How to make a bomb shelter & survive a nuclear attack: Tips from the Cold War era

How to make a bomb shelter & survive a nuclear attack

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The Cold War was a scary time — it seemed like at any moment nuclear Armageddon would be rained down upon us by the Soviet Union, and no doubt they thought the same about us.

During the 1950s and 1960s, all sorts of civil defense educational films were made and released to try to teach people how to survive through (and after) a nuclear attack. And while most of us are familiar with the classic “duck and cover” films, there were so many more.

In this ten-minute reel showcasing a collection of these Civil Defense films, learn survival tips from a crudely made paper-mache marionette and the standard calm voice of every mid-20th century educational film.

Below that video, find information from the ’50s & ’60s about how to build your own bomb shelters, what to stock in yours, explanations of blast patterns and fallout, and more of the details distributed to the public during the height of the Cold War era.

Duck, cover… and use hay

YouTube video


How to survive an attack and live for your country’s recovery

The purpose of this booklet is to help save lives if a nuclear attack should ever come to America. The foreign and defense policies of your Government make such an attack highly unlikely, and to keep it unlikely is their most important aim.

It is for this reason that we have devoted so large an effort to creating and maintaining our deterrent forces. However, should a nuclear attack ever occur, certain preparations could mean the difference between life and death for you.

The need for preparation — for civil defense — is likely to be with us for a long time, and we must suppress the temptation to reach out hastily for short-term solutions.

Civil defense and your personal protection - Atomic bombs (2)

There is no panacea for protection from nuclear attack. In a major attack upon our country, millions of people would be killed. There appears to be no practical program that would avoid large-scale

loss of life. But an effective program of civil defense could save the lives of millions who would not otherwise survive. Fallout shelters and related preparations, for example, could greatly reduce the number of casualties.

President Kennedy, speaking on July 25, 1961, put it this way: “In the event of attack, the lives of those families which are not hit in the nuclear blast and fire can still be saved if they can be warned to take shelter and if that shelter is available. We owe that kind of insurance to our families and to our country.”

The President was talking about shelter from radioactive fallout. The blast, heat, and fire of a nuclear explosion are appallingly destructive. But radioactive fallout could spread over thousands of square miles, covering a much greater area than the area endangered by fire and blast.

US Nowhere is safe from atom attack 1952

Fallout would be a potential killer of millions of unprotected persons, but it also is a hazard that individuals and communities can prepare for through reasonable programs and actions. A fallout shelter program is one of these.

This booklet contains information about a shelter program — what the Federal Government intends to do, and how State and local governments, and individual citizens can work together to bring it into being as a sound measure of national preparedness.

There is much we can do together, and perhaps the first step is to take a clear look at nuclear warfare and what it could mean to the world as we know it today.

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Nuclear conflict

There is no escaping the fact that nuclear conflict would leave a tragic world. The areas of blast and fire would be scenes of havoc, devastation, and death. For the part of the country outside the immediate range of the explosions, it would be a time of extraordinary hardship — both for the Nation and for the individual.

The effects of fallout radiation would be present in areas not decontaminated. Transportation and communication would be disrupted. The Nation would be prey to strange rumors and fears. But if effective precautions have been taken in advance, it need not be a time of despair.

Photo of family in small residential bomb shelter - 1961

These are somber subjects, and they presuppose a catastrophe which can be made very unlikely by wise and positive policies, pursued with imagination and faith. Still, realistic preparation for what might happen is far more useful than blindness, whether from fear or ignorance.

A sane and sober person can assume that, whatever comes to pass, he would draw on his reserve of courage and intelligence — and the unquenchable will to live — and begin to build again.

The experience would be terrible beyond imagination and description. But there is much that can be done to assure that it would not mean the end of the life of our Nation.

There are no total answers, no easy answers, no cheap answers to the question of protection from nuclear attack. But there are answers. Some of them are in this booklet.

Public fallout shelter signs - NYC 1961


A-BOMB AND H-BOMB. Popular terms for what should correctly be called nuclear weapons. An atomic or A-bomb explodes through the fission (splitting) of atomic nuclei; a hydrogen or H-bomb is called a thermonuclear weapon because tremendous heat is needed to start the fusion process.

KILOTON. The power of nuclear weapons is measured in equivalents of the explosive energy of TNT. A one-kiloton weapon has the explosive equivalent of 1,000 tons of TNT.

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MEGATON. The explosive equivalent of one million tons of TNT. In this booklet, a five megaton nuclear weapon exploded at or near ground level is assumed as a basis for describing explosive effects. There are much larger weapons which could do more damage, but the damage from larger weapons does not increase in direct ratio to the size of the weapons.

GROUND ZERO. The surface point at or above which a nuclear weapon detonates.

FIREBALL. The large, swiftly expanding sphere of hot gases, producing brilliant light and intense heat, that is the first manifestation of a nuclear explosion. After about a minute, the fireball fades into the atmosphere.

Civil defense and your personal protection - Atomic bombs (3)

BLAST (SHOCK) WAVE. The near-solid wall of air pressure produced by a nuclear explosion. Beginning at more than 2,000 miles per hour, its speed decreases rapidly with distance.

BLAST WIND. The wind gust which travels with the blast wave and may be of many times hurricane force.

ROENTGEN. A unit for measuring an amount of radiation exposure.

INITIAL (PROMPT) RADIATION. The burst of gamma rays and neutrons sent out from the explosion during the first minute after detonation. Initial radiation is most deadly within about two miles of ground zero.

FALLOUT. The radioactive debris of a nuclear explosion, which eventually falls to earth in particles. The amount of fallout is enormously greater if a weapon detonates on or near the surface than if it explodes high in the air. Large amounts of earth are drawn up by the fireball. High in the sky, radioactive elements are incorporated into the earth particles, which are scattered by winds and in time fall to the ground.

FALLOUT RADIATION. The radiation emitted by fallout particles. Each particle of fallout gives off radiation as though it were a miniature X-ray machine. This radiation consists chiefly of beta rays (dangerous only if fallout particles touch the skin or are swallowed or inhaled) and gamma rays. Gamma rays, like X-rays, are very penetrating, and create the need for protective shields (fallout shelters).

EARLY FALLOUT. The fallout that returns to earth during the first day. This booklet is mainly about early fallout. The radioactivity of such fallout decreases rather rapidly at first, and more slowly as time passes.

Civil defense and your personal protection - Atomic bombs (4)


The probable effects of nuclear attack and the relative value of certain protective measures are complex subjects. There is no attempt here to discuss them in great detail, but to present information that might be helpful in understanding the overall problem.

Effects of a 5-megaton burst

A five-megaton nuclear burst at ground level would destroy most buildings two miles from the point of the explosion. Steel-frame buildings would be knocked sideways and great fires started.

The destruction five miles away would be less severe, but fires and early fallout could be a significant hazard.

At 10 miles, sturdy buildings would remain intact. At this distance fires probably would not be started by the fireball, but might be started by the blast wave which could rupture gas lines and short-circuit wires. Flying glass would present a major danger, as would early fallout.

LIFE Sep 15, 1961 - How you can survive nuclear bomb fallout

At 50 miles from the bomb burst, all buildings would remain standing. The fading blast wave would take about five minutes to arrive, but would still shatter many windows.

The greatest danger at this distance would be from early fallout, which would begin arriving in some areas within three or four hours, depending upon weather conditions at the time.

Danger of fire storms

When nuclear or incendiary bombs strike a highly combustible city area, they can create a “fire storm”; the rising column of hot gases draws in surrounding cool air, producing inward-blowing winds that confine the fire storm to the blast damage area.

Primary fires would be a much greater hazard than fire storms. For maximum fire damage, a nuclear weapon must be detonated high in the air. This would eliminate most of the potential fallout hazard.

The spread of fires from a nuclear attack would be limited in the same ways as are peacetime fires — by barriers such as open space, rivers, highways, by rainfall, and by varied distribution of burnable material.

In an underground bomb shelter - 1961

Exposure to radiation

During the average lifetime, every human being receives about 10 roentgens of nuclear radiation from natural sources. In addition, people are exposed to small amounts of radiation in dental and chest X-rays and even from the luminous dials of wristwatches.

When large amounts of radiation are absorbed by the body in short periods of time, sickness and death may result. In general, ‘the effects of radiation stay with people and accumulate over a period of time.

Few people get sick who have been exposed to 100 roentgens or less. Exposure to more than 300 roentgens over a period of a few days will cause sickness in the form of nausea, and may cause death. And death is certain if a person receives an exposure of 1,000 roentgens over a period of a few days.

Young people might be injured more by nuclear radiation than older people. This is because young people are more apt to absorb radioactive elements into their bones and internal organs than are older people.

Since young people are potential parents, they should be protected as much as possible following a nuclear attack to minimize the possible genetic effects on their descendants resulting from too much exposure to nuclear radiation.

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Radiation sickness not contagious

Radiation sickness is neither contagious nor infectious. Fallout radiation cannot make anything radioactive. Food and water that have been exposed to fallout radiation are contaminated only to the extent that they contain fallout particles.

Exposed food that may have particles on it can be made safe by washing, brushing, or peeling. Fallout particles can be removed from water supplies by sedimentation or filtering.

People who have fallout particles on their bodies or clothing probably would not carry enough to endanger other people, but they should wash themselves for their own protection.

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Long-term effects of radiation

Following a nuclear attack, most radioactive elements in fallout would decay rapidly, losing most of their power to harm. However, for some time thereafter the hazard could continue to restrict normal activities in some parts of the country.

A few elements, such as strontium 90, cesium 137, and carbon 14, are long-lived and could harm humans in some ways, such as by being absorbed by food plants. However, the long-term damaging effects of such exposure are not yet known in great detail.

Radiation in the air

Following a nuclear attack the air would be contaminated by radioactive fallout only to the extent that it contained fallout particles. The most dangerous fallout particles — early fallout — would reach the earth in the first day after the detonation, but their mere passage through the air would not contaminate the air. Fallout particles in harmful amounts would not be present in basement family shelters.

People in underground family shelters could keep fallout particles out of their shelters by having a simple hood over the air-intake pipe. Special filters are not needed for small shelters. However, group shelters that have high-velocity air-intake fans would have to have filters on the air-intake system to keep fallout particles out.

How early fallout looks

The most dangerous fallout — early fallout — would consist of radioactive particles that are relatively large and heavy — about the size of table salt or fine sand. The chances are you could see the particles although you could not detect the radiation from the particles without the use of a special instrument.

Special clothing offers little protection

Fallout radiation would pass through any type of protective clothing that would be practical to wear. Heavy and dense materials, such as earth and concrete, are needed to stop the highly penetrating fallout rays.

Certain types of protective clothing could be useful — particularly for emergency workers — in keeping fallout particles off the body, but the wearer would not be protected from the gamma radiation given off by the particles. The worker would wear the clothing when in a fallout contaminated area, and then discard it or brush and wash it off thoroughly before entering a non-contaminated area.

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Little hope in special medicines

Although many experiments have been conducted, there is little likelihood that a pill or any other type of medicine will be developed that can protect people from the effects of fallout radiation, so that shielding from fallout becomes necessary.

Evacuation vs. shelter

Two conditions make pre-attack evacuation of less general value as a protective measure for nuclear attack than it appeared to be a few years ago: the danger of radioactive fallout to unsheltered evacuees, and the decrease in the probable attack — warning time if an enemy should attack with high-speed missiles.

However, the problem of mass movement of people in the event of a nuclear attack is still a significant one because plans must be made to get people into shelters rather rapidly. Also, it may be necessary to move people out of severely damaged areas after an attack.

Probable reaction to disaster

Experience has shown that many human beings act cooperatively when disaster strikes, many feel helpless, a few panic. Disaster studies indicate that information, planning, and preparation clearly increase the extent of cooperative and constructive behavior following a disaster.


A five-megaton nuclear weapon explodes with a brilliant flash that lasts about a minute. A quick burst of nuclear and heat radiation emerges from ground zero, the point of the explosion.

The spurt of nuclear radiation (wavy lines extending from the fireball) is called initial radiation or prompt radiation and kills within a mile or two. The heat rays (straight lines) can kill unprotected people up to 10 miles away and may start fires beyond that.

The heat rays and initial radiation are followed by a blast wave which starts at more than 2,000 miles an hour, but loses much of its damaging force by about 10 miles out.

With the blast wave comes a violent wind, which picks up loose objects and bears them outward. In the illustration here, the weapon has burst at ground level, leaving a crater about half a mile across and 200 feet deep. Nearly everything within a radius of a mile of ground zero would be destroyed.

Nuclear explosion - The blast


As the brilliant fireball rises in the sky, it draws up a vast amount of earth that is melted or vaporized and contaminated by the radioactive residue of the explosion.

A little later, this material, condensing in the cold upper air like rain or snow, starts falling back to earth because, like ash from a fire, it is heavier than air.

It is called fallout, because it falls out of the sky, wherever the winds may blow it. You cannot tell from the ground which way it will be carried because its scatter is determined by high-altitude winds, which may be blowing in a different direction from the ground-level winds you can observe.

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About five miles from the explosion, some heavier particles — early fallout — would reach the ground in half an hour. Twenty miles away, people may have nearly an hour to get ready.

One hundred miles away the fallout may not start for four to six hours. All this early fallout, which carries the bulk of the radiation danger, descends in less than 24 hours. The less dangerous lighter particles — delayed fallout — might stay aloft for months.

Nucklear attack - crater and fallout


Not every item on this chart is vital to life. (The most essential ones are outlined in color.) But even though you might be able to leave your shelter briefly after a day or two, you should prepare to be completely self-sustaining for at least two weeks.

Vintage fallout shelter supplies

1960s shelter supplies for nuclear attack


The one essential is water; most people can live no more than four days without it. The minimum for a shelter is one quart of fluid per person per day; if space is available near the shelter, a gallon of water a day per person would provide for your comfort, including washing.

Some items, such as tools, should be kept handy, but need not be inside the shelter itself.

Canned goods and food packets for bomb shelter


Following is a checklist of preparations for, and best ways of, living in close confinement for the two days to two weeks when a shelter may have to be your home. Also included is a resume of the first aid information you may need.


It is more vital than food. Humans can live on a quart of water or other fluid a day, but an allowance of a gallon is far more comfortable, especially in a warm shelter.

Store water in five-gallon or larger containers to conserve space. If you use small glass containers, seal them well and pack them with newspapers or wadding to prevent breakage.

Some may want to test their stored water for smell and taste every three months, but it is not necessary for health. Odorous as it might become, it will still be usable in an emergency.

Announcements on your radio may tell you whether local water supplies are safe. If they are not, you can preserve a considerable safe water supply in your house by closing the water shut-off valve leading in from the street. The water in toilet flush tanks, pipes, hot water tanks, and similar home sources is drinkable.

Earth-covered residential rural fallout shelter - 1960s

Unless authorities have pronounced it safe, try to avoid using water from outside the house or open sources (lakes, reservoirs) after the attack without purifying it. Germs or radioactive material, or both, may get into water.

Cloudy or unclear water should first be strained through a paper towel or several thicknesses of clean cloth, or else be allowed to settle in a deep container and then siphoned off.

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After that, it may be freed of germs with water purification tablets, obtainable at drug and sporting goods stores, or by boiling vigorously for a few minutes, or by adding 20 drops of iodine to a gallon of clear water or 40 drops to a gallon of cloudy water. Then let it stand for 30 minutes. Liquid household bleaches of the sodium hypochlorite type can also be used. The label usually gives instructions.

Radiation in itself does not affect water. It is only if the radioactive particles themselves get into water that the water becomes dangerous. There are effective ways to decontaminate water containing radioactive particles.

The particles can be removed by the simple filtering process with paper or cloth that was described earlier, or by running the water through one of the devices that are sold to soften water for home use. Perhaps an easier way would be to mix a handful of clay soil with each gallon of water and allow it to settle out over a period of a day.

Residential cinderblock fallout shelter concept 1960s

Radiation meters

Because gamma rays, like X-rays, are not detected by any of the five senses, each shelter should have some simple instruments to detect and measure them.

Instruments developed specifically for home use can be ordered through department stores and other retail outlets. Having these instruments does not automatically provide you with simple solutions to problems of radiation exposure since the relations between dose rate, total dose, time, radioactive decay, etc., must be learned.

Instructions will be available, however, on how to interpret the instrument readings. If these are studied and understood in advance, the instruments can be of great value in intelligently planning your action in a fallout situation.

A ratemeter will tell what the intensity of the radiation is. It is similar to a speedometer in a car except that it measures roentgens per hour rather than miles per hour. Thus, from a ratemeter reading made just outside the shelter, you can get an indication of whether it is safe to leave the shelter for a brief period.

The dosimeter will show you the total amount of radiation to which you have been exposed during an emergency period. It is similar to a mileage indicator in a car but it measures total roentgens rather than miles. Carefully study the instructions provided with these instruments by the manufacturer.

At right is a kit of radiation instruments developed specifically for home use — a ratemeter, dosimeter, and charger. Other models are being developed.

Vintage bomb shelter plans and materials list from 1961


Wherever you live — in the country, city apartment, or suburban house — you should keep a two-week supply of food on hand. Large community shelters in existing buildings are going to be stocked by the Federal Government with emergency foods.

But for the present, and especially for apartment residents who may have to take quick refuge in the central core or basement of their building, a good plan is to keep handy a box or basket with rations and water.

In planning a two-week supply of food for whatever shelter you will use, bear these things in mind:

Ten thousand calories will be adequate for an adult during an inactive two-week shelter stay. Select familiar foods (they are more heartening and acceptable during times of stress) and food that will last for months without refrigeration and can be served without cooking.

Suggestions: canned meat, fish, poultry, beans, peas and fruits; cereals and tinned baked goods; cheese spreads, peanut butter and jellies with crackers; evaporated or dried milk.

Pick cans and packages of a size suitable to your family’s needs for one meal; this prevents spoilage and offers you greater daily variety. Keep all foods in their original containers. Those that do not come in cans should be wrapped and tape- sealed in polyethylene sheets. Write the date of purchase on cans or packages, and use oldest purchases first.

Civil defense and your personal protection - Atomic bombs (1)

After a nuclear attack, food stored indoors should be safe to eat. That is especially true of food in freezers and refrigerators, which should, of course, be kept closed as much as possible.

Eat the perishable foods first, especially if electricity and gas are cut off. Bread is still edible even when moldy; sour milk is drinkable. Fruits and vegetables with “rotten” spots cut out are safe to eat; if they have been exposed to fallout, wipe, wash and peel them, disposing of wash-water and peelings outside the shelter.

Throw out canned foods if bubbles appear in the juices, even though they smell all right. In an emergency, most canned and packaged animal foods can be eaten by humans without harm.

A hand-operated air blower would provide ample ventilation for any underground family shelter. Other models are being developed.

Residential basement fallout shelter from the 60s


Fresh air is more vital than food and water. A basement home shelter will get its air via door cracks and other crevices through which fallout particles are unlikely to drift. But well-sealed community shelters and home underground ones will need ventilation systems because even at rest a person should have at least three cubic feet of air a minute.

In many home underground shelters, a three-inch intake pipe is installed to suck in fresh air by means of a hand-operated blower that is cranked periodically, and an exhaust pipe is set up to vent stale air. The air-intake pipe should extend at least a foot above the ground, and have a weather cap over it to keep out fallout particles.

Community shelters should have an air filter to remove particles that may get into the ventilation system. Since this filter may collect radioactive material, the people in the shelter should be shielded from it. No blower is necessary for the outlet or exhaust pipe because of the pressure created within the shelter by the intake blower.

In smaller shelters, the outlet pipe may be unnecessary because air would leave through cracks around the door. Blowers are available at hardware stores.

Multi-family bomb shelter in Idaho - 1960s

Radiation sickness

The principal ailment unique to nuclear warfare is radiation sickness. Its severity depends on the amount of radiation to which a person is exposed and on the length of the exposure time. That is because the body can take a certain amount of radiation damage and repair it without serious permanent injury. It is only when one gets too much too fast that sickness or possibly death may result.

Radiation sickness is not contagious, regardless of how much exposure the victim has had. It is important to know that many of its symptoms may appear in anyone subjected at any time to anxiety and great stress.

Symptoms of three degrees of radiation sickness are:

Mild — the especially sensitive person will show some nausea, lack of appetite and fatigue within a few hours after exposure. He should rest but can continue normal activities. Recovery will be rapid.

Moderate — the same symptoms appear, but well within two hours of exposure, and more markedly. Vomiting and even prostration may occur. By the third day, recovery may seem complete, but symptoms may recur in the next days or weeks.

Severe — again, all the early symptoms show up and may vanish after a few days. But after a week or more, fever, mouth soreness and diarrhea may appear; gums and mouth may ulcerate and bleed; and, in about the third week, the patient’s hair may start to fall out. Recovery may take seven to eight weeks. When exposure has been overwhelming, death comes in hours or weeks.

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