Sheltering Against the Ultimate - A Nuclear Detonation in a U.S. City

Should terrorists detonate a nuclear weapon in a major city, tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people might die from the direct effects of heat, blast, and the initial nuclear radiation.  Beyond Ground Zero, thousands of others could be at risk of death from fallout radiation.  In the chaotic aftermath of such an event, in fact, there would be only two survival options for those not killed immediately: get out of town as quickly as possible, or take shelter – but it is unlikely that all could flee. For those in the fallout area, it is imperative that action must be taken almost immediately – within a matter of minutes, preferably.  

Regardless of how much (or how little) time is available, taking shelter from fallout radiation is essential; fortunately, such action is known to be extremely effective in preventing injury, specifically including long-term debilitating illness, from radiation.  But, to be effective, fallout shelters must be prepared beforehand and, of equal if not greater importance, shelter management teams must be created, and trained.

Fallout lofted into the atmosphere may reach as high as 30,000 feet, and could be carried off in two or three directions, at different strata and at different speeds. Moreover, exposure rates – where twice the median lethal dose may be received in just a single hour – may extend over several hundred square miles within a few hours. Intense radiation could cover a thousand square miles within 24 hours.  The lethal exposure of literally hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps a million or more, is possible in the East or West Coast urban corridors of the United States.

Invisible Assets Are Already in Place

Fortunately, and surprisingly as well, in these same areas and within easy driving (and/or walking, in downtown areas) distances are large numbers of fallout shelters, previously built, which range in size from a 50-person capacity upward. Many if not most are government buildings – schools and courthouses, for example – but a fairly high percentage are owned by private-sector businesses or agencies, or by individual citizens.  These so-called “relics of the Cold War” still exist in almost every county in the country, in fact, and in most if not all areas of the country their protective capabilities remain intact. Although not currently part of the DHS (Department of Homeland Security) strategy to protect people, they could be revitalized in short order and be used to attenuate radiation intensity.

To test this hypothesis, Huntsville, Alabama, started a revitalization of its fallout shelter program in 2005 under a Metropolitan Medical Response System grant provided by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Using a list of fallout shelters compiled by FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) several years ago, a number of shelters providing the best protection were selected, in 2005 and 2006, by the Huntsville-Madison County Emergency Management Agency for further evaluation. Using such criteria as building capacity and the quality of protection that could be provided, as expressed by a numeric “Protection Factor” scale developed by FEMA, then contacted the owners of a number of the buildings evaluated and asked them if the buildings could be further evaluated for use as public fallout shelters.  Over 100 owners agreed; only about 10 declined.

Most of the owners also agreed to send representatives to participate in a fallout-shelter management course. This was a significant step forward, because successful sheltering is more than just bricks and concrete. It means taking frightened people – rudely gathered together under the worst of circumstances and confronted by fears of the unknown – and organizing them into teams capable of group survival. In that context, the shelter is just a tool; the main task of the shelter manager is to gain psychological control of people, reassure them of the shelter’s protective qualities, and organize them into self-help teams.

Following the Huntsville Example

To accomplish that important goal, a fallout shelter management course and a fallout shelter managers’ guide were developed by the Huntsville-Madison County EMA.  The course informs people about the dangers of fallout radiation and explains how shelters protect people, and how to organize and direct people to survive.  In January 2007, 78 persons completed the eight-hour course. Four sessions were held in Huntsville under the auspices of the Huntsville-Madison County EMA. 

Thirty new shelters were added to the list in 2006 to accommodate areas of Madison County where the population has grown significantly in recent years. A civil engineer from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, using FEMA methods developed in the 1970s,entified the protective space that could be used in buildings not available when the original inventory of fallout shelters was developed.

Other cities and counties can revitalize their own fallout-shelter programs – and would be well advised to do so.  The lists of fallout shelters, last published by FEMA in 1992, still exist and are available on request to state and local authorities.  Those other cities and counties can follow the same process used in Huntsville: identify potential shelters; obtain signed agreements from the current owners of the shelters; recruit shelter managers and shelter management teams, and train them; and make fallout shelter management courses available to the general public as well.

Links for additional information: 

The Fallout Shelter Managers’ Guide, the Fallout Shelter Management Course as Micro Soft Power Point slides, and related information

Nuclear Detonations

Particularly recommended is the section titled “Before a Nuclear Blast”

Sheltering and Evacuation

Kirk Paradise

Kirk Paradise serves as the emergency plans coordinator for the Huntsville-Madison County, Alabama, Emergency Management Agency. His primary task is to track all of the plans and procedures the agency is involved with and to ensure they are updated and distributed to the using agencies. He also is the county radiological officer and shelter officer, and assists in training as a radiological monitor instructor. He has worked for the agency since 1979 and has prior experience as a disaster preparedness officer in the U.S. Air Force. His education and training includes a Bachelor’s degree from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and a Master of Science degree from University of Alabama Huntsville plus numerous training courses conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.



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