knowledge before they had even opened. A November 1961 story on the front page of The Washington Post bemoaned that most of the designated shelters would be little more than “cold, unpleasant cellar space, with bad ventilation and even worse sanitation.”

Men install fallout shelter sign in Chicago. (Credit: Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty Images)

A fallout shelter is an enclosed space specially designed to protect occupants from radioactive debris or fallout resulting from a nuclear explosion. Many such shelters were constructed as civil defense measures during the Cold War.

During a nuclear explosion, matter vaporized in the resulting fireball is exposed to neutrons from the explosion, absorbs them, and becomes radioactive. When this material condenses in the rain, it forms dust and light sandy materials that resemble ground pumice. The fallout emits alpha and beta particles, as well as gamma rays.

Much of this highly radioactive material falls to earth, subjecting anything within the line of sight to radiation, becoming a significant hazard. A fallout shelter is designed to allow its occupants to minimize exposure to harmful fallout until radioactivity has decayed to a safer level.

On Feb. 14, 1950, the headmistress of the village school in Shropshire, England, supervises the children in their monthly gas mask drill. Central Press/Getty Images

From the end of World War II until the early 1990s, the world faced a period of heightened international tension and competition called the Cold War. The United States and the non-communist world faced extraordinary circumstances, which they saw as a threat to world peace, democracy, and security:

Soviet development of atomic weapons,

Soviets flexing their newfound nuclear muscles,

Soviets extending their political ideology into Europe and elsewhere.

The federal government responded to heightened public anxiety by creating the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA), later called the Office of Civil Defense, to instruct the public about how to prepare for a nuclear assault. The Eisenhower administration distributed information to educate Americans about how they could protect themselves. Survival literature was written primarily for a suburban audience, since it was assumed that cities would be targets and most urban dwellers would not survive. Officials at the FCDA stated that if people were educated and prepared for a nuclear attack, they could survive an atomic bomb and avoid the wholesale death and destruction that had occurred at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A fallout shelter is a civil defense measure intended to reduce casualties in a nuclear war. It is designed to allow those inside it to avoid exposure to harmful fallout from a nuclear blast and its likely aftermath of radiation until radioactivity has dropped to a safer level. A basic fallout shelter consists of shielding that reduces gamma-ray exposure. Since the most dangerous fallout has the consistency of sand or finely ground pumice, a successful fallout shelter need not filter fine dust from air. The fine dust both emits relatively little radiation and does not settle to the earth, where the fallout shelter exists. Concrete, bricks, earth, and sand are some of the materials that are dense or heavy enough to provide fallout protection. Concrete was the favoured building material of fallout shelters, with walls at least 12 inches thick. The required shielding could be accomplished with 10 times the amount of any quantity of material capable of cutting gamma-ray effects in half. Shields that reduce gamma ray intensity by 50 percent include 0.4 inches of lead, 2.4 inches of concrete, 3.6 inches of packed dirt or 500 feet of air. When multiple thicknesses are built, the shielding multiplies.

Idealized American fallout shelter, around 1957.

The federal government recommended that fallout shelters be placed in a basement or buried in the backyard. The idea was to get as much mass as possible between survivors, the detonation, and its after-effects. Shelter types were: expedience, personal or family, community, multipurpose, and hidden. Usually, an expedience fallout shelter was a trench with a strong roof buried under three feet of earth. The two ends of the trench had ramps or entrances at right angles to the trench so that gamma rays could not enter. To make the roof waterproof in case of rain, a plastic sheet was buried a few inches below the surface and held down with rocks or bricks.

A fallout shelter sign graces the Madison County Courthouse in Huntsville, Ala., in 2007. The county is working on a plan to identify shelters that can house up to 300,000 people in the event of a nuclear incident. Dave Martin/AP

A fallout shelter built in the corner of a basement was the least expensive type, and it supposedly offered substantial protection. In many plans, concrete blocks provided the walls. An open doorway and vents near the floor provided ventilation. The shelter’s entrance was constructed with a sharp turn to reduce radiation intensity. According to civil defense authorities, a concrete block basement shelter could be built as a do-it-yourself project for $150 to $200 at the time. Exactly how much protection it actually afforded was an open question. Civil Defense suggested plans for such a structure in basements, converted cisterns, or other below-ground sites. Even four feet of earth or a couple of feet of concrete would reduce the level of gamma-ray radiation that would reach the family in an underground shelter.

Schoolchildren kneel to practice a “duck and cover” air-raid drill in an elementary school classroom, circa 1955. American Stock Archive/Getty Images

A nurse at a children’s health clinic in Warsaw administers an iodine solution to a 3-year-old girl held in her mother’s arms in Poland, May 1986, as a protective measure against possible radiation poisoning after the Chernobyl disaster. Czarek Sokolowski/AP

FALLOUT SHELTER BASICS: SEPTEMBER, 1959. “Planners figure a family of four could be housed in a room with a seven-by-seven foot floor area. That allows a little more than the 10 square feet per person considered a minimum for comfort. ‘Basics’ will include beds, food, water, sanitation facilities, lighting and a radio. To alleviate boredom, the designers experimented with variations in lighting. Both incandescents and fluorescents were used. Switching different ones off and on at intervals helped convey a feeling of the passage of time.”

Ventilation in the shelter was provided by a hand-cranked blower attached by a pipe to a filter mechanism on the surface. By turning the crank, the shelter would be ventilated with fresh air filtered to keep out radioactive particles. More elaborate plans suggested installing an electrical generator to provide all the comforts of home. Some custom built-in-place shelters were described as buried several feet underground somewhere in one’s yard, with either tunnel access from a basement or a double-entry area through hatches in the yard.

Many shelters built during the 1960s were not designed well. They might block radiation, but were not built to hold people long enough for the threat to dissipate, because they lacked air-handling and waste-disposal systems. Earth is an excellent thermal insulator, and over several weeks of habitation, a shelter temperature would rise merely by the occupants’ body heat. Without good ventilation, the occupants could suffer heat exhaustion or suffocation. It was recommended that inhabitants plan to remain sheltered full time for at least two weeks following a nuclear blast, then work outside for gradually increasing amounts of time, to four hours a day at three weeks. Typical work supposedly was to sweep or wash fallout into shallow trenches to decontaminate the area. It was recommended that occupants sleep in a shelter for several months.

1962. Complete 34-p. guide to family protection against fallout and nuclear attack, including: -Area and effects of fallout -Types of shelters -Food, water requirements -Sanitation and ventilation -Financing Only 25 cents.

During the Cold War, many countries built fallout shelters for high-ranking government officials and crucial military facilities, such as Project Greek Island and Cheyenne Mountain nuclear bunker in the United States and Canada’s Emergency Government Headquarters. Plans were made, however, to use existing buildings with sturdy below-ground-level basements as makeshift fallout shelters. These buildings were placarded with the orange-yellow and black trefoil sign designed by United States Army Corps of Engineers director of administrative logistics support function Robert W. Blakeley in 1961.

The National Emergency Alarm Repeater (NEAR) program was developed in the United States 1956 during the Cold War to supplement the existing siren warning systems and radio broadcasts in the event of a nuclear attack. The N.E.A.R. civilian alarm device was engineered and tested but the program was not viable and was terminated in 1967. In the U.S. in September 1961, under the direction of Steuart L. Pittman, the federal government started the Community Fallout Shelter Program. A letter from President Kennedy advising the use of fallout shelters appeared in the September 1961 issue of Life magazine.

The family of Navy Lt. Cmdr. Thomas W. Robinson prepares to enter an underground bomb shelter on Nov. 4, 1960, at Parks Air Force Base near Pleasanton, Calif., where they were to remain for 48 hours to test life in the shelter.

In November 1961, in Fortune magazine, an article by Gilbert Burck appeared that outlined the plans of Nelson Rockefeller, Edward Teller, Herman Kahn, and Chet Holifield for an enormous network of concrete lined underground fallout shelters throughout the United States sufficient to shelter millions of people to serve as a refuge in case of nuclear war.

Similar projects have been undertaken in Finland, which requires all buildings with area over 600 m² to have an NBC shelter, and Norway, which requires all buildings with an area over 1000 m² to have a shelter.

The former Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries often designed their underground mass-transit and subway tunnels to serve as bomb and fallout shelters in the event of an attack.

Germany has protected shelters for 3% of its population, Austria for 30%, Finland for 70%, Sweden for 81% and Switzerland for 114%.

Some of the main things stocked in a fallout shelter were first aid supplies, food, and water. It had to be enough to last two weeks. In 2013, a California couple found a fallout shelter 15 feet below their backyard. It was like opening a time capsule. They found food, coffee, cookies, cans of multi purpose food, all kinds of kitchen storage supplies, dixie cups, kleenex, facial tissues, sweaters, an assortment of sleeping pills, board games, and science fiction magazines. In community shelters, the would stock up in food supplies, cleaning and special personal supplies, clothing and bedding, rescue tools, and miscellaneous supplies like a clock and calendar were important items for a shelter. They recommended that someone would take a course that would help them take care of anyone sick or elderly . They also had religious activities, school books and homework, with other reading material, and they would always engage in exercise activities in order to stay in shape.

Switzerland built an extensive network of fallout shelters, not only through extra hardening of government buildings such as schools, but also through a building regulation requiring nuclear shelters in residential buildings since the 1960s (the first legal basis in this sense dates from 4 October 1963). Later, the law ensured that all residential buildings built after 1978 contained a nuclear shelter able to withstand a blast from a 12 megaton explosion at a distance of 700 metres. The Federal Law on the Protection of the Population and Civil Protection still requires nowadays that every inhabitant should have a place in a shelter close to where they live.

Fallout shelter sign. (Credit: Marc Nozell/Flickr Creative Commons/CC BY 2.0)

The Swiss authorities maintained large communal shelters (such as the Sonnenberg Tunnel until 2006) stocked with over four months of food and fuel. The reference Nuclear War Survival Skills declared that, as of 1986, “Switzerland has the best civil defense system, one that already includes blast shelters for over 85 percent of all its citizens.”As of 2006, there were about 300,000 shelters built in private homes, institutions and hospitals, as well as 5,100 public shelters for a total of 8.6 million places, a level of coverage equal to 114% of the population.

In Switzerland, most residential shelters are no longer stocked with the food and water required for prolonged habitation and a large number have been converted by the owners to other uses (e.g., wine cellars, ski rooms, gyms). But the owner still has the obligation to ensure the maintenance of the shelter.

National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution.

Inhabitants should plan to remain sheltered for at least two weeks (with an hour out at the end of the first week – then work outside for gradually increasing amounts of time, to four hours a day at three weeks. The normal work is to sweep or wash fallout into shallow trenches to decontaminate the area. They should sleep in a shelter for several months. Evacuation at three weeks is recommended by official authorities.

If available, inhabitants may take potassium iodide at the rate of 130 mg/day per adult (65 mg/day per child) as an additional measure to protect the thyroid gland from the uptake of dangerous radioactive iodine, a component of most fallout and reactor waste.

Two-thirds of the fallout shelters in the U.S. were in “risk areas”—neighbourhoods so close to strike targets that they’d likely never survive an attack in the first place. In New York, for example, most of the government shelters could be found in Manhattan and Brooklyn—despite the fact that a 20-megaton hydrogen bomb detonated over Midtown would leave a crater 20 stories deep and drive a firestorm all the way to the centre of Long Island. Even out there, Life magazine said, occupants of a fallout shelter “might be barbequed.”

Home Basement Shelter Foxhole 1951. You cannot escape an atomic bomb, but there is something practical and patriotic you can do to prepare for atomic attack. A millionaire could not construct a complete A-bomb-proof shelter, but the average house-holder can make a worthwhile refuge room in the average basement. By building your family foxhole, you will also be building the state of mind that can resist the pressures of aggression as well as the shocks of actual atomic war.

Steel Tank Shelter 1960. A nuclear-bomb shelter that will accommodate a family of six comfortably is being made for civilian use. It’s a steel tank buried three feet under the ground. Entrance and exit are through a submarine-type airlock and a ladder in a vertical tunnel. Above ground are a filtered air intake and an exhaust duct.

Defense officials placed their faith in the counterforce doctrine, a game theory that held that atomic war would be waged with only military installations as targets. But that was wishful thinking. It wouldn’t take much for the whole theory to totally go south, If a bomber missed its target and hit a city by mistake, then of course the gloves would come off and both sides would concentrate on cities as well.

Most fallout shelters have been filled in, torn apart or decommissioned in the United States, that is the case for public shelters at least. The United States military is still building Fallout shelters. Around the globe, shelters are being built and maintained. Russia, China and Switzerland are all countries still maintaining their shelters. Fallout is a dangerous material that inspired fear across the globe and caused governments to prepare its citizens for the worst. Fallout shelters were designed to save lives for now and for the future. The fear, or rather the interest in the apocalypse is still alive in United States culture today.


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