Saturday, March 30, 2013

Preppers - Fallout Shelters - Part One

I remember being in St Patrick's School in Kaimuki, Hawaii, and going through the air raid warning drills back then.

The teacher would have us climb under our desks as she closed the long heavy classroom window curtains - supposedly to stop the glass from exploding all over the room during an explosion.

All of us would keep our heads down until the "all clear" siren sounded and we could come out from under our desks. On the first Monday of every month, that was our regular routine.

From right after the end of World War II and into the mid-1960s, it was fairly routine for us to go through the "duck and cover" drills. Back then the threat of Nuclear War with Russia, then called the Soviet Union, was very real.

In fact it was so real, that in 1961, President John F. Kennedy made it an administration priority to build public fallout shelters around the country.

And yes, his administration actually encouraged every U.S. citizen to have a fallout shelter of their own. A place to survive the inevitable blast and the radioactive fallout that would result.

Yes, some can laugh at those who are today called "Doomsday Preppers" - but it wasn't a joke back then. Besides, think about it, would anyone laugh at President John F Kennedy for encouraging Americans to do exactly that - prepare for doomsday.

When Civil Defense was a real concern of the Federal government President Kennedy appointed Steuart Pittman, the assistant secretary of Civil Defense, to implement his administration's program.

Mr. Pittman took his position very seriously. But since it would cost Six Billion Dollars to fully implement the fallout shelter program, both Congress and local governments, who would share the costs, balked at the price tag.

While there are estimates that families built approximately 200,000 shelters in just 2 year, and thousands of schools, hospitals, and other large buildings were designated as shelters for public use, some say that many Americans were so depressed by the idea of living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland that they would rather die in the nuclear blast that they did not.

Steuart Pittman worked in that position for 3 year. He died on February 10, 2013 at the age of 93.

Some say millions of Fallout Shelters were actually constructed privately across the nation. Many are still in existence today.

With the Federal Government not doing anything these days in the way of Civil Defense, mostly because they find it wiser to spend critical taxpayer dollars on senseless things like a menu for a Mars Mission or giving it away by the Millions to Dictators who hate us in the Middle-East, today it's more of an every American for themselves situation. 

First, we must understand that whether they are called bomb shelters or fallout shelters - they have been around a long time.

A fallout shelter is an enclosed space specially designed to protect occupants from radioactive debris or fallout resulting from a nuclear explosion. Many such shelters were constructed as civil defense measures during the Cold War.

When a nuclear bomb hits the ground, a crater is formed, and the earth that used to be there gets pounded into trillions of particles. These particles receive the radiation from the explosion and carry it up into the sky in a huge mushroom cloud.

The cloud doesn't stay there or come back down to the ground -- wind pushes it along like any other cloud, and the particles drift down along the way.

The dangerous material is actually visible, looking like sand or flakes, and coming into contact with large doses of it is life-threatening.

When this material condenses in the rain, it forms dust and light sandy materials that resembles ground pumice. The fallout emits alpha and beta particles, as well as gamma rays.

Much of this highly radioactive material then falls to earth, subjecting anything within the line of sight to radiation, a significant hazard.

Remember, when nuclear fission or fusion occurs, many types of radiation are created, including alpha particles, beta particles, gamma rays and neutrons.

Alpha and beta particles would mostly be harmless. Although they're fast-moving particles, they're too big to pass through much matter -- alpha particles (helium atoms) can be stopped by a few inches of air or a piece of paper, and beta particles (electrons) can be stopped by plastic or light metal.

Alpha and beta particles only pose a serious danger when they're inhaled or fall onto the food we eat.

Gamma rays and neutrons are much more dangerous following a nuclear explosion. Neutrons are heavier than electrons, and when they break off of atoms from nuclear fuel, such as uranium or plutonium, act like extremely small "missiles" and can easily penetrate matter.

Gamma rays are photons very much like light, except that they have more energy and can easily pass through several inches of a heavy element like lead.
A fallout shelter is designed to allow its occupants to minimize exposure to harmful fallout until radioactivity has decayed to a safer level.

Although many shelters still exist, some even being used as museums, virtually all public fallout shelters have been decommissioned since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The purpose of a fallout shelter is, of course, to shield the people inside from the harmful effects of radiation.

Just as there's a special number on bottles of sunscreen that describe how much protection the substance provides from the sun's rays -- SPF, or Sun Protection Factor -- fallout shelters have their own number. It's simply called a Protection Factor (PF).

An SPF number refers to how much time you can spend out in the sun before getting burned.

The PF number for a fallout shelter, though, represents the relationship between the amount of radiation an unprotected person would experience compared to the amount one would receive in a shelter.

For example, a shelter with a PF of 5 would expose occupants to about 20 percent of the amount of radiation they'd receive if they were outdoors -- not a very safe number.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) pamphlet Are You Ready -Standards for Fallout Shelters, a fallout shelter is "any room, structure or space designated as such and providing its occupants with protection at a minimum protection factor (PF) of 40 from fallout radiation resulting from a nuclear explosion".

This means that the people inside would receive one-fortieth (or 2.5%) the amount of radiation they'd receive if they were outside after a nuclear explosion, which is much safer than a PF of 5.

The lingering danger of a nuclear explosion, however, is the effect of nuclear radiation. This is something people outside of the immediate blast area would have to worry about -- radiation sickness can kill as many or more people than a blast would, but it would happen over a much longer period of time.

Using fallout shelters is the best way to protect people from falling radiation.

While there are different types of shelters such as, for example, hurricane, tornado, and multi-purpose shelters, there are also two types of radiation fallout shelters.

The first is a private fallout shelter, one built or bought by a person or a family. These types may be converted basements under a person's house, underground shelters built within a yard or shelters built away from a person's home.

The second kind is a public fallout shelter, described by FEMA as any place "intended for use by or is accessible to the general public. Fallout shelters which are a part of a private residence and are intended for private use are not included".

A public shelter can be any kind of public building, including hospitals, schools and police stations. All public fallout shelters are marked with the universal sign for fallout shelters, which is a circle with three upside-down triangles inside.

Public shelters usually have enough room to carry at least 50 people, but they can be big enough to provide protection for hundreds. A minimum of 10 square feet per occupant is required by FEMA, along with a minimum of 6.5 feet of head room.

Most government manuals recommend staying inside a fallout shelter for about two weeks. Although the amount of time it takes for radiation to disappear varies, from a few days to two weeks, most people take the "better safe than sorry" stance on this issue.

Most are equipped with radiation detection devices and battery-powered radios to stay informed.

It is hard to find good fallout shelter plans. There are links to sites that discuss fallout shelter plans, but one should understand that the basic difference between a tornado shelter and a fallout shelter is the 30 inches of dirt over a fallout shelter - and the U shaped air inlet and outlet that makes the air go up before it enters the shelter.

Most fallout is heavy dust that will not go up the curved 6 inch air intake pipe, especially if it has a dust filter on it.

Only a structure built to withstand about 50 pounds per square inch (psi) could survive close to ground zero, and the majority of it would most likely be underground. The material of such a shelter would have to very heavy and dense, like lead or concrete.

So how are fallout shelters built, what do people need in a fallout shelter, and what will living in a fallout shelter will be like, will be covered in the next parts of this series. 

Just as a hint to what will be covered. Let's first understand that although we're used to eating food on a regular basis, humans can survive for two weeks without much food. But on the other hand, it's water that's important if people are going to stay alive for long periods of time.

FEMA suggests a minimum of 3.5 gallons of drinking water per person to last the two weeks. We will discuss storing lots of food and water in a fallout shelter along with other essentials.

Story by Tom Correa

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