Thanks To North Korea, Nuclear Bunkers Are Making A Comeback — But How Effective Are They?


Those born in America in the 40’s may recall “Duck and Cover”—a public service announcement featuring an animated turtle named Bert who instructed American households on how to protect themselves in the event of a nuclear blast. While the effectiveness of this strategy has been called into question since the Cold War, the level of threat has not necessarily decreased in kind. In September, North Korea test-flighted a second missile over Japan only twelve days after its sixth nuclear weapons test earlier that month. Bunkers and fallout shelters are now seeing an uptick in sales, making their first revival since the Cold War.

In the 20-some years that have passed, has our emergency preparedness in the aftermath of a nuclear detonation become more effective, and are we now more prepared than we were before for a nuclear strike?

Destruction Of Seismic Proportions 

Virtually no city is prepared for a nuclear detonation –that is the verdict of a recent report by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. While factors like location, subsequent fire blast, long-term radioactive fallout and even building shield coverage all affect overall level of destruction, a nuclear exchange would cause irreparable damage to the world. To contextualize matters, North Korea’s recent hydrogen bomb test, which was believed to be 120 kilotons TNT, dwarfs both atomic bombs dropped in World War II–the  “Little “Boy” on Hiroshima and the “Fat Man” in Nagasaki.

Melissa Hanham, a senior researcher at the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, reminds us that compared to a conventional weapon, a nuclear weapon is a different beast altogether. “It’s not possible to prepare for nuclear attack. There are not enough places to shelter, not enough emergency supply nor emergency responders to handle a nuclear exchange of this magnitude. Even if you were to survive the immediate blast, you would need to think about planning for the days, weeks, months– years afterwards.”

Joshua Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review and senior researcher at the Middlebury Institute identifies the populations that would be at greatest risk. He believes that North Korea would be more likely to target U.S. military facilities, which are counterforce targets—a base which has military value— than population centers. But he doesn’t rule out the possibility. The principle behind attacking high-population areas is to frighten the adversary so much that they will not engage in a nuclear exchange – what’s also known as countervalue targets.

“Unfortunately, some of these [U.S. military] facilities are located in the Tokyo metro area. It is also possible that North Korea could threaten to attack Japanese cities in order to coerce Japan into curtailing wartime cooperation with the U.S.,” says Pollack.

A Brief History Of Wartime Bunkers

In South Korea, whose 25.6 million residents stand in the direct line of fire and which Kim Jong-un has threatened to turn into “a sea of fire,” there are currently more than 19,000 bomb shelters, including over 3,200 in Seoul, 25 miles away from the militarized border. But these shelters, which are mostly located in subway stations, basements and parking garages have no food, water, gas masks or medical kits readily available. In neighboring Japan, which has a less-than amicable relationship with Seoul due to hostilities carried over from World War II, Reuters reports that wartime shelters are largely unusable to the public. In other words, wartime bunkers are of limited utility, and are more or less remnants of a time bygone.

In the past, bunkers were widely used in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis alongside air raid sirens. While the Cold War was the golden age for fallout shelters, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists observes that once glasnost— a Soviet policy of “openness” and democratization in 1980’s initiated by Gorbachev—set in, so too did complacency. As a result, shelters were left to rust and supplies left to dwindle. Continue reading.