One More Bad Bomb Shelter

One of the things that annoys me the most in this world is the general population’s lack of knowledge when it comes to bomb shelters, fallout and radiation. For the most part, people don’t even want to know about. It scares them. Most people take the view of the ignorant woman from The Atomic Cafe who said:

“I wouldn’t worry near as much about the atom bomb if it were to kill you right out. What scares me is that awful gas that deforms ya.”

This statement makes me laugh uncontrollably every time I hear it. But then, I know better.

Unlike the bulk of my fellow citizens, I know radiation is not some spooky gas. I know the different forms of radiation. I know the radiation types to be concerned with act like tiny bullets that rip right through the body. I know that the body can take a pretty large number of these bullets before it begins to suffer ill effects (radiation sickness). I know there is a threshold beyond which the body cannot fix itself fast enough to keep up with the damage (fatal exposure). And I know there are ways to defend against such levels of exposure.

I know these things because I grew up during what would ultimately be the end of the “Cold War” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The time period where the idea of civil defense was abandoned for the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Not satisfied with this view, I’ve actually gone out of my way over the years to learn what they wouldn’t teach me.

You see, previous generations of the nuclear age were taught about civil defense practices. They held drills in school, watched educational videos, volunteered for their local civil defense corps and so forth. My generation was taught that nuclear war was unsurvivable. The idea was if we believed we could survive, so would our enemies. This would make war more probable. But if everyone believes there’s no way to win, no one will play the game.

Well it worked. The “Cold War” ended, the Soviet Union collapsed, yadda yadda. The threat of all out nuclear war is over. For now.

Of course we all know we still have enemies out there. We all know they would love to get their hands on nuclear weapons. We all know they’d love to sneak one in and… well, do the unthinkable.

Unthinkable. The word itself says so much. The things you can’t or won’t think about. We’re generations into the idea of burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the facts. It’s not that the information is unavailable. We live in the information age, after all. But the fear lingers. It’s all so scary, people don’t even want to think about it.

But not everyone is so scared. There are people who would like to do what they can to protect themselves and their families. There are even more people out there who like to come up with ways to protect people. There are even people who would like to turn a profit selling things to those who worry about such things.

Which finally brings me to the point of this post. Sorry, I did have to kinda set the stage a little.

You see, the other day I came across a design for an underground structure. One designed as a so-called “Tiny House” with “off-grid” and “eco-friendly living” concepts in mind. Other thoughts on the structure were that it would be good for areas prone to severe weather (such as tornadoes), or in case of civil unrest (collapsing economy) and so forth.

All fine points, however the author/designer also happened to throw in a mention about the structure offering protection from “Nuclear Threat.” This is the point at which I had to slam on the brakes and scream “NO! NO! NO!”

I immediately commented to the author/designer, explaining the faults in his statement and why his design was of little use under such conditions. I also offered suggestions on what to read if he would like to learn how to design a shelter that WOULD be useful as a fallout and/or blast shelter. I of course recommended “Principles of Protection,” by Walton McCarthy and “Nuclear War Survival Skills,” by Cresson Kearny.

The author/designer thanked me for pointing him in the right direction and admitted he knew the design wasn’t quite sufficient, but figured occupants would be “safer” in this structure than in a regular house.

He has a point. It’s the same point made by the engineering teams sent out to mark fallout shelter space in commercial buildings all across the U.S. decades ago. But there is a vast difference between being “safer” and being “safe.” Even back in the day, people knew they would be better off in a properly built and stocked home shelter than in a public one. But some protection was better than none at all. That is if you believe that probable death is better than certain death.

In truth, all you’ve done is prolong your agony.

This is why I have such a visceral response to such claims. I’ve seen many companies pop up over the past few years offering fallout shelters and bomb shelters that would likely fail in a real emergency. Everything from polygonal shaped concrete basements to buried shipping containers. Not only would they fail to mitigate radiation exposure, but under blast and ground-shock conditions they would likely collapse and kill the occupants anyway. And people are paying large amounts of money for this illusion of safety.

I can’t necessarily call it a scam. I’m sure many of these companies actually believe in their products. The problem is, much like the buyers, they’re simply ignorant of what it actually takes to construct a proper shelter. They simply don’t know what the worst-case-scenario is. They don’t know what stresses will be applied to their designs from blast and ground-shock. They don’t know what conditions to plan for in terms of how much fallout there might be and how much radiation shielding is necessary.

And truth be told, there is a point at which no shelter will save you. You’re just too close to ground zero. Fortunately in those cases you won’t have much to worry about. Your problems will end quickly (either by blast or by the massive burst of initial radiation from the weapon itself). One really only has to plan for being outside this area, which is where most people would be anyway. Assuming of course you have advanced enough warning to get into the shelter in the first place (either before the weapon detonates or immediately after).

Indeed, survival itself is the worst case scenario. It’s also the reality for the bulk of the population. Chances are you won’t be close enough to the bomb to die right away. With or without warning.

But how close are you likely to be? What effects are you likely to experience from the detonation, either with or without warning? Are you planning for an isolated event (terrorism), or are you preparing for all out nuclear war? These are the things one must consider before making a purchase on a shelter.

For example, I live in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. I have a pretty good idea what would likely be the ground zero(s) in either a nuclear war or a terrorism event. I know where I live and where I travel. I’ve also done enough research to be comfortable with either a corrugated steel pipe shelter or a fiberglass torrid shelter roughly 8 feet or so underground. Eight feet of earth offers enough halving-thicknesses of earth to mitigate even the most severe radiation from fallout to a level to prevent radiation sickness, thus increasing my chances of survival. These shapes and designs provide excellent “earth-arching” to prevent being crushed by blast from above (air burst) and that these designs flex under ground-shock conditions (nuclear earthquake). Both designs offer a long life to the shelter itself, after all time does take its toll on any structure. Especially one underground. So even in the full-scale nuclear war scenario, as long as none of the weapons landed within a couple of miles of me, I would probably be quite safe for a long time. Certainly long enough for any fallout to decay to safe enough levels. And in a shelter that would be unlikely to bury me alive (unlike a concrete or box steel shelter, which would likely fail under shifting load).

My point is, both the designer and the consumer must be well educated when it comes to sheltering against nuclear disaster. You can’t simply whip out a home design program and think concrete and steel walls will protect you. Especially if you don’t know how much material you need to put between you and the source of radiation (fallout) or how these materials act under stress. Sure, you might come up with a great design that could survive even the worst tornado. It might be eco-friendly. It might even get you off the grid. But if you’re going for a bomb shelter, make sure you’re educated enough in bomb shelter design to know the good designs from the bad ones.