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What are Switzerland's nuclear bunkers and does each home need one?

Helena Bachmann in Geneva
Helena Bachmann in Geneva - [email protected] • 25 Mar, 2022 Updated Fri 25 Mar 2022 10:30 CEST
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One of the obvious 'Swiss paradoxes’ is that a neutral country which hasn’t been attacked since Napoleon’s invasion in 1798 has built enough fallout shelters to protect the entire population. Here's why.

If you live or have ever lived in a house in Switzerland built between the 1960s and late 1980s, you are likely familiar with nuclear bunkers located in the basement.

These shelters have a reinforced steel door, ventilation system, anti-gas filter, and enough shelves to stock a two-week supply of water, medications, and non-perishable food.

But why?

Put it down to Swiss pragmatism and a penchant for meticulous planning: the Swiss don’t like to leave anything to chance and prepare for all kinds of scenarios, whether plausible or not.

The same kind of disaster preparedness which required, until fairly recently, that all Swiss serving in the military keep guns and ammunition in their homes so they would be ready to fight the enemy at a moment’s notice, also mandated that each dwelling had a well-equipped bunker in case the Russians attacked.

Coffee, opiates and nuclear fuel: What are Switzerland’s ‘strategic stockpiles’?

Today, such an act against Switzerland seems highly unlikely, but 50 years ago, at the height of the Cold War, the government saw this as a possible scenario — so much so, that it passed a legislation in 1963 requiring nuclear shelters in all residential buildings. 

They were to be used “during an armed conflict, especially one involving weapons of mass destruction”, according to the Federal Office of Civil Protection (FOCP), which added that these bunkers “provide a basic form of protection against a wide range of direct and indirect arms impact”. 

Have these shelters ever been used?

Yes and no.

As Switzerland has not been invaded by Russians, or anyone else for that matter, the shelters never had to be used for their intended  purpose.

In 2005, Pierre Kohler, who was an MP at the time, submitted an initiative to abolish the law that made the construction of nuclear bunkers mandatory in private homes because, he argued, they were “relics of other times” and no longer necessary.

But the Federal Council rejected this proposal, saying these constructions were still useful outside of a war context, since they could also be used as hideouts during chemical accidents, natural disasters, or a terrorist attack using nuclear weapons.

From 2012, however, only residential buildings with more than 38 apartments are required to have fallout shelters in their basements.

The Local wrote about this change at that time:

READ MORE: Swiss cutting back on nuclear fallout shelters

So the answer to the question of whether these bunkers have ever been used in a national emergency, is no.

They have, however, served other purposes over the years: to make sure this extra space doesn’t go to waste, many Swiss households used it as a storage space for wines, ski equipment, and other objects.

Do you actually need a bunker in your home?

These structures are no longer compulsory in single-family houses, though the law stipulates that each resident “should be guaranteed a shelter in the vicinity of her/his place of residence”.

Today, Switzerland has 360,000 communal shelters able to accommodate the entire population in case of need.

The largest such bunker— not only in Switzerland but also reportedly in the world — is Unterirdisch Ueberleben located in Lucerne. Built on top of two motorway tunnels in the Sonnenberg mountain, it can provide shelter for 20,000 people.

Sonnenberg bunker was built in and over two motorway tunnels. Photo: Unterirdisch Ueberleben

READ MORE: Inside Switzerland’s largest nuclear bunker – 40 years on

The reason for maintaining the shelters is that “there are still a great number of ballistic missiles, with or without weapons of mass destruction, to be found worldwide”, FOCT said.

Everyone is Switzerland should know where their nearest shelter is located. You can find this out at your commune of residence.

More information about shelters is here.

A second life for military bunkers

While civilian shelters started to be built in Switzerland in the 1960s “just in case”, military ones were constructed in response to a real danger.

When the Nazis started invading countries east and west of Switzerland in 1939, the Swiss military dug over 20,000 bunkers in the Alps. They allowed soldiers to stay hidden — along with their weapons, ammunition, and other supplies — and defend the country in case of an attack.

The attack never came and the bunkers were decommissioned at the end of the Cold War, standing empty until the 1990s when the military started to sell them to private companies.

Eventually, these demobilised fortresses, some dug deep into mountain walls, morphed into such civilian venues as  a “bank” to securely store digital data, a hotel, banquet halls and seminar centres, and, in at least one case, a giant storage room for cheese.

This shows that, in one way or another, the Swiss still have a bunker mentality.

 

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Helena Bachmann in Geneva 2022/03/25 10:30

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