Is it time for a new generation of nuclear bunkers?

Not that secret, to be honest, lads. Image: Getty.

Everyone needs a hobby, and mine is as good as any: I’m insatiably curious about the residual architecture of the Cold War. And so I routinely find myself leaning down to inspect a rusty hatch that leads down into the depths of the earth, almost hidden amid crumbling concrete shrouded by ivy. The Conversation

Old nuclear bunkers that haven’t been repurposed normally have an eerie, abandoned feel. They are largely neglected and invisible to all except those who seek them out. As the history of British civil defence is slowly forgotten, we have literally attempted to bury the physical traces of our old fears of the Eastern Bloc.

But now, a quarter-century after the Cold War ended, we’re worrying about new nuclear threats. On 25 January 2017, two Democratic congressmen introduced a bill, the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act 2017. Should it be successful, the bill would prevent the US president (whether Donald Trump or any of his successors) from inciting any USA nuclear detonation, without agreement of declaration of war by Congress.

This is the first time that a president’s nuclear autonomy has been challenged, and possibly reflects concerns about Trump’s temperament rather than long-sightedness. Nonetheless, the bill’s timing was apt: the day after it was introduced, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that the Doomsday Clock for nuclear war is now another 30 seconds closer to midnight.

Perhaps it’s time to resurrect our nuclear bunker architecture and to re-establish our old civil defence drills. So, when did the original idea of civil defence arise, and was it effective?

Living in fear

After the first successful test of a hydrogen bomb with an unforetold capacity for destruction in 1952, a new and stark reality faced civil defence planners. It was realised that mass protection was no longer a feasible possibility.

While it is easy to become nostalgic about the idea of somewhere safe, many of the bunkers dotted about the UK, US, and Europe during the Cold War were designed to preserve the nation-state rather than its citizens. The recessional post-war UK decided it could not afford to build mass public shelters. Instead, public civil defence advice created a new “citizen’s architecture ” of sandbags, doors removed from hinges, and fallout protection “walls” made of suitcases stuffed with books.

While the more ambitious architecture of protection was supposedly civilian, it was actually reserved for the elite – as far as the British government was concerned, “survival” meant the survival of the state rather than the people. The UK’s hundreds of buildings, bunkers and monitoring posts, some of which exist to this day, aren’t relics of civil protection, but monuments to government policies of control, deterrence and economic restraint.

Derelict and decommissioned

As abandoned facilities quietly decay, they often fall into dereliction, and the materials they’re constructed from present contamination risks. Some surviving bunkers have been repurposed as emergency control centres, which house defence control centres equipped to respond to a national emergency. This seems like an apt use for local government bunkers, since emergency planning originated with civil defence legislation. However, these bunkers’ filtration systems are switched off.

Occasionally, bunkers are sold for redevelopment into homes or museums. The only nuclear bunker in Northern Ireland was put on the market for just £575,000.

Elsewhere in Europe, bunker architecture has become a part of the landscape. The German countryside is dotted with various facilities informally open for exploration. In Albania and Romania, shelters have been reused as shops, guesthouses – even chicken coops.

Informal bunker visitors aren’t always respectful – and abandoned Cold War architecture is at risk of trespass and deliberate vandalism. Some sites have been back-filled with soil or chalk to keep trespassers out. At Beachy Head, former site of an early warning radar system, there is little evidence now that a bunker was ever there at all – unsuspecting tourists walk across it unaware of the significance of the ground beneath their feet.

Beachy Head nuclear bunker guard house, demolished in 1996. Image: Neal Hardy.

In the event of a nuclear attack today, these crumbling legacy pieces would not help us in any way. Both nuclear defence and resilience technologies have undergone considerable development during the past couple of decades and the facilities that would have once protected us are now redundant.

As in the 1950s, most people cannot reasonably expect to survive a nuclear attack. Instead, we are seeing the rise of the “bourgeois bunker”: high-tech, luxurious, expensive and private bunkers are being developed by firms in the USA, to protect concerned and wealthy Silicon Valley survivalists. It seems that as ever, only the moneyed, connected and powerful are entitled to outlive a nuclear catastrophe.

Meanwhile, those survivalists who can’t afford decadent bunkers are developing their wilderness skills and hoping for the best. In these geopolitically interesting (read: frightening) times, it’s difficult to discern either the true level of risk or the safest place to be. But with most of our Cold War infrastructure derelict or beyond use, our options are fewer than we might realise.

Becky Alexis-Martin is senior research fellow in human and social sciences at the University of Southampton.

Dr Jacquelyn Arnold also contributed to this piece. She is an expert in Cold War studies and makes significant academic contributions as a collaborator with Nuclear Families UK at the University of Southampton.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.