Jesse Galle spit sideways onto the cherry blossom-strewn earth as he approached a seemingly inconsequential stretch of the underpass below Interstate 5 in Seattle’s Roosevelt neighborhood.
The bridge specialist checks this spot weekly, today walking around a half-unfolded sleeping couch, saturated with rain, and a metal table, recently abandoned. Traffic rushed by overhead, and neither passing joggers nor children dressed in rain boots considered a second look.
Most people don’t notice the door to a long-abandoned fallout shelter.
“We might be opening it up pretty soon if things keep going the way they are,” said Galle, who works for the Washington State Department of Transportation, looking closely at the metal seal welding shut the gray industrial door frame.
Six decades ago, this place was envisioned for a moment not unlike the present: when the United States could find itself mitigating the potential for another nuclear power to use its arsenal.
Inside, a large, circular room, painted pale army green and stretching four lanes beneath the freeway, is outfitted with radiation filters, a decontamination shower, a generator and toilets. It can hold 200 people, each allotted about the space of a yoga mat, end-to-end.
But the shelter now is not functional and there are no plans to change that, even after nuclear tensions rose amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, officials say. It is one of many Cold War relics built and then discarded decades ago.
Since at least the 1980s, Washington, like the federal government, decided the costs to plan for mass evacuations, and mass fallout shelters, were unreasonable, given the assumption that nuclear war would be unsurvivable.
Washington even passed a law in 1984 banning such spending, and exempting itself from liability, even though it is home to the world’s third-largest stockpile of warheads — over 1,120 — stored near the Trident nuclear submarine base on Hood Canal, making the state a likely target in a nuclear exchange.
The sudden escalation of nuclear tensions with Russia, however, is making some experts rethink the lack of emergency planning for a nuclear attack. Clear information could save lives, even in a nuclear strike, they say. Failing to plan for how these weapons impact the public only enables a lack of scrutiny over nuclear spending and policy.
During the Cold War, some officials argued nuclear preparations could actually escalate tensions with the Soviet Union, if leaders believed their populations to be better insulated from the consequences. Instead, the state adopted an “all-hazards” approach to emergencies that prepares first responders to aid in any disaster, with specialized plans for catastrophes like a once-in-a-century earthquake or volcanic eruption, but neither the city of Seattle nor the state has a nuclear response plan.
Nuclear defense is now largely relegated to international treaties and military doctrine intended to de-escalate and decrease nuclear materials based on the premise of mutually assured destruction. But this is a fragile premise.
“We have been living very dangerous,” said Frank von Hippel, a research physicist and professor of public and international affairs emeritus at Princeton specializing in nuclear arms control.
On Monday, a spokesperson for the Kremlin told PBS that Russia, which placed its nuclear forces on “special combat readiness” early in the Ukraine conflict, would only use its arsenal if it were faced with an existential threat. Russia did not specify how it would define this, and Western leaders have questioned its credibility.
“The Cold War didn’t really end, it just changed,” said Alex Wellerstein, a science historian and programmer at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, who specializes in the history of nuclear weapons.
“When you get into all-or-nothing thinking, it doesn’t take seriously that this could happen. And, as a result, it doesn’t push people to push for changes or ask fundamental questions about what our spending on this ought to be — and what actions we should take.”
Is no plan a good plan?
In 1961, the September issue of Life magazine featured a man dressed in a metallic silver fallout suit, his head and fingers encapsulated in clear plastic, with the caption, “How You Can Survive Fallout.” Inside, a letter from President John F. Kennedy explained how Americans could protect their families from nuclear war, asserting 97% of the population could survive.
Congress appropriated $207 million to build and stock public fallout shelters. This included a plan to construct them beneath freeways, like the one in Roosevelt, although Washington historians believe it to be the only one ever built. Civil defense planners constructed 867 shelters in Seattle in the 1950s and installed a 3-ton siren on Cherry Street. By 1965, an estimated 200,000 homeowners had their own private bunkers.
Within a decade, however, the federal programs would lapse alongside individual investments, with polls citing high costs and general skepticism about the effectiveness of public preparedness, according to archival research from the National Park Service.
For a time, state officials considered rapidly relocating the population of Seattle into Eastern Washington if under threat of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. But this was quickly discarded as infeasible. Hundreds of thousands of people would hardly make it to the highway in the minutes — not hours or days — between the warning of a nuclear strike and when a bomb would fall.
Michael Lindell, professor at the University of Washington’s Institute for Hazard Mitigation Planning and Research, remembers doing drop-and-cover drills in grade school in the 1950s, crawling below his desk and being instructed to cover his neck and hide his face.
“By the fall of the Berlin Wall I think everybody thought, ‘OK, that’s over now,’” he said.
Lindell helped devise emergency planning standards used by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and later international radiation emergency guides, but his research has since shifted to evacuation plans for hurricanes, wildfires and tsunamis. He maintains that clear and credible public information is key in any emergency.
“How likely is it that something bad is going to happen? How bad is it going to be? How soon is it going to happen? And how long is it going to last?” he said.
But as for planning for nuclear war, he recalled Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, credited as saying that in the aftermath of such a war, “the living will envy the dead.”
City and state officials in Washington have also shifted focus away from survivability and instead emphasize the all-hazards doctrine and training for more conventional natural disasters.
“The most logical thing people can do if they are concerned is, do the preparedness they would for an earthquake,” said Robert Ezelle, director of the Washington Military Department’s Emergency Management Division. This includes two weeks of supplies of food and water and a plan for communicating with people outside the area.
State and federal guidelines explicitly say that individuals, businesses and local entities must plan to rely on their own resources in the first three days after a disaster. Ezelle’s division and the state Department of Health are then charged with informing residents if they are in areas impacted by radiation and at risk of exposure.
However, in 1984, Washington state lawmakers imposed a prohibition against nuclear planning, including evacuations or relocation in response to a threat. That leaves Ezelle’s department unable to plan specifically for a nuclear attack.
The 1984 bill was passed during the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, a Cold War-era movement to ban nuclear testing, production, or deployment; it was even part of the Democratic Party’s presidential platform. Lawmakers unsuccessfully sought to remove the language from state law in 2017 — when nuclear tensions were high between North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump — so money could be spent to plan for nuclear emergencies.
Then-state Sen. Guy Palumbo, one of the sponsors of the repealed bill, told The Seattle Times at the time that legislators, “were dumbfounded we wouldn’t have contingency plans for any kind of harmful nightmare like that.”
Ezelle said taking on specific nuclear planning now would require more resources. His department currently has a planning staff of six, despite Washington being at risk for a slew of disasters. The agency, funded by the state and federal governments, had a budget of $229 million in the two years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, and has more than doubled since.
“Our staff is extremely stressed … there is only so much bandwidth,” Ezelle said. “It has certainly been a challenge, even before COVID, to deal with the magnitude of things on our plate from catastrophes to normal training.”
His division has been activated for the longest period on record due to the pandemic. When communities and first responders are this overtaxed, he said, it can make planning for such a rare and destructive event seem illogical.
The pandemic, however, exemplified the consequences of not preparing for even well-anticipated disasters. Private industry is unwilling to take on the cost of stockpiles, experts say, and extreme preparations, such as storing food and water for millions, were seen as less important than responding to other crises.
“The likelihood of a nuclear attack happening is extremely remote,” Ezelle said. “However the consequences of one happening would be cataclysmic and almost impossible to prepare for.”
Mark Henry, manager of the state Department of Health’s office of radiation protection, said his division would monitor radiation released in an attack as it would for an accident at the Columbia Generating Station, Washington’s single nuclear energy plant, or the Hanford nuclear reservation, the nation’s largest repository of nuclear waste. It has radiation monitoring equipment and potassium iodide tablets, which temporarily block absorption of radioactive iodine in an emergency, for staff responding in the field.
Henry said the state dramatically improved planning for a radiological response since the ‘90s, and the 1984 prohibition has not impacted his division. However, larger nuclear planning is not much of a consideration because most of it is under federal authority, he said.
“There is a very, very strong robust response coalition of federal, state and local agencies every day looking at these things like radiation because they are radiation nerds,” he said. “It is why we exist, it is why we come to work every day.”
But rather than waiting for disaster, he said, people should “Wake up each day and be decisive about who you want to be for that day and find things that are real blessings in your life.”
“Right now we just need to live our lives,” he said.
What could happen
If an 800-kiloton-yield nuclear warhead were dropped on U.S. soil by an adversary, there would be the apocalyptic vision of blinding, fiery light as a mushroom cloud plume surged into the sky. It would be many magnitudes greater than the vision that caused Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called “father of the atomic bomb,” to recite Hindu scripture proclaiming, “Now, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Within this extraordinary impact and firestorm, everything would indeed be destroyed, alongside thousands, if not millions, of lives. But beyond the initial blast zone, the “fatality curve” would drop off steeply, said Wellerstein, the science historian.
A third of a mile from the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, which had a 15-kiloton yield, the fatality rate was 100%, but just under 3 miles from the center, it was less than 10%; the Hiroshima bomb was far smaller than many in modern nuclear arsenals.
“If you imagine it as a big flash of light and then you are dead, you are exempted from the consequences,” Wellerstein said. “Whereas if you imagine other scenarios you have to deal with what the next steps are.”
Taking precautions one might adopt in an earthquake — sheltering under secure structures, staying away from shattering windows — could save lives outside a certain range. Covering one’s skin from the initial surge of radiation, ideally with as many layers of cement and shielding as possible, could also improve long-term survival, according to estimates based on mortality charts from Hiroshima, which examined attendance rates from elementary schools encircling the city.
“You could save lives if more people prepare,” Wellerstein said. “It has helped me see these bombs as a localized phenomenon. It doesn’t mean they are not devastating … But it isn’t that 100% of people would die.”
If a fairly large nuclear weapon that is currently in Russia’s arsenal were dropped at the Bangor nuclear submarine base, intended to destroy a military target, the blast would immediately kill roughly 18,400 people and injure 25,000 more, with fallout potentially stretching into Canada, depending on wind conditions, according to Wellerstein’s estimates. The estimate does not account for the consequences of a strike that triggered hundreds of warheads at the base.
In addition, the fallout plume would deposit radioactivity wherever the wind blows it, creating varying levels of exposure, but this could allow time for the government to inform the public if it is safer to leave or shelter, and for how long.
If the same bomb were dropped in the air over Seattle, as a civilian target, 261,000 people could be killed immediately, and 420,000 more injured, including radiation burns similar to Hiroshima and Nagasaki that could cause impossible strain on hospitals.
“People are tuned out and then find themselves surprised by nuclear weapons,” Wellerstein said. “But it shouldn’t be a surprise. We are spending a lot of money on this as a society.”
The United States sought $43 billion for nuclear weapons spending for 2022 and $50.9 billion for the upcoming fiscal year. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the Department of Defense and Department of Energy will increase spending up to $634 billion through 2030 — roughly $60 billion per year.
In contrast, federal programs for “countering weapons of mass destruction” and radiological emergency management have budgets of about $508 million, said Princeton’s Von Hippel, which he called “an emotional reaction.”
“It was just basically viscerally rejected by the society,” he said.
That is self-evident in the abandonment of the Roosevelt shelter, unoccupied except for a recent period when people who were homeless managed to saw open the heavy iron door, move in, and tap into the generator for power. Even if it were functional today, it would only protect less than 0.01% of Seattle’s population from fallout.
What the United States — and Washington, by maintaining the 1984 prohibition — have been doing instead, von Hippel said, reminds him of an old Soviet joke he learned traveling to Russia during the 1980s.
“They say, ‘if there is a nuclear war, put on a white sheet and walk, don’t run, to the nearest graveyard.’ ‘Why not run?’ ‘You don’t want to panic people.’”