Thursday, November 7, 2019

Fallout Shelters

One of our readers on Facebook brought up fallout shelters as a form of prepping. Done properly, a fallout shelter is a moderately expensive ($5,000 -  $10,000) bit of prep because they're not as prevalent as they once were.

First, a disclaimer: fallout shelters are not the same as bunkers. A full-blown nuclear war bunker will have an armored door, air and water filtration systems, and months or years of supplies for the occupants, whereas a fallout shelter is a temporary shelter to get people out of the elements and away from the residue that will drift out of the sky following a nuclear blast (fallout). These shelters were designed and stocked to be used for a week or two, just long enough for the worst of the radioactive materials to burn out. Erin has explained radiation in past articles, but the short version is that the most energetic (dangerous) isotopes burn out quickly, so a couple of weeks underground is a good way to avoid exposure.

Sixty years ago, during the Cold War between the US and the USSR, nuclear war was a very real possibility and people prepared for it as best they could. An old neighbor's house had a decent one built into the basement with built-in shelving, bunks, and a double-turn entrance, meaning that the entrance was built so that there was no direct line of sight from the inside to the outside which provided a barrier to radiation. The neighbors turned it into a pantry for storing bulk foods, but it was still useful as a storm shelter. The threat of nuclear war has subsided, but having some place safe from tornadoes and other environmental hazards is still a good idea.

During the Cold War, our government actually set up a department of Civil Defense (CD) to provide information and supplies to the civilian population. I won't get into politics (we don't do that here), but this was an example of government actually trying to help the taxpayers. Unfortunately, the CD was replaced by FEMA in 1979, and their focus shifted to other threats. Simple supplies, well marked and pre-positioned where they will be needed, is something I'd like to see come back.

If you look around in the lower levels of older buildings, you may see a sign like this. These signs designated areas that the building's owners had loaned to the government for use as shelters. 

I was recently “promoted” at work and was handed a location of my own to run. The “new” location is a grain elevator that was built in 1955, in a very small town about an hour's drive from a major Cold War target. While digging through the accumulated papers and files, I found the original “license” papers for the fallout shelter on our site and some of the shipping papers for the supplies that the US government had placed there in 1962. Since the elevator is made of reinforced concrete and has a rather spacious “basement” area underground for pipes and conveyors, it would have made for a fairly comfortable shelter. The supplies had a limited (5 year) shelf-life and are long gone, but I did find the radiation detection kit sitting on a shelf in the back office. I'll do an article on that box later.

Here's a list of what was stored in my location for a maximum of 50 people and the descriptions from the official paperwork (the shipping papers didn't match the instructions exactly):

Crackers 5 gallon, 24.5# (11 cartons)
Food package, biscuit, survival. A wheat flour baked biscuit similar in taste and texture to a graham cracker. Each package provides 10,000 calories per person for 7 people. Each cardboard container contained six 6-pound cans of biscuits (390 biscuits, each 2.5”x2.5” and providing 30 calories).

Drum, metal, water storage (10 each)
17.5 gallon metal or fiber water containers, providing one quart of water per person per day. They were shipped empty with a plastic liner provided to keep the water clean and were to be filled once they reached the shelter. Remember the 5 year shelf-life?

Bag, liner, polyethylene (20 each)
For the water drums. The extras are so the drums can be used as toilets once the water is gone.

Sanitation kit, model 5K 1V (1 each)
A fiber (cardboard) drum, 16” diameter and 21” high containing:
  • 1 polyethylene liner bag
  • 5 pints toilet chemical (deodorant/disinfectant)
  • 1 privacy screen (5'x8' sheet of plastic)
  • 1 roll twine (for the privacy screen)
  • 6 wire ties (to close filled bags)
  • 20 rolls toilet paper
  • 1 can opener
  • 6 bottles of 50 Globoline water purification tablets (iodine-based water tablets)
  • 1 toilet seat
  • 1 pair plastic gloves
  • 20 plastic canteens (for rationing the water)

Medical kit A (1 each)
Medical kit A was the smallest and designed for 50 people. The B kit was for 100, and the C kit was for 300 and contained medications that wouldn't be allowed in today's political climate. The A kit contained:
  • 5 bottles of 100 aspirin
  • 1 bottle of 100 Aluminum Hydroxide Gel tablets (antacid)
  • 1 bottle of 10 Bismuth Subcarbonate tablets (similar to Pepto-Bismol)
  • 1 2 oz bottle of Calamine lotion (for skin irritation and rashes)
  • 2 bars surgical soap
  • 1 1 oz bottle of Eugenol (the active ingredient in cloves, useful for toothaches)
  • 2 4 oz containers of surgical jelly
  • 1 1 oz container Tetracaine ointment (similar to Lidocaine, a topical numbing agent)
  • 1 qt Isopropyl Alcohol (disinfectant)
  • 1 bottle ear drops
  • 8 4 oz containers Elixir Terpin Hydrate ( an expectorant, used to loosen mucous in the lungs)
  • 2 ½ oz eye and nose drops
  • Various bandages, dressings, sanitary pads and belts (ask your grandmother)
  • An official Civil Defense Medical Self-help Manual.
As you can see, the water and food supplies were subsistence level, and the medical supplies were mostly medicine cabinet grade. Since the occupants were expected to be mostly sedentary, with no heavy work or exertion, two weeks on this diet wouldn't have been pleasant but it would have been survivable. Being in a grain elevator there would have been plenty of wheat and corn to supplement the rations, with a few rats for extra protein.

There are a lot of resources online for designing or buying a fallout shelter. If you just want to see some of the history of the CD system, I recommend the Civil Defense Museum. I'm trying to contact the owner of that site to see if he wants any of the stuff I've found; otherwise, it will probably go to a local museum.


  1. Answers a lot of my questions. Mostly didn't know the nature of fallout and how long it lasted. One of my stations has a fallout shelter and was designed back in the day to keep them on the air in a nuclear event. This is when everything ran off tubes and was not as susceptible to EMP mind you. I also have a friend that collects the old civil defense radios. I don't think fallout or a nuclear strike is a big threat here but figured it could be a good starting point for threats that we could face being a natural disaster or something biological as well as security and storage. When the local emergency management ran the scenarios the biggest threat was the New Madrid going off again. While we as an area would not take much damage not having a lot of tall buildings and what not but we would have most roads, rails, pipelines and other infrastructure destroyed. This was proven a couple of years ago when we had our 1 in 10,000 year flood. Most survived but were cutoff from the outside world. The second threat would have us overwhelmed by unwashed masses from cities that were devastated. I am otherwise already bugged out just being in the middle of nowhere but food/medicine/energy preps, shelter and defense are high on the list of things I would like to address

    1. From the clues in your reply, I'm going to guess you're located somewhere in Missouri. Fallout will follow the prevailing winds and back in the Cold War we had a lot of missile silos in KS, so you were probably down-wind of those targets. The Kansas City metro area would have been somewhere on the list as well, just because it's a transportation hub. There are also several military installations in MO that would have been on the target list. Those of us in fly-over country weren't and aren't immune to foreign threats.

  2. We quit building and stocking shelters, because politicos wanted to spend money on other things. The Russians never stopped building shelters. (Well, for a short time after the USSR fell apart.) Last I checked they had fallout and blast shelters for about 80 percent of the population. Mostly around cities and government installations.

    The Swiss added shelters to their building codes in the 1950s, and voted to keep those codes in the 90s. They have shelters for nearly 100 percent of their population.

    21 days is best, but even if you can last 4 days, and then run for it, you would do much better than people who don't know enough to get out of the rain.

    Most of the plans I've seen for self-build shelters don't include multiple entrances, or self-rescue features like large jacks to move doors/trapdoors. You don't want to get trapped.

    That said, a table, in a basement with a bunch of books (or whatever) piled on top can make a difference. Fallout is bad. And if you have a basement, some of your supplies are probably down there anyway.

    Blast shelters aren't (or don't have to be) that much more expensive than proper fallout shelters. A real door will be a couple of grand but you probably want a real door anyway. (Not all doors marketed are worth the $) People will want your supplies. NBC air-filters are less than that, and you probably want some kind of ventilation anyway. (Oak Ridge National lab actually designed and tested some DIY blast shelters before atmospheric tests were canceled. The reports are probably still available somewhere.)

    1. The Oak Ridge test are here:

  3. While assigned to Wurtsmith AFB in the 70’s(think B52’s and nuclear bombs) I was given an “additional duty” of “radiation exposure control monitor” on a shelter team. It was a total joke, since we were a prime target, the expectation was that we would be toast, but we had to pretend.

    1. In the early 80's I was working on nuclear warheads for the Army. I was a part of the Rad-con team, knowing that we were targeted by both sides, so I know what you mean. We had better equipment than the fallout shelters, but other than cleaning up after an accident we wouldn't have been around to use it.


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