Family in Fallout Shelter

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Family in Fallout Shelter


By: Unknown

Date: May 19, 1955

Source: Bettmann / Corbis.

About the Author: This photograph resides in the Bettmann Archives of Corbis Corporation, an image group headquartered in Seattle with a worldwide archive of over seventy million images.


At the end of World War II in 1945, the United States was the world's most powerful nation, the sole country possessing atomic weapons. Though several world powers had joined the race to harness atomic power for military use, the United States had prevailed, testing its first fission weapon in July 1945 and dropping two atomic bombs on Japan the following month. America began producing an arsenal of atomic weapons after the war, confident that it would maintain its atomic monopoly for up to a decade. Just four years later, however, Soviet scientists matched the American achievement, detonating their own atomic weapon and achieving parity in the atomic age. American citizens began to recognize their vulnerability as the Soviet military began constructing its own atomic arsenal.

In 1953, President Eisenhower made his famous Atoms for Peace speech at the United Nations. In that speech, he noted that the United States had exploded more than forty atomic and nuclear weapons as part of its weapons development programs. While the short-term effects of atomic weapons were well documented, scientists were just beginning to understand the long-term dangers they posed. In particular, the danger posed by nuclear fallout was beginning to become evident.

When a nuclear weapon is detonated, tons of radioactive debris including ash, dust, and unspent nuclear fuel are propelled high into the atmosphere. Much of this debris falls back to earth near the detonation site but some of it is carried away by upper level winds, spreading contamination over a vast area. One 1954 thermonuclear weapon test in the South Pacific created an unexpectedly large fallout cloud, contaminating several nearby islands as well as U.S. naval vessels nearby. The crew of a Japanese fishing boat was heavily irradiated and one crew member eventually died, creating a diplomatic confrontation with Japan. The event became the most serious U.S. radiological incident of the Cold War (1946–1991).

As the potential for a Soviet nuclear attack rose, Americans began an intensive program to prepare for such a possibility. Underground radiation shelters, stocked with survival supplies, were constructed throughout the nation. While these bunkers were primarily intended for government officials and local authorities, some public buildings also built shelters. Several thousand Americans constructed fallout shelters in their homes or beneath their property, reinforcing the shelters with steel or concrete and stocking them with survival supplies. The federal Office of Civil Defense sold shelter supplies and even provided shelter plans that homeowners could follow, while commercial contractors began offering custom-designed and single-piece fallout shelters for home installation. Many of these old shelters can still be seen today.



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As the American public began to understand the degree of damage a nuclear attack would inflict, the idea of building home fallout shelters lost favor. No U.S. administration ever actively endorsed the construction of extensive fallout shelters. Most focused instead on the assumption that the United States and Soviet arsenals were so large as to render a first-strike unthinkable. Fallout shelters were more widely deployed in Europe and in the Eastern Block than in North America. Switzerland in particular has invested heavily in shelters: Swiss building codes require the inclusion of underground shelters adequate to house the people living or working within each structure. That small nation currently has more than 250,000 shelters along with extensive stores of food and other survival supplies.

While the Cold War fascination with fallout shelters was short-lived, the idea of seeking safety by burrowing underground remains viable, because excavating provides the simplest and least expensive method of creating a radiation-resistant space. In the weeks following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Americans began reconsidering the potential value of fallout shelters. The possibility that terrorists might gain access to nuclear materials and detonate a dirty bomb, scattering radioactive material over a wide area, caused interest in home fallout shelters to climb. Basic models can be installed in an existing basement at a cost of several thousand dollars; more elaborate systems with a generator, decontamination equipment, and blast-proof doors can top $300,000. As of 2006, the Department of Homeland Security was not recommending that home fallout shelters be constructed.



Fradkin, Philip L. Fallout: An American Nuclear Tragedy. Boulder, Colo.: Johnson Books, 2004.

Rose, Kenneth D. One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Ross, Richard. Waiting for the End of the World. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004.


Bethell, Tom. "With Enough Shovels." American Spectator 35 (2002): 78-81.

"Gimme Shelter: Underground America." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 59 (2003): 38-39.

Lemley, Brad. "To the End of the World." Discover 24 (2003) 66-73.

Web sites

National Security Archive. "The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II." August 5, 2005 〈〉 (accessed June 20, 2006).

Nebraska Studies. "The Family Fallout Shelter." 〈〉 (accessed June 20, 2006).

Public Broadcasting Service. "Race for the Superbomb." 〈〉 (accessed June 20, 2006).

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Family in Fallout Shelter

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