Fallout shelters go extinct on campus

Located in the center entrance of the Natural Resources Building, the fallout shelter reads below: “NOT TO BE USED WITHOUT DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE PERMISSION.”

By Aaron Navarro

It reads “FALLOUT SHELTER” below a set of three triangles within a black circle, pointing to the center. In smaller print at the bottom it reads: “NOT TO BE USED WITHOUT DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE PERMISSION” along with an unreadable number, perhaps signaling how many people the shelter could fit. Upon looking for said shelter, possibly around the corner of the sign, all that could be found was a janitor’s closet. A fallout shelter is a space to provide coverage in time of a radioactive or nuclear attack. Shelter must have a minimum degree of protection from fallout, allowing only one-fortieth of the radioactivity level from outside the space inside. These fallout shelter signs were often placed outside a building, signaling the building itself as a shelter, or that it has one inside it.

University alumni and film critic Roger Ebert wrote about the commonness of these signs in a Daily Illini article from July 1963.

“The signs … have very little emotional appeal,” Ebert wrote. “This is a fallout shelter, they announce, much as they might announce a bus stop or a drive-in restaurant. If you’re hungry, go to the restaurant. If there is fallout, come here.”


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In an October 1963 Daily Illini article, we reported that President John F. Kennedy introduced legislation to build a total of 95 million fallout shelter spaces nationwide, with 40,000 to be built at the University. However, this was never realized as funds for the national plan were nullified by the House of Representatives.[http://idnc.library.illinois.edu/cgi-bin/illinois?a=d&d=DIL19631004.2.58&srpos=3&e=——-en-20-DIL-1–txt-txIN-“fallout+shelter”——#

Today, these signs are no longer as bright and as public as they were during the height of the Cold War era. Finding one on the exterior of a building is extremely rare, and according to Campus History Preservation Officer Melvyn Skvarla MG, many of the actual shelters that were built on campus were converted to tornado and storm shelters.

“From what I know, all of the shelters and corridors have been turned into designated tornado and storm emergency shelters,” Skvarla said. “I’ve never seen the actual shelters on this campus.”

Skvarla said he doubts the University still employs anyone involved in the fallout shelter initiative, saying “they have all long been retired.”

In the basement of the Natural Resources Building, the designated storm refuge area is located directly one floor underneath the sign on the first floor entrance.Assistant Director at the Division of Research Safety David Scherer MG says that fallout shelters could only protect someone from the blast if they are in an area downwind from the blast. According to Scherer, the atomic bomb was not developed to use radioactivity as a weapon, the radioactivity was instead a side effect that contaminated soil and debris with radioactivity.“[After a blast] this debris [would fall] back to earth and emit radiation. Most of it decayed pretty quickly, so if people avoided this fallout for a time, they could minimize the danger,” Scherer said. “This was the idea behind the system of fallout shelters. They were to protect communities downwind from a blast, but there wasn’t much of a plan for people who were actually in the blast area.”

If there were to be a nuclear attack today, Skvarla said how much campus buildings could protect from a fallout really depends on the location and strength of the radiation.“We have any number of buildings on campus certainly that would provide the mask, that they provide good shelter down in the basement,” Skvarla said. “Certainly the Noyes lab, the Natural History building.”

With experience working for an engineering firm employed by the Department of Defense with fallout shelter related work, Skvarla said he is unsure how effective most fallout shelters could be.

“I’m not really sure, what good a shelter would have done unless it was downstairs in a basement that did not have any windows and would be in the center of a building, because it’s the mass or thickness of material that is going to shelter you from radiation waves,” Skvarla said.

Although Cold War era taught rampant and school children to duck and cover to save themselves from a nuclear attack, Skvarla said that logic may not have been the prevailing reason behind the shelters.

“I guess maybe they felt that if they (demonstrated) that they were doing something, everyone would feel safer and more secure than if we were to do nothing,” Skvarla said. “Thank goodness that threat seems to be going away.”

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