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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 January 25 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. […]