They now seem quaint, even absurd – public service films from the 1950s and ’60s teaching children how to “protect” themselves from a nuclear blast, and showing families that they, too, can build a cozy bunker of their very own.
But as the cold war thawed, bunker-mania faded – that is, until recently. With the tide of war in Ukraine turning against Russia, the threat of a desperate Vladimir Putin resorting to nuclear weapons to win at all costs is no longer so far-fetched. On April 22, the Russian president warned, “Our counterstrike will be instantaneous.”
“Every time Putin talks about a nuclear weapon, the phone rings off the hook,” said Cory Hubbard, of Defcon Underground Bunkers near Kansas City, Missouri. “I bet it made the phone ring probably 400 or 500%.”
Hubbard and his co-owner Ryan Olah told correspondent Roxana Saberi around a third of those inquiries have turned into sales.
“It’s everyday, average people; it’s from people that can barely afford us, to people that have plenty of money,” said Olah. “It’s not just a doomsday-prepper scenario.”
Hubbard said, “Some of them are very concerned. They want something right now. They’re afraid something is going to happen.”
Saberi asked, “They’re expecting, like, Amazon Prime Service or something?”
Across the United States and Europe, other manufacturers told “Sunday Morning” they’ve never seen such high demand, despite the high prices. They say pretty much whatever you can imagine (and pay for) they can build. At Defcon, shelters start at $75,000.
Saberi asked, “How safe is a bunker like the one you’re standing in?”
“For all of us in the business, it comes down to engineering,” Hubbard replied. “It’s not like we can test these things!”
And the federal government provides only guidelines, not regulations, for building underground bunkers. So, it’s up to buyers to do their homework.
Back in 1961, President John F. Kennedy asked Congress to designate and stock public fallout shelters
Today most of them are abandoned, partly because if the worst does happen, there’s no guarantee they’ll work.
- (“Sunday Morning”)
“The most significant thing is the blast size of nuclear weapons, which are enormous,” said Patricia Lewis, a security expert at the London-based Chatham House thinktank, and a former U.N. disarmament research director. “Even the smallest nuclear weapon is, you know, ten times the size of the largest conventional weapon. You get instant radiation, you get heat, fires, huge winds. So, a large part of the city or the area which was targeted would be uninhabitable.”
That’s why, she warned, not every shelter will save you, “unless it was highly reinforced and people could stay down there for a long, long time. But think about what you would encounter afterward. This is why the prevention of nuclear war is by far the most sensible way forward.”
In Britain, most of the cold war relics have been sealed up or sold off, some, even transformed into wine cellars, a café, and a museum, like one hidden under a hill just outside London.
Now owned by Mike Parrish, this shelter was built in 1952 to keep 600 civil and military personnel safe, in control, and in communication if the Soviets attacked. But lately, people are seeing this museum in a whole new light. “We’ve had about 20 inquiries from people who want to come,” Parrish said.
“So, for the right price, you would offer to rent space to someone?” asked Saberi.
But for Parrish, though, family comes first, and it’s serious business.
Saberi asked, “If there is a nuclear incident, what do you plan to do?”
“Well, I plan to lock the doors with me inside,” he replied. “Me and my family. It’s like a wedding list.”
“Do you have a list, have you written it out?”
Then there’s countries like Finland that have never let their guard down. Shelters are practically everywhere, some doubling as pools or playgrounds; and in Switzerland, a country of roughly 8.5 million people, there’s room for around 9 million to shelter.
Engineer Cedric Vuilleumier said that, lately, residents are on edge. “Some people are afraid, really afraid,” he said. “They write, they want to be sure that their shelters are prepared.”
“You’re getting more inquiries than before?”
Here, by law, everyone has to have access to a shelter in their community, or, like Francois Zurkinden, in their basements.
He opened the one-ton concrete blast door for Saberi, revealing his underground shelter, which he said can accommodate 12 people, “more or less.”
He’s stocked the shelter with plenty of wine. “We have also a little bit of water, enough for a few days,” he said. Not to mention a good supply of jam.
In the meantime, back at Defcon, the orders keep coming.
Saberi asked, “What would you say to somebody who says, you guys are making money off people’s fears?”
Cory Hubbard replied, “We tell people this: you buy car insurance, you buy home owners’ insurance, we’re just offering a different kind of insurance.”
Saberi said, “Hopefully your products will never be tested.”
“That’s what we say!” replied Ryan Olah. “It’s a life insurance policy we hope you’ll never have to use.”
For more info:
- Defcon Underground Bunkers, Independence, Mo.
- Secret Nuclear Bunker, Kelvedon Hatch, Brentwood, Essex, England
- Dr. Patricia Lewis, Chatham House
- Octavian Wines, Gastard, Corsham, Wiltshire, England
Story produced by Chris Laible and Amy Wall. Editor: Joseph Frandino.