Where Are All the Nuclear Bunkers?

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February, concerns over the potential use of nuclear weapons have grown. Specially designed bunkers may provide some degree of protection to people in the event of a nuclear attack.

But where are all the nuclear bunkers in the United States and who are they for?

During the Cold War, the U.S. government constructed a number of bunkers around Washington, D.C., and elsewhere that were designed to provide a safe haven for high-ranking members and staff during a nuclear attack on the country.

These bunkers were built as part of "Continuity of Government" (COG) plans, which received renewed interest and funding after the 9/11 attacks, according to the book Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die, written journalist Garrett Graff.

Among the known facilities involved in the COG plans that are still in use are the Raven Rock Mountain Complex near Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania; the site at Peters Mountain in Virginia's Appalachians; the Mount Weather bunker in Bluemont, Virginia; and the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in El Paso County, Colorado.

These facilities could likely sustain a population of thousands in the event of a catastrophe, Bradley Garrett, a cultural geographer and author of the book Bunker: What It Takes to Survive the Apocalypse—an exploration of "doomsday prepper" communities around the world—told Newsweek.

An atomic bomb mushroom cloud
A stock image shows a mushroom cloud during an atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Such testing was done there between 1946 and 1958. iStock

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union invested heavily in public defense infrastructure. But the same cannot be said for the United States.

"You essentially had these two competing models," Garrett said. "The socialist model, embraced by not just the Soviet Union but also Scandinavia, involved massive investment into the creation of government installations that would preserve the lives of citizens."

He continued: "In more free market–inclined countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, bunkers were built for politicians, for elites, for wealthy people in positions of power. There was very little provision made for the general public."

Garrett said it is important to keep in mind the difference between a blast or bomb shelter and a fallout shelter. A bomb shelter is designed to protect people from the explosion of a nuclear or conventional weapon.

"Switzerland, for instance, has space for 100 percent of their population inside blast shelters, which is an amazing feat of engineering," he said.

A fallout shelter, meanwhile, is not designed to shield people from a nuclear blast but is intended to provide protection from the resulting fallout—radioactive debris that is propelled into the atmosphere following a nuclear explosion and eventually falls to Earth.

While the U.S. government did not provide bomb shelters for the public, unlike Switzerland and the Soviet Union, it did implement a fallout shelter program during the Cold War.

This program involved designating thousands of spaces—such as parking garages or the basements of public buildings—across the country as fallout shelters while stocking them with supplies. New York City alone was home to around 18,000 of these.

"They would not be able to take a direct hit," Garrett said. "But you could shelter in them for the 14 days that would be necessary after a nuclear attack until the radiation levels fall to a point where it's relatively safe to emerge from the bunker."

Many of these shelters, which are marked by a characteristic yellow sign, were not specifically designed for such purposes and may not have provided sufficient levels of protection against radiation.

"To some extent, they would be useful. But the primary problem with a lot of those places is they did not have air filtration in place," Garrett said. "If you've got people huddled in a parking garage and radiation is seeping in through a stairwell, people are going to get radiation poisoning."

The shelters "were meant to give people a sense of reassurance, but I think it was a false sense of reassurance," he said. "For most people, if they were living in an apartment complex, for instance, with pretty good air filtration, their best bet would have just been to stay inside, as long as they're outside of the blast radius."

By the late 1970s, the fallout shelter program was discontinued and funding ceased. Over time, the designated shelters were mostly neglected or repurposed for other uses, and the signs gradually started disappearing from buildings, although they can still be seen in some locations.

Jeff Schlegelmilch, deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Earth Institute, told CNBC the public should not rely on these shelters as part of any survival plan, even though the fallout shelter signs remain in some places.

"They're a relic of the Cold War. They largely just don't exist anymore," he said.

A fallout shelter sign
A stock image shows a sign indicating a specific building is a fallout shelter. The U.S. government designated thousands of buildings as fallout shelters during the Cold War. iStock

But even as Cold War tensions eased after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union, the U.S. government continued to build elaborate bunkers for itself, Garrett said.

Aside from government bunkers constructed for use by political and military officials, numerous privately constructed shelters exist across the United States, as the market for these facilities has "skyrocketed" over the past decade, according to Garrett.

"The government is continuing to invest billions a year into these bunkers, and the private market is mirroring that. The days of the backyard bunker are morphing into something that's quite a bit more serious in nature," he said.

"People are now spending sometimes tens of millions of dollars in building these incredible installations that rival what the government can build in many ways. It's another strong indicator of the inequality that we're all so aware of now. We've also seen people buying old Cold War infrastructure that was rendered obsolete and turning it into bunkers," he said.

One example of this is the $20 million Survival Condo, a luxury, 15-story underground bunker in Kansas housed in a converted Atlas ICBM missile silo that offers the superrich a supposedly safe space to ride out the apocalypse.

The number of private bunkers in the United States is hard to quantify because no data is being collected. But given the scale of the industry that manufactures these shelters and taking into account Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) data on disaster preparedness, Garrett said it is "safe to say" that millions of private bunkers are in the country.

Most of these private bunkers—constructed to protect their owners from a wide variety of large-scale disasters, including nuclear attacks—are concentrated in the American West in such states as Montana, Idaho, Utah, Oregon and California, Garrett said.

"The epicenter of bunker construction is certainly on the West Coast of the United States," he said. "Maybe that is linked to this rugged individualism mentality. There's a long history and tradition here of being self-sufficient and disconnected from the government."

Bunkers are just one facet of the growing trend in "prepping," which is becoming more popular amid anxieties over pandemics like COVID, climate change, civil unrest and other threats.

Prepping is the practice of making active preparations for a possible catastrophic disaster or emergency scenario. It can involve people from across the socioeconomic spectrum, and its appeal seems to be broadening.

An analysis of FEMA National Household Survey Data conducted by Cornell-trained disaster preparedness expert Chris Ellis found that the percentage of what he calls "Resilient Citizens"—Americans that have the resources to survive completely off the grid for 31 days or more—rose from 3.8 percent to 5.8 percent between 2017 and 2020. Meanwhile, the percentage of "Ultra High Resilient Citizens"—who can survive on their own for 97 days or more—rose from 1.1 to 2.6 percent in that time.

"We're seeing a much more diverse group of people getting involved in prepping, particularly in urban areas, which didn't use to happen," Garrett said. 'We're now seeing people living in urban areas, for example, building escape plans and forming mutual assistance groups to help each other in the event of natural disasters.

"We still have this incredible industry of people burying bunkers in their backyards and creating secret installations," he continued. "And then at the very top end we have these millionaires and billionaires who are buying yachts that they're kitting out to be totally self-sufficient so they can take off into the ocean if everything goes terribly wrong."

Garrett said there has been a spike in interest in prepping and bunkers since Russia's invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, which has drawn attention to the utility of bomb shelters. Ukraine has at least 5,000 publicly accessible bomb shelters, many of which have been upgraded since Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Workers wait in a Ukrainian bomb shelter
Power plant workers wait in a bomb shelter during an airstrike alarm in an undisclosed part of Ukraine on October 27. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

"I remember when I began writing my book, a lot of people were surprised—they said, 'The age of the bunkers is over, we don't need these anymore.' But the war in Ukraine has made it very clear—thousands of people have been saved because those bunkers existed and they were able to take shelter," Garrett said,

Despite the surge in interest in bunkers and their potential utility in shielding people from an immediate threat, such as a bomb blast or chemical attack, many preppers concede that these shelters are practically useless for protecting people from long-term disasters or emergencies, such as a nuclear war, Garrett said.

While it might be possible to hold out for a few weeks, months or even years—in the case of the most advanced and well-stocked bunkers—survival is ultimately limited by the resources available to you. And in the case of, say, a nuclear war, the devastation wrought by such an event is likely to be so catastrophic on a global scale that there would be very few survivors.

Research indicates, for example, that two years after a nuclear war the effects on global agricultural food systems would be so severe that more than 5 billion people—over half of the world's population—could starve to death.

Garrett said he is now noticing some preppers moving toward a model that is focused more on developing sustainable communities and long-term off-grid living.

"Community resilience is the hot topic right now in prepping," he said. "Rather than thinking about what kind of bunker do we need to survive a catastrophic event, the conversation is now turning to how do we build a community. How do we learn how to grow food? How do we re-skill ourselves to be able to be self-sufficient, because we've all become so dependent on a very fragile economic system with supply lines that can go down in any moment and have a major impact on our ability to keep ourselves safe and healthy?

"That's where I'm seeing prepping going now—a move towards what I would call practical prepping rather than doomsday prepping," he said.