Highlights from the chapter on Shelter (Ch 5, p. 37) from Nuclear War Survival Skills by Cresson Kearny



One of your primary survival needs is a shelter that provides protection from radioactive fallout and weather. This chapter focuses on those who plan to build/dig a shelter out of earth and other materials like wood, and (wooden) poles. If you are currently unable to relocate from where you are sheltering now – you might benefit from this FEMA document “Design Guidance for Shelters and Safe Rooms”. Pages 52 - 55 have diagrams on what rooms are best to shelter in. Basically that would be a middle room or basement with a land line phone, no ventilation pipes and few windows (immediately after a blast). Another FEMA document suggests building a shelter under a wooden desk.
If you want to go straight to instructions on building the actual shelters - they are in Appendix A and D. It is recommended that you read the whole book before choosing a shelter type to build. Pros and cons of the different types are on p. 48-50.

Main tips for building shelters:
1. Leave 3 feet of earth on either side
2. Do not dig trenches near trees
3. The entrance should have turns to prevent radiation in the air from turning the corners
4. The longer the hall entrance the better
5. Keep towels or cloths to protect against heated dust

6. Shelters should be built so that they can be enlarged later on.
7. Most of this chapter focuses on the Pole-Covered Trench Shelter (instructions in appendix A2)
8. Pages 48 – 50 discuss the pros and cons of 4 different types of shelters.
9. The appendices A-D have the instructions on how to actually build the shelters
Here are the types in appendix A:
App. A.1: Door-Covered Trench Shelter
App. A.2: Pole-Covered Trench Shelter
App. A.3: Small-Pole Shelter
App. A.4: Aboveground, Door-Covered Shelter
App. A.5: Aboveground, Ridgepole Shelter
App. A.6: Aboveground, Crib-Walled Shelter
App. D: Expedient Blast Shelters

Intro statements: Many existing buildings would not be adequate under very adverse conditions. “Blast tests have proved that the earth-covered expedient fallout shelters described in this book can survive blast effects severe enough to demolish most homes…These earth-covered fallout shelters could be built in 48 hours or less by tens of millions of Americans following field-tested, written instructions”

One of the main types of structures covered is the Pole-Covered Trench Shelter p. 37
There is discussion of how the structures were field tested by several families who built them within 32-48 hrs.

There are descriptions on how to build a Pole-Covered Trench Shelter p. 38
Some main points:
Shelters should be built so that they can be readily enlarged.
It may be best to avoid building near trees due to roots and gamma ray penetration p. 39
RCIP author’s note: Holes in the ground do not work well in areas below sea level.


2 types: Barrier and Geometry shielding (which this chapter then applies to the Pole-Covered Trench Shelter)

Barrier shielding – Refers to a shelter having 3 feet of earth on either side - such as an open trench dug into the ground. There is a 4 paragraph description.
3 feet of earth on either side would block most gamma rays, but not ‘skyshine’ bc the top is not covered by earth (it’s not a cave like shape).
If you are applying this to the Pole-Covered Trench then the dirt you dig out would go over the poles covering the top of the trench.

Geometry shielding – p. 40 By providing turns in the openings leading into shelters you are reducing the radiation dose by increasing distances between fallout particles and occupants. The length of the hall also makes a difference (longer may be better in terms of the basic “distance, time, and shielding” rule).
“The farther you can keep away from a source either of light or of harmful radiation, the less light or other radiation will reach you…A right-angle turn, either from a vertical or horizontal entry, causes a reduction of about 90%.”
There is an illustration of what that would look like on p. 41 – 43


Beta – “Only the highest-energy beta particles can penetrate more than about 10 feet of air or about 1/8 inch of water, wood, or human body tissue. Any building that keeps out fallout particles will prevent injury from beta radiation.” There is a page worth of information on Beta Particles and examples of exposure. p. 44

Alpha – “These particles have very little penetrating power: 1 to 3 inches of air will stop them. It is doubtful that alpha particles can get through unbroken skin; they cannot penetrate even a thin fabric.6 Alpha particles are hazardous only if materials that emit them (such as the radioactive element plutonium) enter the body and are retained in bone, lung tissue, or other parts of the body.” p. 45


“Flash burns are caused by the intense rays of heat emitted from the fireball within the first minute following an explosion… A covering of clothing preferably of white cloth that reflects light can reduce or prevent flash burns on those who are in a large part of an area in which thermal radiation is a hazard. However, in areas close enough to ground zero for severe blast damage, the clothing of exposed people could be set on fire and their bodies badly burned.” p. 45

Fires p. 45
Flash blindness p. 45 – caused by intense light, and usually temporary

Basically the very hot sand and dust burns people’s skin when it blows into shelters.
It is suggested to keep towels or cloths on hand to cover heads and exposed skin.

The basics of why most Americans will end up in basement or other shelters are discussed on p. 45
Ways to improve fallout protection for a basement shelter are discussed at the bottom of p. 46 and continues to p.47 Among the tips are ways to reinforce ceilings to support soil or other protective materials.


Bring supplies with you such as: plastic bags, pillow cases, shelter ventilating pump (p. 196) etc

DECIDING WHAT KIND OF SHELTER TO BUILD OR USE – It is recommended to read the whole NWSS book before making your final decision.

If you live 10 or more miles from a target, or 20 or more from a city – you should build a shelter near to home. P. 48

The pros and cons of EARTH-COVERED EXPEDIENT FAMILY SHELTERS are listed on p. 48-49
The pros and cons of PUBLIC AND OTHER EXISTING SHELTERS are listed on p. 49
The pros and cons of EXPEDIENT BLAST SHELTERS are listed on p. 50


The author of the RCIP website is not an emergency management expert or medical physician and does not dispense medical or nutrition advice.


Kearny, Cresson (1987). Nuclear War Survival Skills. Retrieved from http://www.oism.org/nwss



Download NWSS Survival Manual (27 MB), NWSS Ch5 website version, Ch5 download



Kearny, Cresson (1987). Nuclear War Survival Skills. Retrieved from http://www.oism.org/nwss


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