Retrotechtacular: [Walt] Builds A Family Fallout Shelter

In the 1950s it seemed likely that the Cold War could at any minute take a turn for the worse, and we might all be consumed in the fiery conflagration of nuclear war. Fortunately neither the leaders on our side of the fence nor those on the other were the dangerous unpredictable lunatics their opponent’s propaganda might have portrayed them as, and instead we continued on our way uneasily gazing at each other over the Iron Curtain.

For civilian America, the Government created a series of promotional efforts to prepare them for the effects of nuclear war and equip them with the means to survive. Some of them like the infamous “Duck and cover” film seem quaint and woefully inadequate when viewed with several decades hindsight, but others tried hard to equip the 1950s American with what looked like the real means to survive.

Our film below the break today is part of one such effort. The Family Fallout Shelter was a booklet produced in 1959 by the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization, and it described in detail the construction of a series of fallout shelters of differing designs.  There was a concrete underground shelter, a partially buried twin-wall shelter with infill, and the one shown in the film, a basement fallout shelter made from concrete blocks. Our narrator and protagonist is [Walt], a capable bespectacled middle-aged man in a check shirt who takes us through the shelter’s construction.

We start with him giving some friends a tour of the finished shelter, and we see its cozy furnished interior with bunk beds and all mod cons. We’re told it would make a useful extra spare bedroom, or a darkroom. Then we flash back to construction as [Walt] takes us through all the steps required to build your own basement shelter. As he says, it’s a project that could be attempted by almost anyone, and what follows is a pretty good introduction to basic bricklaying. We can’t help being concerned about the security of those unmortared roof blocks in the face of a Tsar Bomba, but fortunately they were never put to the test. We do find it amusing that this is presented by the National Concrete Masonry Association — how better to boost sales than get the populace to build extra brick walls in every home?

The film and booklet provide a fascinating window into some of the culture surrounding preparations for nuclear war in the early Cold War era. The ideas that it would be survivable, and that two weeks in a home-made fallout shelter would be sufficient to ensure that civilians would be safe are in stark contrast to the then-secret deep shelters and long-term survival plans that the governments of the time created for themselves. It would be interesting to know how many of these home shelters were built, and how many survive. Did you ever spend a night in a basement spare bedroom with a blast wall?

We’ll leave you with the film’s closing words from the Director of the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization.

No home in America is modern without a family fallout shelter. This is the nuclear age.

114 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: [Walt] Builds A Family Fallout Shelter

  1. Neighbor had one in the backyard when I was growing up. I don’t know if anyone ever spent a night in it, but it was small, stocked with supplies, and claustrophobic. It was still there when I changed jobs and changed states in the early 1990’s, and quite possibly still is (google-earth doesn’t let me see the entry, but there are still no trees where the entry was). AFAIK, that was the only one in the neighborhood. The houses were a bit old for them to be original equipment.

  2. I would really like to know under what circumstances these would be functionally useful. Obviously, the best part of this is that you have emergency food and water on hand which is a good plan for everyone to put in place. And I’ve seen concrete reinforced rooms for people living in areas of high-tornado frequency. As Jenny comments upon, thermonuclear war doesn’t appear to be a strong use case — intuitively any basement would seem to work equally well.

    1. They would not have been effective of course as the whole notion of a fallout shelter was based on models that were over run by developments in nuclear weaponry, and the WWII belief that cities, rather than the enemy’s strategic assets would be the primary targets. While indeed with early ICBMs, a city was the smallest target those delivery systems could reliably acquire over the distances involved, later generations could be targeted with far more precision, and far more effectively when the objective was to degrade your opponent’s ability to retaliate.

      1. You realize that some cities are considered strategic targets, right? Besides this (apparently – haven’t watched it) is about construction of a fallout shelter – something that is useful for protection even if one isn’t directly targeted. Fallout can spread far depending on weather patterns.

        1. Population centers are nevertheless low priority targets and not easy to destroy as the radius of destruction of nuclear devices is actually quite limited due to the inverse square law. They are tough as evidenced by Hiroshima and Nagasaki which while severely damaged were far from obliterated. It is highly unlikely cities will ever be attacked by nuclear weapons again simply because everyone’s current doctrines have the initial attacks focused on taking out an opponent’s own nuclear assets. It’s that first exchange that will determine who wins.

          Fall out is caused (mostly) by debris from the ground being sucked into the fireball, irradiated and spewed out of the top. This radioactive plume coalesces in the atmosphere and falls back to earth. It’s a mix of isotopes of varying half lives. The most vicious of these isotopes have short half lives and are gone in a few hours (usually before the fallout makes it back to the ground). The milder ones can hang around for millennia but their effects are tolerable (speaking relatively again). The really dangerous ones are those that have a half life of between 5 and 6 years – these are long-lived enough to be seriously contaminating and hot enough to be dangerous. The worst is cobalt). Now the blast and heat throw debris outwards, where does the debris sucked into the fireball come from? Answer is the crater scoured in the ground by the energy from the device that went into said ground. However it is well known that the best way to knock a city down is to use an airburst that doesn’t crater the ground. That mean no fallout; airbursts are relatively clean from a fallout point of view. They do generate some fallout from atmospheric dust and water vapor and a bit more comes from the debris of the device itself, but not anywhere near as much as legend holds. This is especially the case since modern devices are very clean indeed and the debris from their structures are far less than from the older designs.

          1. All the above is why “The 100” is so much enjoyable BS. I haven’t missed an episode because I like ripping apart all the grossly incorrect technical baloney it contains.

            Still radiation after 97 years? Nope, no way. The only real problem would be with any plutonium residue. That would get washed down into sewers and storm drains, or buried by decaying vegetation and windblown dirt. People would only need to take care when digging around where plutonium containing bombs hit and downwind – and don’t go crawling around storm drains and sewers without a geiger counter.

            The rest of the radioactive fallout would either be decayed to nothing, or far less than normal background, or the radiation it emits is so weak (Alpha and Beta) it can’t even penetrate paper, cloth or skin. Though you don’t want to breath in or eat any radioactive fallout. Getting it inside you can be bad juju. Gamma radiation (such as from enriched Plutonium) is the one to worry about. Eating the Gamma cookie would be worse than holding it or putting it in your pocket. Should be throw it away.


          2. My limited reading in this area confirms what you said, at least regarding “clean” airburst attacks. However, the modern worry is less about two first-world nations flinging ICBMs at each other’s launch bays, but rather about terrorist cells using dirty bombs in population centers. Again, little to no fallout, so fallout shelters aren’t as relevant, however it may still be a good idea to have a “dig in” plan as well as a “bug out” plan in place. For digging in, a reinforced, well stocked shelter on one’s property can still be invaluable for surviving a war brought to our shores and our cities. The further out in the sticks you are, the safer you will be from a modern city-based attack, but you’re never 100% safe in war.

          3. First the notion of a terrorist nuclear IED is more a dramatic device for a television show than it is a real threat. Those of us with a deep interest in nuclear topics have looked into this idea in some detail since it first came up and have come to the conclusion that such an attack would be very unlikely. The technical requirements for a so-called “crude” device are actually very complex, would require access to special equipment and skills, nevermind a quantity of HEU with precisely known properties. Even then there are many parts of the process where things could go wrong (and likely would) rendering the reliability of such a bomb very low. Furthermore the idea that some subnational group could embark on such a project without drawing attention to itself, or that some host country would permit them to do so under protection given the risks involved is risible. I am sure that any group that might want to do this has looked into it and come to the same conclusions: it would be very expensive, entail extreme risk of being interdicted, and the resulting weapon would be unlikely to work.

            However, even if such an attack were possible, by its very nature it would be without warning. Given the marginal utility of shelters is based on some sort of advanced warning, it is difficult to see how they would serve in this instance.

      2. Assumptions that tactical targets would be chosen rather than cities and that bursts would be relatively clean are all based on nation-to-nation warfare which is targeted rationally at strategic assets. But these days nations are not the only entities that can wield a nuclear device, and the targeting may be explicitly anti-personnel or irrational in nature.

        Not that I have tremendous faith in national actors either.

        1. As I wrote elsewhere in this thread, for any number of concrete reasons, national actors ARE the only entities that can create a nuclear explosive and even if they were not, the lack of any early warning before a terrorist-type attack degrades the utility of a shelter.

          1. Radiation dispersal devices (RDD) a.k.a Dirty Bombs are a non threat. These devices were looked into by the weapons design community in the late 40’s and early 50’s and they were deemed ineffective both in terms of making a deployable device or taking any particular steps to defend against them. The British and Americans did tests in Australia of RDDs during Operation Rats at the Maralinga Test Site. 125 devices were exploded between 1956 and 1960. Results were disappointing, in fact more radiation was dispersed in the Operation Vixen tests which investigated what would happen to a nuclear device if it were involved in a fire that were also done at the time.

            The fact is construction and deployment of a physically effective RDD is more difficult than popularly assumed. Terrorist groups would have to overcome significant technical difficulties to construct and effectively deliver an RDD on target. While it is possible for a subnational group to acquire materials for an RDD, it is difficult to assemble enough highly radioactive material to produce mass casualties or to achieve wide area denial. Even if a sufficient amount of the right material can be acquired, the handling of high emitting substances is very difficult due not only to the radioactive flux but also due to the heat generated by large quantities of such material and the extreme exposure hazard from the intensity of the radiation. These isotopes require heavy shielding to protect handlers from overexposure and death.

            As with other nuclear devices, constructing a RDD without overexposure to radiation in the process, effectively delivering the device on target, and achieving the necessary contamination in the target area are tasks beyond the capability of non-state groups. Research and experimentation over 50-plus years indicate that RDDs are not simple weapons, notwithstanding popular perception.

          2. Certainly you need advance warning if you are using the shelter as a shield from the initial blast and its various effects. But it’s a fallout shelter, and thus the assumption is that you go there to protect yourself from radioactive dust which would fall over a period of days, and that this would be effective for people who were not within the damage area of the initial blast.

            And there is some chance that nationally-produced weapons can fall into the hands of non-national actors and that the PALs can be defeated. Especially due to the fall of governments, etc. There was a bad time for weapons security in the former USSR and even our confidence in the USA can’t be infinite.

          3. Any rational analysis of the possibility will quickly show that the idea of a functioning nuclear warhead falling into the hands of a third party are ludicrous. To start off with these represent a huge investment by the state that made them and as such are treated as the high-value assets that they are. Secondly, these are crew-served weapons and simply the physical possession of one is no guarantee that it will work. Thirdly no state is going to give a live device to any group that it does not have full control of on a simple promise that they will use it on a common enemy. These things major use is as a defencive weapon and as negotiating chips – there is simply no strategic value in giving them away and monumental strategic risks in doing so. Consider the even while it was in the process of full collapse, the nuclear arsenal of the U.S.S.R. as well as its inventory of weapons-grade fissile material stayed secure.

            These ideas are great themes for movies, they just don’t make much sense in real life.

          4. Only in the overactive imaginations of those that have not taken a serious look at the subject. In the end, even an attempt would require some terrorist group to put all of its eggs in one basket, use a disproportionate amount of its resources, run a disproportionate risk of being caught, and more to the point, have a very low chance of prosecuting a successful attack. I think we can be fairly sure they have all looked into this and come to the same conclusions I have listed here.

          5. One sad day in the US, some people flew some jets into some buildings…

            Do you remember that? Anything could have been on them hypothetically. And before you say the TSA would have definitely caught it during screening, no. The security is poor at best.

          6. There didn’t need to be anything on them the aircraft themselves were the ordinance. Since the attack had the desired impact as it stood what would have been the point of going to more expense and risk getting caught with a warhead. At any rate small nuclear explosives like the W54 is one of the most sophisticated nuclear explosives out there. Such compact devices are outside the technical reach of all but the most advanced nuclear weapons programs. The idea that an independent group could cobble one together is nonsense.

          7. The USA has lost 11 nuclear weapons, some of which included plutonium cores, others only the uranium. Some are in known locations but can’t be removed for practical purposes. Some are in unknown locations. That’s just the USA. If you include Russia the total is closer to 50. Some of these are in submarines on the ocean floor.

          8. So what? Recovering them is also outside the scope of some extra-national group. Furthermore by now it is highly unlikely any of them would function nor would the fissile material be in any condition to be repurposed without far more technical intervention than that type of group would have at its disposal. Arguably these Broken Arrows are the least likely to fall into the wrong hands.

          9. You are very welcome. My understanding of this subject comes from some twenty-five years of looking into nuclear issues and being engaged with others with the same interests many of whom were working or spent careers in the field. Everything I have written here is founded on fact and common sense and can be verified with a bit of research focused on the actual fundamentals, all of which is available to the public. A poor source of information on this topic (as with any other) is sensationalist news media, or activist groups with an ideological ax to grind. Somewhat surprisingly nuclear energy and nuclear weapons technology are not particularly complex or beyond the understanding of anyone that reads Hackaday at least, and I encourage all to look into the subject themselves.

    2. We still build bomb shelters in every apartment and office building in Finland. They’re mostly just basements with a bit thicker walls, some reserve water and filtered air supply. In peacetime they’re used for regular storage. I expect they’d be rather useful in conventional bombing situations, but not so sure about nuclear war.

        1. Those pesky Estonians are the Finns cousins, they speak essentially the same language. Your thinking of invasion by those that invaded Estonia in the name of liberation in WWII.

      1. They would still be useful, nuclear weapons are essentially enormously powerful bombs that as a side-effect produces a lot of radiation. The shelter will protect against the pressure wave, heat, fallout (via the air filters) and partially against radiation.

      2. As one can see from the use of shelters in Ukraine, they’re quite useful in a conventional war.

        The United States never had much reason to fear conventional bombing, due to the distances involved, so I don’t think there was much motivation to establish bomb shelters for protection from conventional weapons.

    3. “intuitively any basement would seem to work equally well.” As in not very well. He used a 4x8x16 heavyweight solid concrete block. I haven’t seen any of those around for a while. Also wouldn’t an air filtration system be required to be of any help?

    4. This does have that concrete block roof, even though unmortared. The US houses I’ve seen tend to just have the wooden joists of the ground floor above their basements, the blast would I think have stripped away the house and left you sitting in a hole. So this is probably better than just a basement. (But only just)

      1. I would worry about the block roof of the thing falling on your head. I think it is common in natural disasters for the walls and roof of a structure to be blown off its foundation, but for the foor joists to hold the floor up. But I have no credible evidence of this.

      2. What would be more effective than all of that concrete above your head, would be dumping two feet of dirt on the floor of the room above the shelter. You’ve got hours to do this before the fallout arrives, if you’re far enough away that the blast and initial radiation didn’t kill you.

      1. Crap in bags and tie them off, pour off urine into drinking containers as you empty them… or other containers, if you’re going to need to filter water into those next month when the iodine threat lets you out.

    5. Intuitively you would be dead wrong, Skyshine coming from the fallout on your roof and the ground all around will bounce into your shelter and ionize your DNA. Shielding is far more effective than distance for this reason, this shelter is trash you need at least a foot of earth overhead but preferably two feet. Also air circulation and filtration with water filtration.

      For this reason it’s best to dig and bury. A mudroom is preferable as well for going in and coming out to keep radionucleotides from being tracked in. A decontam shower is also needed. This will control the major source of alpha and can be easily breathed or ingested. You also need an alpha meter, and a geiger counter.

      This shelter has nothing to do with the blast just the after effects. You also need a healthy supply of iodized salt but preferably potassium iodide.

      Source: mined uranium, but radon was the actual concern, lots of lead shielding on high radon concentration vessels and tons of air circulation.

      1. To be honest, as a non-American I’ve contemplated sticking up on Prussian blue and iodine, torrenting as many technical manuals as possible, and stocking survivalist supplies before Jan 1

        Mostly I hope that Pence reads the 25th amendment.

        1. Wasn’t there a character in Jerry Pournelle’s book ‘Lucifer’s Hammer” that prepared for a disaster by amassing a collection of technical books, access to which he later used to barter for membership in a mountain community IIRC.

    1. Yes…. if the bar is lowered for use of nukes… i.e. just one or two to clear up this Syrian mess…. then that applies internationally, the taboo is broke, then we might get India and Pakistan nuke exchange, or India China, North Korea against south… and all of a sudden there’s “hot” clouds of fallout swirling round the globe… whether North America or Europe is in a 2 sided nuke war with anyone or not, it’s almost definitely going to be affected by significant exchanges anywhere else…

      We will probably see the justification that US nukes to be used are “clean” nukes, maximum tactical yield because otherwise would harm troops, however, none of the 2nd tier nuke powers have “clean” nukes, just whatever they could make that goes boom.

      Also while sane heads miiiight hold off joining in majorly in western world and Russia, once it starts, among the smaller nations it might be a situation of “fuck it, smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em.” a low grade multilateral exchange, could have serious global effects such as nuclear winter, famine and ultimately death of about a third the world population from knock on effects extending years into the future….

  3. The government promoting fallout shelters, and Civil Defense in general, was ended by the government because it turned out to be destabilizing – the USSR interpreted the whole thing as planning to have our civilians survive in a USA initiated nuclear exchange.

    1. They had plans for the very same thing. Worries about the high civilian survivability in Soviet Russia is one of the reasons we started, hence why it was another piece of the arms race.

      Duck and Cover was actually still taught in public schools in the west through the 80’s (oregon, utah, montana, and wyoming that I have experience with, possibly others). We ended civil defense because it cost money and the public face of the story was that the cold war had ended and we didn’t need it anymore. Its cheaper for us to live like no one has nukes pointed at us anymore, so we live in ignorance.

      1. I wouldn’t call it “ignorance”. More like a realistic contemplation of the probablilities…both of attack and survival…and a carefully considered decision not to spend time worrying.

      2. Watching those films scared the bejesus out of me as a kid. The tone of the film I still remember as being light-hearted and the little “catchy song” at the end didn’t help any.
        Stopping the civil defense program probably saved millions on therapy for the kids exposed to it.

  4. The intent of a fallout shelter is not so much to surve the unlikely megatonne warhead hitting suburbia, but to survive the fallout for the 2-3 weeks it takes for the nasty and body concentrated short lived iodine isotopes to fission away. The even faster nastier isotopes will be gone too, longer isotopes are by their very slow decaying nature less nasty to biologicals.
    I used to take sky-high paying engineering consult gigs for these basement bricking fruitloops; like an ICBM command capsule they had a certain cool sci-fi nature, but the motivation to rule the wasteland mutants as a lord is what mostly joined them together.
    That said I would feel pretty shitty being forced to watch my family die from something I could have designed for because I didn’t like the creepy people who commonly bought a shelter, I guess I never bought that insurance plan and so far it seems to have worked out. Considering current force levels the old 9-11 era plastic sheet and duct tape plan, a HEPA vacuum cleaner(consider power supply) for ventilation with a few inline filters like they do when building amateur satellite DIY clean tents, and some food, water, a crap bucket, and KI supplements are probably enough for nearly all downwind scenarios in the US and Russia. Even by the end of the cold war I think only the small nuke powers were doing primary countervalue targeting if they had to go it alone rather than the superpowers mostly counterforce and holding countervalue hostage against a threat of followup attack to sue for a ceasefire.

    1. Right, if we’re entering an age of new nuclear threats, a destablised world, you’re 95% likely to be better off doing a good job on a fallout tent type affair than splitting resources and trying to make something also blast proof.

      Probably you want some kind of furnace blower driven by a bike to pull air through filters, you’re not going to want to be sharing space with a genny, or suiting up to go fiddle with the thing… although a fallout only scenario, there should not really be reasons why a civil power can’t keep the power on… theoretically… if that’s going to be the case then rigging positive pressure ventilation for the whole house should be practical… but who knows.

      Secondarily you’ll wanna flood your thyroid with iodine so it doesn’t take any up, if you can only get tincture of iodine, go careful only 2 or 3 drops in a litre of water, or paint it on, don’t go drinking it by the teaspoon.

      1. I think that if I owned property and were to build a shelter, I would store either a solar panel or a small wind turbine in it, for the purpose of powering a filtered ventilator, a little bit of LED lighting, and a radio or two.

          1. That’s why I would consider a wind turbine instead/also. Solar panels are simpler and require less mantenance, but a wind turbine still works in the dark. The “nuclear winter” scenario results only from a large number of nukes being used, and doesn’t result in darkness, just a reduction in brightness similar to what we had in Oregon and Washington after Mt. St. Helens exploded. Sizing of panels would have to take this into account, so yeah, it might turn out that wind is better. Since I don’t own any property, the point is moot so I haven’t done the calculations.

  5. Around here they are called tornado shelters. The house I bought has one in the yard. It constantly has several inches of water due to condensation. I would never use it because of the risk of being hit by a falling branch if I tried to get to it.

    1. I saw one on the weather channel’s “Storm Stories” where people were lucky the tornado hit before they were able to get out of their house. They went to the basement. The tornado went right over their shelter. It had three feet of dirt atop a 12 ton concrete slab. The dirt and slab were gone, never to be found. Whomever built the shelter didn’t extend the rebar out the top of the walls so the top slab would be mechanically connected to them.

      All that was left was a hole with a floor slab and the walls, everything inside the shelter got sucked out.

  6. As a kid, growing up during the cold war in Sweden, we had regular shelter drills in school.

    That included taking turns on the hand cranked ventilation system in the basement shelter, that was a real good workout.

    The shelters were fallout shelters, although it could probably withstand a pretty decent blast too, but our school was never in any target area for nukes.

    Visit nukemaps and play around with different sizes of missiles (the TsarBomba was just a demonstrator of power and never an intended weapon) you will be suprised how survivable a near miss would be, and even more so with a few sandbags around the outer walls.

    I would survive even the biggest ICBM’s hitting my nearest town due to topography inbetween (a pretty decent ridge that will dissapate both the groundwave and the reflected blast), and unless the wind is in my direction, the fallout would be survivable too.

    Still, I dont like Mr Putins rearrangement of Iskander missiles towards europe.

    1. No kidding about the concrete. The book I read in the 60s, “You CAN Survive the Bomb” recommended using dirt – two to three feet as I recall – for the ceiling. It doesn’t have to be strong, just massive.

  7. Not to be too grim… but does anyone remember the book The Day After World War III?

    I have a copy. I’ll probably see if I can find it in the coming days… it pains me no end to say, but the thing might soon be useful.

      1. Yes. But I still think that being in suburbia of a large city being nuked is much more dangerous that camping in the forest 100 km away. OTOH, you are right that even some shelter in the forest will be better than nothing.

  8. When it comes to public or private civilian shelters, they are fall out shelters not bomb shelters. The liture is very clear about that, but the public. Sooner or later one has to leave the shelter. After any nuclear exchange the environment is most likely harmful for long term survival, although anyone who is able to stay in a fall out shelter may have a survival head start. That be said, anywhere a dry basement of cellar can be construct it would be wise to do so anywhere in the lower 48 of the USA. Comfortable living quarters during a power outage in any season. Given the budget and ideal circumstance I would build a water well where the casing top wold be inside a shelter area. On my property good water is about 60′ down While it’s a bit of work, it would be practical to use a bailer to bring good fresh water to the surface during a power outage. I cringe when I watch the man cave shows when they spend so much money on impractical decor, when it can be spent to build a practical shelter, and still be a “man cave”. Than again I was raised at a time when”kitsch” is fine to purchase. after practical matters where taken care of.

  9. “Fortunately neither the leaders on our side of the fence nor those on the other were the dangerous unpredictable lunatics their opponent’s propaganda might have portrayed them as.”

    No only incompetent idiots that kept dropping/misplacing numerous thermonuclear weapons! – In summery I just listed the issues involving weapons, not other contamination events. Each of these could have ended differently.

    Never mind the USSR’s faulty satellite that said we launched a strike and the order to retaliate was prevented because the operator didn’t believe the equipment.

    Fallout is still a relevant issue even without a critical detonation.

    July 13, 1950 – Lebanon, Ohio, USA – Non-nuclear detonation of an atomic bomb
    August 5, 1950 – Fairfield Suisun-AFB, California, USA – Non-nuclear detonation of an atomic bomb
    November 10, 1950 – Rivière-du-Loup, Québec, Canada – Non-nuclear detonation of an atomic bomb
    March 10, 1956 – Over the Mediterranean Sea – Nuclear weapons lost
    July 27, 1956 – RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk, UK – Nuclear weapons damaged
    May 22, 1957 – Kirtland AFB in New Mexico, USA – Non-nuclear detonation of an atomic weapon
    July 28, 1957 – Atlantic Ocean – Two weapons jettisoned and not recovered
    October 11, 1957 – Homestead Air Force Base, Florida – Nuclear bomb burned after B-47 aircraft accident
    January 31, 1958 – Morocco – Nuclear bomb damaged in crash
    February 5, 1958 – Savannah, Georgia, USA – Nuclear bomb lost
    March 11, 1958 – 1958 Mars Bluff B-47 nuclear weapon loss incident, USA – Non-nuclear detonation of a nuclear bomb
    June 16, 1958 – Oak Ridge, Tennessee, USA – Accidental criticality
    November 4, 1958 – Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, USA – Non-nuclear detonation of a nuclear bomb
    November 4, 1958 – Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, USA – Non-nuclear detonation of a nuclear bomb
    December 30, 1958 – Los Alamos, New Mexico, USA – Accidental criticality
    October 15, 1959, – Hardinsburg, Kentucky, USA – Nuclear weapon partially damaged
    January 24, 1961 – Goldsboro B-52 crash – Physical destruction of a nuclear bomb, loss of nuclear materials
    March 14, 1961 – 1961 Yuba City B-52 crash – Two non-nuclear detonations
    January 13, 1964 – Salisbury, Pennsylvania and Frostburg, Maryland, USA – Accidental loss of thermonuclear bombs
    December 5, 1965 – 1965 Philippine Sea A-4 incident – Loss of a nuclear bomb
    January 17, 1966 – Palomares incident – Accidental destruction of nuclear bombs
    January 21, 1968 – 1968 Thule Air Base B-52 crash, Greenland – Loss and partial recovery of nuclear bombs
    May 22, 1968 – 740 km (400 nmi) southwest of the Azores – Loss of nuclear reactor and two W34 nuclear warheads
    1977 – coast of Kamchatka – Loss and recovery of a nuclear warhead

    1. Palomares incident:
      “The first weapon to be discovered was found nearly intact. However, the conventional explosives from the other two bombs that fell on land detonated without setting off a nuclear explosion (akin to a dirty bomb explosion). This ignited the pyrophoric plutonium, producing a cloud that was dispersed by a 30-knot (56 km/h; 35 mph) wind. A total of 260 ha (2.6 square kilometres (1.0 sq mi)) was contaminated with radioactive material. This included residential areas, farmland (especially tomato farms) and woods.”

      Wow, just wow. Thanks for the insightful list!

  10. “Did you ever spend a night in a basement spare bedroom with a blast wall?”
    Without reinforcement, Walt’s walls are anything BUT. This shelter design was clearly designed only for radiation shielding, and not even much of that. 8″ of concrete? I don’t think so. A double wall filled with dirt, maybe.

    Also, the design calls for a row of vents at the bottom, but nowhere for the air to go, and no mention of filtration. I think the majority of the Civil Defense preparations during the Cold War years were more to make people feel safer than for any practical use.

    1. That vent thing makes me think. Perhaps the vents were there to stop people suffocating when they were practicing their drills in it. Even if there was no way it’d save you from the bomb.

      After a nuclear war, a government would have more to worry about than dead civilians. But until the war happens, it stops the civilians climbing the barricades and killing you, or at least voting you out, for letting such a stupid situation happen.

      When people look back nostalgically on the willfully ignorant, pig-headed American ’50s, they don’t seem to remember the impending doom that saturated every moment.

      1. Do take a look at the article [Backwoods Engineer] linked above:
        In the section on ventilation, the author stresses that the worst problem in warm weather is body heat and humidity. Even in a basement shelter, heat buildup from a small room holding several people exceeds conduction through the walls and floor. This will eventually lead to people having to leave the shelter for periods of time to escape the heat. This is a far greater problem, by the way, than the risk of sucking radioactive dust in through the vents. As long as the vent system has a large enough intake that it doesn’t suck air at high velocity, particulates aren’t a big problem. The document recommends a minimum of 40 cubic feet per minute per person in warm weather (for temperature and humidity control) and at least 3 cu.ft./min/person in winter, for CO and CO2 removal. It even goes on to say that filtration isn’t all that important, for reasons I won’t repeat here – read the article.

        1. Radioactive particles can stay suspended in the air for a couple of weeks to get carried around the globe…. but the first time they meet a vertical baffle and have to go up a foot or two they fall out of suspension…. I don’t buy it.

          Now I’d possibly accept that a baffle box with multiple baffles might remove a large percentage, but I’d figure it did that more due to throwing them out on the hairpin turns, than gravity being miraculously stronger when you needed it.

          1. The point wasn’t that you wouldn’t get any exposure; just that you’d get a lot less than you would if you had to go outside because the heat in the shelter was unbearable.

          2. Yes, but it also makes the whole exercise of a bunker pointless, if the air path is that large, and protected by minimal flappy bits, any blast pressure is going to squirt the occupants brains out their ears, any fireball is going to clean it out like a flamethrower to a machine gun emplacement. May as well just board up your house windows, as cram yourselves pointlessly into an unbombproof bomb shelter.

            So, you have to decide for yourself if you’re building a real bomb shelter, blastproofing your house and taking measures to reduce fallout intrusion, making a simple fallout shelter or going all halfassed with the civil defense manual “safety theater” version that neither protects much from blast effects or fallout.

    2. To be fair I was referring to the wall in front of the door, which I believe he refers to as such. We Hackaday writers sometimes have to go with what we see in the piece we’re writing up, even if commenters will later spot the flaws.

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