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Friday, September 28, 2007
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.
After 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 cloud, it forms dust and light sandy material that resembles ground pumice. The fallout emits both beta particles and gamma rays. Much of this highly radioactive material then falls to earth, subjecting anything within the line of sight to radiation, a significant hazard. A fallout shelter is designed to allow its occupants to avoid exposure to harmful fallout until radioactivity has decayed to a safer level.
Penn & Teller - Bruce Beach
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21st Century Fallout Shelters
When bomb shelters were all the rage
In America, the 1950s was a time of unprecedented prosperity, as well as unprecedented anxiety. The Russians had exploded a hydrogen bomb, touching off a nerve-wracking arms race, and had put cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in space, setting off a frantic space race.
American school children were being taught to "duck and cover" in case of nuclear attack and were being herded into school basements for terrifying bomb drills.
Patti Zeck, a first grade student at Carleton elementary school on Detroit's eastside, remembered the frequent drills that sent students and teachers scurrying to the steam tunnels in the bowels of the school building. We marched quietly down into the basement and lined up against the cement walls hoping that the sirens meant just another safety test, and not the real thing.
As the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union escalated, fear of the bomb and anxiety over the possiblity of a nuclear war drove many Americans to dug deep into the earth in an effort to survive what seemed at the time the inevitable nuclear attack from our enemies. Ordinary Americans built bomb shelters in their backyards, often hiding them from their neighbors.
A nationwide Alert America campaign sought to reassure people that simple civil defense procedures would protect them. Booklets and films offered suggestions on how to survive an atomic attack. Trailers and portable exhibits were used by the Federal Civil Defense Administration to familiarize people with images of the catastrophic effects of the atomic bomb in the naive hope that this would forestall panic.
Millions of comic books were distributed to school children featuring a cartoon turtle called Bert that urged them to "duck and cover" in the event of an atomic strike. Metal identification tags similar to military dogtags were even issued in some schools.
Spotters were assigned to watch the skies for anything that looked suspicious or out of the ordinary.
The threat of the bomb became a part of everyday life. Despite the Cold War, Americans were buying houses and settling into the suburbs at an unprecedented rate. With the memory of World War II still fresh, the country longed for an idyllic family life like that portrayed in television sitcoms such as "Leave It to Beaver," "Father Knows Best" and "Ozzie and Harriet." The economy was strong and post war wages were high.
Civil defense officials talked confidently of group shelters for 50 million people, but in the new suburban communities the nervous were taking survival into their own hands. Bomb shelters costing from $100 to as much as $5,000 for an underground suite with phone and toilet were selling like hotcakes.
Wall Street investors said the bomb shelter business could gross up to $20 billion in the coming years (if there would be coming years).
Survival stores around the nation sold air blowers, filters, flashlights, fallout protection suits, first aid kits and water. General Foods and General Mills sold dry-packaged meals as underground rations.
Families with well stocked shelters lived with the fear that after a nuclear attack they'd be invaded by an army of friends and neighbors who neglected to build bunkers of their own. Many ordered contractors to construct their shelters in the dead of night so nosey neighbors wouldn't see. One owner assured his neighbor that the bomb shelter he was building was really a wine cellar.
Civil defense films assured the public that simple precautions like walled-off basement corners stocked with two weeks rations and a radio tuned to Conelrad, the new emergency network, would help them survive a nuclear attack. But the government warned that a shoddy homemade shelter could broil its occupants "to a crisp" or squeeze them "like grapefruit."
Newspapers carried radiation readings beside daily weather reports and Popular Mechanics magazine published a fallout shelter blueprint for the do-it-yourselfer. While Congress debated the merits of evacuating large cities versus massive community shelters, homeowners improvised shelters from septic tanks, concrete tubing, steel sheds and discarded lumber.
Major airlines, Detroit automakers, IBM, the phone company and Wall Street planned employee shelters. The Federal Reserve designated banks for postwar check cashing, and a farmer in Iowa built a fallout shelter for 200 cows.
Public buildings with deep basements lined with thick underground concrete were designated as shelters in case of an attack by the Soviet Union.
Hollywood got into the mood and began producing nuclear war doomsday films, including "On The Beach," "The Last Man On Earth," "The Day the World Ended," "Atomic Kid," and "Dr. Strangelove."
Not to be outdone, television produced its own prime time doomsday. In the premiere episode of the classic series "The Twilight Zone," a young astronaut played by actor Earl Holliman returns to Earth to discover that a nuclear war has left him, like Adam, alone.
In the late 1950s, a public opinion poll showed that 40 percent of Americans were seriously considering building a shelter. Things did not improve in the '60s.
Testing the mettle of the new and youthful President John F. Kennedy, Soviet Premier Nikita Krushschev demanded that NATO troops leave Berlin, emphasizing his point with a scary shoe-banging tantrum at the United Nations
Kennedy recommended a course of action to his fellow Americans. "A fallout shelter for everybody," he said, "as rapidly as possible." Calling Berlin "the great testing place of Western courage and will," Kennedy promised to let every citizen know what steps he could take without delay to protect his family in case of attack.
The Russians ended a three-year moratorium on nuclear testing with a blast over central Russia and warned the west that "It would take really very few multimegaton nuclear bombs to wipe out your small and densely populated countries and kill you instantly in your lairs."
A year later, the Cuban Missile Crisis would shove the world to the brink for 13 agonizing days. Newspaper headlines blared warnings of impending annihilation. "Highest Urgency, Kennedy Reports," "Invasion Possible, Air, Sea and Ground Forces Ordered Out for Maneuvers," they cried.
But the bomb never dropped.
The world heaved a sigh of relief as the Soviets backed off. And as the immediate peril of nuclear holocaust began to fade, Americans began to accept that fallout shelters probably did little to protect them from nuclear disaster. The backyard bomb shelters became wine cellars, fruit cellars, or just quietly filled up with water.
Government officials acknowledge that over the last several decades they have quietly been discarding nearly a half-century of old foodstuffs and other supplies stocked for survivors of a nuclear war. The olive green canisters of water and food rations stamped with official civil defense markings have been discarded, donated or sold off.
"It wasn't like one day we just woke up and said it's over," explained one official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). "But everything really is gone."
Alabama City Reopening Fallout Shelters
In an age of al-Qaida, sleeper cells and the threat of nuclear terrorism, Huntsville is dusting off its Cold War manual to create the nation's most ambitious fallout-shelter plan, featuring an abandoned mine big enough for 20,000 people to take cover underground.
Others would hunker down in college dorms, churches, libraries and research halls that planners hope will bring the community's shelter capacity to 300,000, or space for every man, woman and child in Huntsville and the surrounding county.
Emergency planners in Huntsville - an out-of-the-way city best known as the home of NASA 's Marshall Space Flight Center - say the idea makes sense because radioactive fallout could be scattered for hundreds of miles if terrorists detonated a nuclear bomb.
''If Huntsville is in the blast zone, there's not much we can do. But if it's just fallout ... shelters would absorb 90 percent of the radiation,'' said longtime emergency management planner Kirk Paradise, whose Cold War expertise with fallout shelters led local leaders to renew Huntsville's program.
Huntsville's project, developed using $70,000 from a Homeland Security grant, goes against the grain because the United States essentially scrapped its national plan for fallout shelters after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Congress cut off funding and the government published its last list of approved shelters at the end of 1992.
After Sept. 11, Homeland Security created a metropolitan protection program that includes nuclear-attack preparation and mass shelters. But no other city has taken the idea as far as Huntsville has, officials said.
Many cities advise residents to stay at home and seal up a room with plastic and duct tape during a biological, chemical or nuclear attack. Huntsville does too, in certain cases.
Local officials agree the ''shelter-in-place'' method would be best for a ''dirty bomb'' that scattered nuclear contamination through conventional explosives. But they say full-fledged shelters would be needed to protect from the fallout of a nuclear bomb.
Program leaders recently briefed members of Congress, including Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., who called the shelter plan an example of the ''all-hazards'' approach needed for emergency preparedness.
''Al-Qaida, we know, is interested in a nuclear capability. It's our nation's fear that a nuclear weapon could get into terrorists' hands,'' Dent said.
As fallout shelters go, the Three Caves Quarry just outside downtown offers the kind of protection that would make Dr. Strangelove proud, with space for an arena-size crowd of some 20,000 people.
Last mined in the early '50s, the limestone quarry is dug 300 yards into the side of the mountain, with ceilings as high as 60 feet and 10 acres of floor space covered with jagged rocks. Jet-black in places with a year-round temperature of about 60 degrees, it has a colony of bats living in its highest reaches and baby stalactites hanging from the ceiling.
''It would be a little trying, but it's better than the alternative,'' said Andy Prewett, a manager with The Land Trust of Huntsville and North Alabama, a nonprofit preservation group that owns the mine and is making it available for free.
In all, the Huntsville-Madison County Emergency Management Agency has identified 105 places that can be used as fallout shelters for about 210,000 people. They are still looking for about 50 more shelters that would hold an additional 100,000 people.
While officials have yet to launch a campaign to inform people of the shelters, a local access TV channel showed a video about the program, which also is explained on a county Web site.
If a bomb went off tomorrow, Paradise said, officials would tell people where to find shelter through emergency alerts on TV and radio stations. ''We're pretty much ready to go because we have a list of shelters,'' he said.
Most of the shelters would offer more comfort than the abandoned mine, such as buildings at the University of Alabama in Huntsville that would house 37,643. A single research hall could hold more than 8,100.
Homeland Security spokeswoman Alexandra Kirin said of Huntsville's wide-ranging plan: ''We're not aware of any other cities that are doing that.''
Plans call for staying inside for as long as two weeks after a bomb blast, though shelters might be needed for only a few hours in a less dire emergency.
Unlike the fallout shelters set up during the Cold War, the new ones will not be stocked with water, food or other supplies. For survivors of a nuclear attack, it would be strictly ''BYOE'' - bring your own everything. Just throw down a sleeping bag on the courthouse floor - or move some of the rocks on the mine floor - and make yourself at home.
''We do not guarantee them comfort, just protection,'' said Paradise, who is coordinating the shelter plans for the local emergency management agency.
Convenience store owner Tandi Prince said she cannot imagine living in the cavern after a bombing.
''That would probably not be very fun,'' she said.