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The Nuclear Threat

Before the Berlin Wall fell, before the Soviet Union imploded, we feared mutually assured destruction. From the 1950s until some 40 years later, the threat of nuclear war loomed large, inspiring nightmares among children and adults alike. In fact, for years, being a survivalist implied having a bomb shelter.

But with the fall of communism, that all changed. The United States was the only superpower, and the threat of nuclear war diminished. But the threat of a nuclear attack or accident did not.

While we may not have to fear thousands of nuclear warheads raining down on our centers of population and industry, the threat of a "suitcase" nuclear bomb carried into place by suicidal terrorists is more real than ever. Our intelligence agencies tell us that the Al Queda and other terrorist organizations are looking to buy or build bombs, and the old Soviet system has left thousands of trained scientists with no way to earn a living. Countries like Iraq and North Korea have nuclear weapon development programs. Even "friendly" countries like Pakistan have nuclear arsenals that may, through a coup or even an election, one day fall into control of hands that are not friendly to the U.S.

The threat of a a suicide attack on a nuclear power plant is causing folks to question their geographical location. And the possibility of a rogue nation lobbing a few missiles at us has our president intent on spending billions on a high-tech umbrella to keep the country safe.

The bad news is that we must again consider how to protect ourselves from a nuclear disaster. The good news is that we can probably worry less about blast shelters that protect us from the overpressure of a 20 megaton bomb and focus more on protecting ourselves from the fallout caused by a smaller bomb, an attack on a nuclear plant, or a "dirty bomb" that relies on conventional explosives to spread radiation.

Nuclear Dangers

Traditionally, people think of dying in blast when a nuclear warhead goes off, but there are other dangers, too. Don't get me wrong -- he blast itself will certainly kill you if you are close to it. Death and serious injury will also be caused by the thermal effects of the bomb, which can give third degree burns six to eight miles away and first degree burns to someone 10 to 12 miles away from a one megaton blast. More death will be caused by the bomb's radiation and even more by the high dose of radiation carried downwind as nuclear fallout.

To protect yourself from the radiation and fallout, you need a fallout shelter. To protect yourself from the bomb's blast, you need a blast shelter. Blast shelters are usually buried deeper than fallout shelters, have hardened doors blast valves and are designed to withstand over pressure and negative pressure associated with a nuclear blast. If you live at or near a place that could be ground zero because it is of strategic importance, you are better off with a blast shelter. For most of us, however, a fallout shelter will do.

Fallout Shelters

Fallout shelters are designed to provide a secure location -- often underground or at least partially underground -- where you can avoid all or most of the radiation from fallout -- tiny irradiated particles that rain down from the sky after a nuclear explosion. Fallout shelters rely on earth, sand, cement, brick, cement block or other dense material to block the radiation until it lessens due to the half life. A shelter should, at the minimum, allow only 1/40th of the radiation to get through, and designs that block all but 1/100th or 1/250th more are superior. The better the shielding, the safer you will be.

Four feet of earth is considered the minimum amount of shielding you should have if you are in a hot fallout zone. More shielding is, of course, better. You should expect to stay in the shelter a minimum of two weeks and plan on sleeping in it for longer. Again, the longer you are prepared to stay in the shelter, the safer you will be.

Although expedient shelters can be created by digging a deep trench and covering it up with dirt (See Nuclear War Survival Skills for expedient shelters) or by hiding in basements and subway tunnels, true shelters are far superior because they are designed to provide the at least the bare minimum required to live there the weeks or months required for the local radiation level to drop, including:

    • Filtered ventilation system, powered with manually-powered back up
    • An entrance designed to reduce fallout exposure, and possibly a blast-protected entrance
    • A back or emergency exit
    • A chemical toilet, an emergency toilet, composting toilet or similar facilities
    • Running water or stored water and food, and a way to prepare meals
    • Artificial light sources
    • A heat source
    • Basic furnishings, including beds or hammocks and bedding, tables, chairs, etc.
    • Radio, including short-wave, and possibly a TV, to obtain news and information
    • First aid kit and hygiene supplies
    • Radiation detection devices
    • Various other supplies, including books, games, clothing, fun-foods, tools, spare batteries, etc.

As you can see, many of the supplies required for a lengthy stay in a fallout shelter are the same required to withstand other disasters, either natural or manmade. In fact, there are not many emergencies that a good fallout shelter won't protect you from. For this reason, a solidly built fallout shelter hidden through subterfuge or camouflage and equipped with a sturdy door is one of the two pinnacles of survival. The other is a rural retreat of at least five acres well off the beaten path. Combine the two -- rural retreat with a well-stocked fallout shelter -- and you have achieved the prepared survivalist's ultimate goal.

Captain Dave has compiled the following resources, many from FEMA, to help you design and build a fallout shelter that fits your needs. Note adobe Acrobat Reader is required.


The Family Fallout Shelter, a 1959 publication from the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization. Although old, the shelters described here are based on solid theory and wills till over a high degree of protection today. We suggest you read this first because it includes some basic explanation and useful maps.

Home Shelter, a more up-to-date (1980) publication on how to build an underground concrete shelter. This can be upgraded to offer a significantly higher level of protection by strengthening the ceiling and burying it four feet underground.

Above Ground Home Shelter, for use in locations with a high water table or where you cannot dig. Can also be used as a tornado shelter. This shelter does not offer as much protection as the double-wall shelter described in the first link.

Modified Ceiling Shelter. Turn your basement into a fallout shelter by adding bricks or other masonry block to your basement ceiling. This can dramatically improve the protection offered by a traditional basement.

Concrete Block Shelter, also for use in a basement. Not highly recommended because of the low ceiling height, but may be required if your basement does not have one or two walls entirely below ground.

Tilt-Up Storage Unit Shelter. This shelter is designed to act as a storage unit when not needed, then tilt up to provide protection in an emergency. Although Captain Dave does not recommend this method, he is providing it as an example you can learn from. Perhaps you will find something useful in the design parameters.

Underground Shelter Suggestions

While pouring concrete our building a cinderblock shelter is the standard approach to an underground shelter, it is an expensive one. Plenty of folks have made shelters by burying old fuel or water tanks, school bus bodies, ocean-going containers (bury it upside down for strength), concrete culverts and steel culverts. If you try one of these approaches, make sure when burying anything not designed to be buried that you have braced the inside before you pour concrete around it our dirt upon it.


Read Captain Dave's special on What to do if Nuclear War Breaks Out. A realistic reassuring look at what you should do if nuclear war heads go off in the Middle East, Korea or elsewhere in the world.

For general information on the effects of nuclear ware and on building emergency fallout or blast shelters, make sure you read Cresson Kearny's Nuclear War Survival Skills. We've got the entire 280 page book here online.

Here's the most fun link we have, the blast mapper. Just type in the city and state or zip code near you that is a potential target, choose what type of a bomb it will receive and you can see how far the destruction or fallout will go. Scary, but good to help you determine what type of a shelter you might need.

Here's a useful website from a commercial shelter-builder in Utah. They provide photos, good tips and information on shelters built from corrugated steel pipe. The rock crib blast valve on this page is one anyone could build.


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