Photographer Finds Abandoned Cold War Nuclear Fallout Shelter

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The Cold War is the customary name for a period of political and military competition between two blocks led by the United States and the Soviet Union. This competition was primarily ideological and economic and was intensified by the conventional and nuclear arms race.

Fallout shelter during the Cold War

Life at that time continued behind a nuclear umbrella. Schools and workplaces taught people how to protect themselves from the effects of weapons of mass destruction and built bombs and anti-nuclear shelters under them. Most were built in cities, which are strategic transportation hubs and military production centers.

The largest of these were equipped with generators, communication systems, filtration and ventilation systems, protective measures, medicines, and food and water, which could accommodate thousands of people. They were primarily reserved for government employees and strategically important gas, oil and nuclear companies to continue working during the war. On the other hand, ordinary residents can evacuate to dual-use buildings such as basements, tunnels, underground parking lots, and subway stations.

For more than 30 years, the two superpowers have retained each other in a nuclear check, although they eventually avoided direct military conflict. The shelter became obsolete when the Cold War arms race was interrupted by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Some have been converted into museums, warehouses, restaurants and gyms. But most are simply forgotten and still hide the relics of that era of global conflict.

Find a shelter for abandoned fallout

Especially in Ukraine, we can sometimes hear about the discovery of these forgotten buildings. Their presence captured my imagination and urged me to look for them.

Old maps, shelter plans, movies and other Russian or Ukrainian documents can be very helpful for this purpose and can greatly narrow down the number of potential locations. Relatively new technologies such as Google Maps and Street View are also useful. You can perform the first steps of your search without leaving your home computer.

After looking at the monitor screens for weeks comparing the shapes of hundreds of buildings, the location of entrances, and the terrain of roads, paths, lakes, etc., I made my first breakthrough. The shape of a building turned out to be very similar to the plan for an underground shelter. The distribution of entrances and other topographical features are also consistent. You may be there!

After a few more weeks of additional research, two more potential sites have been identified.

The first place turned out to be wrong. There are no entrances or ventilation towers protruding from the ground that reveal the existence of underground structures. After a few hours of wasted searching, I gave up. Finding an underground shelter is actually much more difficult than looking for it on a computer.

I’m luckier at the second shelter. I managed to confirm its existence, but all entrances were closed and sealed. However, it is impossible to get inside, at least without the right tools and, above all, permission. Not this time.

The final shelter must be on the premises of an old but still operating plant that produces machinery and equipment for the power, metallurgical, chemical, coal, and oil industries. As you approach the main gate, you’ll see an old building that hasn’t been refurbished for years and a huge sign with a phone number and rental words. Immediately I remember Poland. In Poland, during political transformation and economic liberalization, many factories failed to adapt to the new economic situation and went bankrupt.

Enter without any problems. The factory, built almost a century ago, is far beyond its glory. Abandoned buildings are plagued by cracked walls, falling stucco, and broken windows. Only one of several huge refractory brick holes is still in operation. Some small ones are sold or leased to private companies, which turn them into workshops, warehouses and wholesale stores.

Other buildings have been demolished or refurbished. Around them are piles of rubble, old structural elements, and equipment that no one needs. No one cares because it is a complex facility that is crowded with people such as factory workers, construction companies, and customers of neighboring companies.

First, carefully check the perimeter of every building for ventilation chimneys protruding from the ground and other characteristic elements that indicate the presence of underground shelters. By late afternoon, I found nothing interesting and decided to give up. It’s enough today.

The next day, I plan to take a look at the building. After a few more hours of searching, I finally succeeded. One of the basements has an entrance to the bunker. It is protected by a huge airtight door to keep out radiation and war gas. As soon as you open the door, you’ll be struck by moist, musty air.

Inside an abandoned nuclear bunker

The very first room has no doubt about where I am. A huge old board hangs from the wall, depicting a menacing atomic mushroom cloud and a table, which allows us to estimate the effects of radiation and shock waves on the operational stability of the building.

Information poster about fallout in underground bunker

On the other side of the room are several wooden boxes. I can open it. Among them are dozens of new GP-5 gas masks, still wrapped in gray paper.

GP-5 gas mask wrapped in gray paper

Excited by what I found, I gently take it out to see it better. At such moments, I behave like a child, and when I see a new toy, I absolutely have to touch it. The mask looks good, but it has a long shelf life and can no longer be used.

Some other rooms have evenly spaced benches and chairs, as well as boards with information on how to protect yourself from a nuclear explosion, how to provide first aid, and how to properly wear protective clothing. These were probably training rooms, where civil defense lessons were organized in peacetime.

Behind that, in the center of the shelter, I came across the head of a facility room. The old yellow computer catches my attention. When he instinctively pressed the power button, he was expecting to hear the fan growl in an instant and display a confusing message on the screen. After all these years, it’s interesting to see if you can still get the information stored on your hard drive.

Computer found in an underground nuclear bunker

Safety suit found in nuclear bunker

The next room has a metal cabinet with a variety of communication equipment. Outstanding among them are the old telephone exchanges with round dials and dozens of holes, cables, and switches used to connect calls manually.

Switchboard found in the nuclear fuel depot

Equipment found in an old fallout shelter

But the most interesting ones are waiting for me in the two storerooms next to the complex. First, I find hundreds of books, pamphlets, and posters.

Poster about fallout found in underground bunker

A page on how to provide first aid in a nuclear emergency found in an underground bunker

Books found in underground nuclear shelters

Second, there is the DP-5 military dosimeter that was popular at the time. Most of them are packed in leather boxes, along with probes and other equipment, in the original wooden boxes.

DP-5 military dosimeter found in an underground nuclear bunker

These devices were commonly used during Chernobyl cleanups because they can measure very high levels of radiation up to 200 R / h that can occur during a nuclear war or radiation accident. Is not surprising. But that’s not all. Right next to the shelves are an additional 12 new DP-24 and DP-22 dosimeter kits, each plastic box containing 5 or 50 personal dosimeters. I can’t believe they’re still here and in great shape for years. Some of them lie unwrapped in the floor. This is a sign that someone must have been in front of me.

DP-5 military dosimeter found in nuclear shelter

At the very end of the shelter are two small rooms. In the first one, I find an accumulator that powered the shelter. The second is a filtration and ventilation system that is supposed to provide protection against chemical, biological and radioactive substances that enter the interior.

Equipment found in an old fallout shelter

Equipment found in an old fallout shelter

I’m interested in metal cranks mounted on fans. You can use it to manually move the entire system in the event of a power outage. However, turning it has no effect.

Slowly heading to the exit, you’ll come across another storeroom full of personal protective equipment, such as masks, stretchers, slings, and other emergency items. Pay attention to the wooden cabinet standing in the corner where the drawers are half-open. They contain hundreds of small plastic vials of various tablets.

Wooden cabinet filled with tablets found in a nuclear shelter

The vials contain anti-radar, antibacterial, or painkillers that were standard equipment on individual first aid kits used during the war, depending on the color. Among them are prefilled syringes of Promedol, a powerful opioid analgesic, and potassium iodide tablets that protect the thyroid from absorption of radioactive iodine isotopes.

Once you leave the shelter, you will once again find it really fun to explore such places and learn about the history behind them. My imagination allows me to return to that time and feel the emotions of those seeking evacuation from deadly danger. In history lessons, books and movies, I can’t get this close to these events.

Until recently, no one thought they would ever need a shelter again. However, the actions of Russian troops at the border with Ukraine and the merger of the Crimea aroused the fear of the inhabitants again and made them think about their potential use in the event of a full-scale Russian invasion. Who knows, maybe this shelter will change soon …


About the author: Arkadiusz Podniesiński is a Polish photographer, filmmaker, technical diver and graduate of Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom. The opinions expressed in this article are only those of the author. Details of his work can be found on his website. This photo essay was also posted here.

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