One hundred feet below the Essex countryside lies the Secret Nuclear Bunker at Kelvdon Hatch, intended to house up to 600 military and civilian personnel – which may have included the Prime Minister – for 3 months, to coordinate the surviving population of London and its environs in the aftermath of a nuclear war. The bunker, in its entirety, is encased by a 10 foot thick wall, created by pouring continually some 40,000 tonnes of concrete, over a period of 7 months in 1951/52, working through the winter, and keeping the material warm by burning fires around the installation while the concrete set. The entrance to the bunker is concealed behind a very ordinary looking bungalow, and leads to a corridor 120 yards long, running into a hill. The corridor is truncated by a left, right-angle bend, intended that in the event of a nuclear blast, much of its energy would be dissipated before it could enter the main body of the bunker, which is closed-off by a pair of two-inch thick armoured-doors, each a tonne and a half in weight. A universal Faraday cage was installed to protect any electronic devices within the bunker from being taken-out by the high-energy electromagnetic pulse that always accompanies a nuclear detonation.
To allow 600 people to survive for 3 months, a supply of 24,000 gallons of water was preserved in underground tanks, along with enough food to feed that number during this time. At a daily dietary intake of 2,400 “calories” (kilocalories), a human body produces around 117 Watts of heat, and so, at full capacity, 70 kW of heat would need to be dissipated, for which an extensive cooling system was emplaced. The air supply into the bunker was drawn from the outside through a primary and secondary filtration system, and traces of dust not thus intercepted, were removed by a fine spray of water to avoid introducing any radioactive contamination. A facility was also installed with sufficient power that, in case of fire or other source of toxic release, all the air from the bunker could be extracted within 10 minutes. Since the whole is, in effect, a rather voluminous three-storey building, I imagine that to have been in there during such an operation would have been quite an experience.
Once the blast doors had been closed, that was it for the next 3 months. Some of the personnel were armed, and so anyone getting cabin fever and trying to escape would have been immediately shot, so as not to breach the security of the rest. The sanitation arrangements were interesting, since once the tanks from the latrines were full, the pumps would come into play, automatically discharging their contents to the surface in a powerful jet, possibly adding to the discomfort of anyone still surviving and unfortunate enough to get in the way of it!
In the anticipation that medical attention would be needed among the 600 throng, there was a sickbay, including a basic operating theatre, on the second floor, and also a supply of cardboard coffins, which stack flat. After about 3 days, a corpse begins to balloon with the gases of its incipient decomposition, and so the dead would be returned to the outside fairly rapidly. Since the living need sleep, there were dormitories – with the “hot bed” system intended – so that as one person went on shift, another would take his place in the warm bed, although with no lights on, this would be a noisy procedure and probably very little rest would be had by anybody.
The bunker is no longer “secret”, and is quite well signposted. It was decommissioned in 1992, and is now privately owned as a tourist attraction. Though never used for its purpose, the bunker was inaugurated entirely during the “cold war” period – such was Western fear of an all-out nuclear attack from “The Russians” – and is not a relic from WWII. Altogether, there were 12 bunkers of this kind built across the country, and connected by telephone cables set deep into the ground, so that communication could be maintained, even while the civilian population was being reduced by radiation sickness, starvation and marauding gangs, beyond those already killed instantly by the nuclear explosions.
There are many parallels that might be drawn between the mentality of the bunker, in anticipation of a nuclear attack by a foreign power, and the survival of humanity in the face of peak oil and ultimately climate change. Will a select few try to hide behind barriers, while the rest tear each other apart, fighting for what resources are left? In reality, there would have been nothing left for those in the nuclear bunker to come out to. The crops of the first year would have been destroyed by extreme cold and in the second year, there would have been little growth beneath the dust-filled skies of this nuclear winter. Much of the population would have been dead, and the land and infrastructure inhospitable to start anew. In reality, those “protected” few would have been condemned along with the huddled masses they sheltered from, once their carefully squirrelled resources had run dry.
The only course for humankind is to create a stable set of conditions, which such catastrophes cannot be part of; where our immediate security is not vulnerable to disruptions in exogenous global supply chains or threats from external forces. We, all of us, stand or fall together in the unfolding future – a choice of implementing the structures of local resilience over those of global dependency.The threat to human civilization is no longer of an external kind, but lies in our actions and behaviour – we cannot hide from ourselves.