Terrorist threat puts fallout shelters back in vogue

Saturday, December 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Fearing nuclear terrorism, Americans are building home fallout shelters in numbers unseen since the peak of the Cold War, sometimes even mortgaging homes to cover costs, say shelter makers and designers.

Some corporations are giving the shelters to top executives as a perk, one dealer said.

Gone are the days when defense experts scoffed and neighbors shook their heads and chuckled.

``They're treating me less like a crazy woman than they did before,'' says Dr. Jane Orient, of Tucson, Ariz., who promotes home shelters as head of Doctors for Disaster Preparedness.

Walton McCarthy, president of shelter builder Radius Defense and Engineering in Northwood, N.H., says he is making almost four times as many of his egg-shaped, fiberglass underground shelters since Sept. 11 _ roughly one a day. He is planning a bigger factory.

Nuclear engineer Sharon Packer says sales have also quadrupled _ to more than four a month _ at her company, Utah Shelter Systems in Heber, Utah.

``People start calling at 5:30 a.m., and I don't go to bed until 11:30 at night,'' she said.

The idea of family fallout shelters is not new or uniquely American. Switzerland has mandated them in new housing.

In the early Cold War, thousands of Americans built fallout shelters in backyards and basements. The federal government even put out designs.

By the late 1960s, though, a new mindset began taking hold. Elaborate civil defenses, the thinking went, could aggravate tensions by stoking Soviet fears of an American first strike. Besides, how could a personal shelter protect against the apocalypse of nuclear war between superpowers? Shelter builders began to seem like eccentrics, and shelters seemed even more superfluous with the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Then came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Even if countries are rational enough to keep a finger off the nuclear trigger, how about terrorists?

``What has happened in the current atmosphere is that our opponent is fanatical. He's not rational,'' said Ed York, of Kent, Wash., an authority on home shelter design who specialized in hardening targets against attack for Boeing Co.

Analysts have warned that terrorists would not need to master the complex technology of a nuclear explosion or intercontinental missile guidance. They could pack radioactive material around a core of conventional explosives for a lesser bang _ but lots of contamination.

Such a ``dirty bomb'' attack might well be more survivable with a fallout shelter.

``When you had civil defense in the 1960s, that was ridiculous,'' says physicist Edwin Lyman, who is scientific director at the Nuclear Control Institute, a research group in Washington, D.C. ``Now, in the context of the risks associated with a terrorist who might have a small number of ... radiological weapons, it's not necessarily a bad idea to think if there are procedures that would avert casualties.''

Home shelters vary widely in size, degree of protection, and cost.

Nearly everyone agrees they should provide a radiation barrier of 3-to-4 feet of dirt or at least two of concrete.

Some dealers supply plans for basement shelters that cost as little as several thousand dollars. For maximum protection against biological, nuclear and chemical threats, prices balloon to $40,000 and higher. Such shelters are equipped with air filtration systems and hand-pump toilets, allowing people to hold out from 30 days to several months.

Bill Eckhoff, president of Kleen Air Technologies, in Frisco, Colo., sells a home shelter that comes complete with blast-proof doors, backup diesel generator and decontamination area. The roomy 800-square-foot model can cost more than $300,000.

``We believe if you have to sit through a transition period, why not maintain a quality of life?'' he says.

Sound pricey? He says inquiries have doubled to about 30 a day since Sept. 11.

Many analysts believe that other terrorist threats are more likely than a nuclear attack.

``I would be more concerned about chemical, biological or gas, because they're more in the range of what these groups can do,'' said Milton Copulos, a retired Army intelligence officer who is president of the National Defense Council Foundation, a think tank in Alexandria, Va.

He keeps a supply of bottled water at home. If someone is still nervous, he suggests not a fallout shelter, but a few emergency provisions for a chemical attack _ plastic sheeting, duct tape and bottled oxygen.

State and federal authorities are prepared to shelter emergency personnel and government leaders. However, they downplay the value of home shelters.

``Maybe there are better ways to protect your family,'' says Peter Judge, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

``Evacuation is still the primary protective measure in the event of a nuclear incident,'' adds Don Jacks, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The new federal Office of Homeland Security is not promoting home fallout shelters either, according to spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

Most Americans also remain unconverted. Physicist Marcel Barbier of Herndon, Va., who has consulted with government laboratories on radiation safety, put in his own home shelter in 1985 but says neighbors aren't taking his cue. ``The people here need to receive a nuclear bomb on their head before they understand it can happen _ and I hope it doesn't happen,'' he said.