The Great Lie of the American Fallout Shelter

Source: AP
Source: AP

During the Cold War, as America stared across the planet at a heavily-armed nuclear superpower, its citizens were digging holes. Lots of holes. Holes that were filled with bottled water and nonperishable food and tons and tons of concrete where people could go if Soviet bombers dropped nuclear weapons all over the country.

In 1961, President Kennedy pressed Americans to protect themselves from nuclear fallout — the leftover radioactive material from a nuclear blast — by building bomb shelters.

The shelters were supposed to protect their inhabitants from blast pressure, radiation given off by the blast and extreme heat and fire. The reality was those shelters wouldn't do a goddamn thing to protect people from a full-scale nuclear attack.

Source: Giphy

The big lie of the American bomb shelter

Most people are familiar with the black-and-yellow fallout shelter signs left on buildings from the Cold War era. They were originally put in place by the Office of Civil Defense, formerly the Federal Civil Defense Administration, which was established by President Harry Truman to educate people about how to protect themselves in the instance of nuclear attack.

Scientists knew that nuclear detonations released — among other forms of radiation — deadly gamma rays, which could be obstructed with enough concrete and distance underground. Radiation can literally blow over in a matter of hours, depending on the size of the blast, so the country, or even the whole affected city, wouldn't be scorched forever.

But again, that was only if you weren't directly hit by the blast.

President John F. Kennedy's top-secret Florida bunker
Source: 
Alan Diaz/AP

The fallout shelter was one of the thickest safety blankets ever wrapped around the collective shoulders of terrified citizens. American culture embraced these ineffective methods, believing a concrete box — or even a school desk — would be enough to survive a full-scale nuclear attack.

Typically, the shelters were "draconian — dark, dank and dangerous," said Cham Dallas, director of the Institute for Disaster Management at the University of Georgia, in a phone interview. In movies like Blast From the Past, however, the bunker was romanticized as a sophisticated underground oasis, stocked with power, food, water and activities.

Source: YouTube

"I think the shelter systems, public and private, were all part of a great defeat in a way," said Irwin Redlener, Clinical Professor of Health Policy and Management and Pediatrics at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, in a phone interview. "Bert the Turtle said during a nuclear attack you just duck under the desk. [We thought] massive attack by an all-out nuclear war would be survivable. But it just wasn't. Survival was just not going to be possible."

Source: YouTube
Students duck and cover in a Brooklyn elementary school
Source: 
Wikimedia Commons

One theory about the origin of the fallout shelter: The U.S. wanted to look like it was too expensive to destroy. 

According to Redlener, evacuation plans "were meant to send a message to the other side that we'd survive, so they'd better up the ante. They would just push the other side to go bigger and spend more money ... making a successful attack [on the U.S.] too expensive and complicated."

However, if the Soviet Union had ever called our bluff, its nuclear payload would kill millions.

What would happen if a nuclear blast hit your city

Nuclear blasts create shockwaves and high-speed wind that can tear the walls off a house. Then comes the radiation. Some radiation, alpha particles, can't penetrate your skin. But another form, called gamma rays, are deadly and strong enough to radiate through a lot of mediums, but not necessarily thick concrete.

If a single Tsar Bomba, a 50 megaton thermonuclear bomb, fell on New York City, over 10 million people would be killed or injured. With a program called Nuke Map, you can see the bomb's blast zone: The largest circle represents the thermal radiation radius, which would leave victims across New Jersey, Connecticut and Long Island with nerve-destroying third-degree burns, leading to scarring and other issues.

Source: Nuke Map

Now imagine thousands of these attacks nationwide. If the full nuclear power of both sides of the war were exercised, nothing would survive. Bunkers would be blown to bits. The surface would be radioactive for who knows how long. Most people would die. 

Cold War-era shelters were doomed

If we had gotten into a boxing match with a nuclear-powered adversary during the Cold War, it would have been lights out — even if every American had an underground bunker.

In 1961, the Soviet Union detonated the Tsar Bomba in the Russian Arctic Sea. That's an explosive force of 50 million tons of TNT. By comparison, the bomb that hit Nagasaki, the "Fat Man," had a force of only around 20,000 tons. 

A replica of the Tsar Bomba
Source: 
Pavel Golovkin/AP

To understand the extent of the Tsar's devastating power, consider what a bomb roughly 500 times weaker did. In 1962, the U.S. performed the "Sedan" nuclear test — a 104 kiloton bomb detonation in the Nevada desert. It created a crater about 300 feet deep and about 1,200 feet in diameter.

If both sides had used their weaponry in the Cold War, Redlener said, "we're talking about total obliteration." 

Those nukes are still around. Today, the U.S. has a stockpile of around 7,100 nuclear weapons. Russia has around 7,700.

A fallout shelter in Indiana
Source: 
Wikimedia Commons

Fallout shelters would be more effective today

Today, it's unlikely that an enemy nation would have access to a Tsar Bomba and use it to attack the United States. What's more likely is that it would steal or build a much-less powerful nuclear device and drive it to a city center in a major metropolis, like Times Square or Logan Square, said Dallas.

These small weapons are "10 to 15 kilotons, Hiroshima-blast-sized," Dallas said. The Department of Homeland Security has planned for an attack of this size, he said, "and the health dangers are much smaller than you'd think with a small weapon."

A detonation would still cause widespread devastation and thousands of fatalities. But according to Redlener, "It wouldn't end life as we know it." 

Source: YouTube

Relics of Cold War-era shelters, marked by the Office of Civil Defense with forbidding black-and-yellow placards, remain in New York — but they're more suited now for bad storms, not nuclear attacks. 

Most NYC buildings were designed to be stable, with thick concrete walls and basements that could be potential locations to go in case of emergency. 

If a small-scale bomb went off on Long Island, people hiding in a shelter in Manhattan wouldn't suffer the brunt of radiation impact, like third-degree burns and scarring. Buildings today, like the buildings of the '50s, wouldn't protect us from an all-out nuclear attack. There's no such thing as a nuke-proof building.

There's no such thing as a nuke-proof building.

Fortunately, "we aren't looking at total annihilation [from] the megaton-size [bomb] from another country," said Eliot Calhoun, Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives Planner for the New York City Emergency Management Department, in a phone interview. "Our current planning is to get inside and stay tuned: Have food and water, have your needed documents and be prepared to stay indoors."

Source: YouTube

During the war, the U.S. and Russia built bombs into a stalemate. They had thousands of weapons each, but no one wanted to pull the trigger first and ensure their own destruction. If they had, no amount of bunker would have done any good.

And all the while, Americans dug holes and filled them with bottled water, nonperishable foods and tons and tons of almost-useless concrete.

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Max Plenke

Max Plenke is a staff writer at Mic, where he covers breaking news, climate science, health and the future. His work has appeared in Esquire, GQ and Wallpaper. Send story tips to max@mic.com.

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