German inefficiency – building nuclear fallout shelters

This is one of a pair of blogs about efficiency in Germany. This one concentrates on an area where things aren’t as efficient as you might expect, and the next will focus on good planning, execution and where things work well.

We visited a nuclear fall-out shelter this morning, housed beneath a large multiple-storey car park in former West Berlin. Built in the seventies, it was designed to house 3,600 shoppers from a nearby mall for a two week post-apocalyptic period.

Unfortunately, it had a number of design and planning flaws. Aside from the wisdom of building an extensive nuclear shelter in a city where perhaps neither the US nor Soviet Union might bomb, it again underlines why most things designed by governments don’t work (even if they are in Germany).

The first design flaw was that – by design – it needed a two week period to convert part of the car park into the roof of a shelter. This means you would need slightly more than the four minute waning prevalent at the time*.

The second flaw was a process one. There was only one entry point via a narrow staircase into a small holding room. This small holding room was used as a kind of ante-room. There were showers in this ante-room** and a hatch where someone could clock in the requisite 3,600 with a counter. Now call me a dramatist, but I’ve seen Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and I doubt that people would queue in an orderly way while the four minute siren sounded above.

The third flaw was tremendous overcrowding in the main room. The contractors were paid 1,400 Marks per bed in the shelter. On the positive side, this meant that they made a nice little profit on the building of the car park. On the less positive side, they had probably designed a modern day black hole of Calcutta (or, as they call it today probably, black hole of Kolkota). Beds would have been everywhere with scarcely any space except for single file squeezing between beds. Insufficient toilets had been built in, probably condemning the entire area to one big toilet. The authorities had partly got around this little issue by having a rota for toilet time so that you could only use the toilet for a specified 8 hour period. Woe betide you if you were caught short in the other 16 hours.

A fourth flaw was one of communication. Nobody knew of its existence. This may have relieved overcrowding, but defeated the purpose of the shelter. The guide speculated that the fallout shelter might have a placebo affect of discouraging panic, but of course, if its existence were not known, there would be no placebo. Incidentally, the official advice at the time was that if there were nuclear fallout, you should lie down and put a briefcase over your head. Totally ineffective of course, but at least you die thinking you were doing all you could to protect yourself.

Some things were well designed. Allegedly, there was sufficient water for 3,600 in the underground water tanks. This would keep people alive for two weeks. There was diesel to keep the generators running for two weeks. However, there was a kitchen with only two cookers for the food (it was felt you didn’t need food for that period). It’s somewhat doubtful if the shelter would work also. The clean air supply required no damage to the walls of the car park.

Anyway, if you are in Berlin I would recommend visiting the nuclear bunker. It’s below the Story of Berlin museum, itself also worth a visit especially if you are with children.

*Incidentally, why is it that many years later we have regressed to getting 45 minutes warning from the non-existent Iraqi WMDs?
**Bit creepy, I thought.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Julian,

    If you get as far south as Leipzig – well worth a visit – natural history museum and zoo good trips for children – do let me know. I am here until the 22nd


  2. Posted by Melville Bishop on December 28, 2010 at 7:13 pm

    I likw the typo of a four minute “waning” but the point I would make is that the provision in berlin for 3 600 to survice exceeded the provision for the public in the UK which was zero.
    I don’t remember the “lie down and cover your head” advice though.


  3. Hi Dad

    I came across this site yesterday; it shows nuclear bunkers in the UK. There are many more than you think, and – for many of the sites – it gives a floor plan.


    • Yes there were many bunkers but not for public use. As, at various times during the period, I had access either as Int Corps or Royal Obsever Corps or Civil Defence. Always assuming we had advance notice of the four minute warning!


  4. Hi Judi

    I noticed from fb that you were in Germany. Unfortunately, we are only in Berlin until Friday and then return to the UK.

    We like Germany a lot. Very different culturally from much of Europe. I hope you have a great month in Leipzig




  5. […] White pages Image by Billy_R So good to have after the nuclear war. Too bad there ain’t anyone left to call. In addition you can check out this related post: […]


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