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Is it true that every house in Switzerland has a nuclear fallout shelter?

Is it true that every house in Switzerland has a nuclear fallout shelter?

You may have heard through global media or the internet that every house and apartment in Switzerland has its own shelter that can withstand a nuclear blast. The question is: is this an old wives' tale or a genuine fact?

Does every house in Switzerland have a nuclear bunker?

If your house was built between 1963 and the late 1980s, it will have a nuclear bunker of some kind built-in. Right up until 2012, buildings were mandated to have a fallout shelter to accommodate all residents.

Situated in the basement, you can recognise these bunkers by their ventilation system, anti-gas filters and the large number of shelves used to stockpile essential supplies. It is likely that even shelters that are decommissioned will still have their massive blast doors hinged to the entrance.

History of nuclear fallout shelters in Switzerland

Ever since the first enshrining of Swiss neutrality into law, Switzerland has been continually reacting and planning to counter threats posed by the outside world. Be it against the Prussians and the French in the 1800s or the Italians and the Germans in the 1900s, Switzerland has always developed innovative plans to defend itself.

The first large bunker fortifications came about in response to the rise of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in the 1930s and 1940s. During this time, the Swiss plan for defence against the numerically superior Axis forces was to retreat into the so-called “National Redoubt.”

These huge fortifications and disguised bunkers were built deep into the Swiss mountains, primed to provide protection for thousands of soldiers and civilians in times of war. Today, many of these forts have been converted into anything from luxury hotels to safety deposit box facilities straight out of James Bond.

Cold War emergence

After the end of the Second World War, Swiss generals faced a new threat in the form of the Cold War. Now, a nuclear attack was the main cause for concern, as both the United States and the USSR had built up massive reserves of nuclear bombs which had the potential to end humanity several times over.

This led the government to pass legislation in 1963 that required nuclear shelters in all types of housing in Switzerland. The ensuing years would see Switzerland become the first country in the world to have enough bunkers to shelter the entire population from a nuclear blast.

Post-Cold War decline

As the threat of the Cold War declined, many politicians within Switzerland began to question why bunkers were still required. In 2005, Pierre Kohler - a National Councillor at the time - submitted a referendum that would abolish the practice, which he called a “relic of other times.” 

While that referendum was rejected, in 2012 the Federal Council approved a new law that only required a fallout shelter for buildings with more than 38 apartments. Today, bunkers are not as central to house planning as they used to be, but residents are still encouraged to prepare supplies for emergency use.

Is there still a place for me in a fallout shelter in Switzerland?

Despite some shelters now being defunct, Swiss law still stipulates that every resident of Switzerland must be "guaranteed a shelter in the vicinity of their place of residence.” Today, there are around 360.000 communal fallout shelters in Switzerland that are operational to this day. 

This means that every member of the population is still guaranteed shelter in the event of a nuclear blast. If the time comes, your nearest shelter will be revealed to you through the system of alarms and sirens, as well as through the AlertSwiss app on your mobile phone.

What am I allowed to use my fallout shelter for?

While most Swiss families keep the fallout shelter clear, many cannot resist the large amount of free space it provides. Over the years, many people have converted their decommissioned bunkers into wine cellars, workshops and storage facilities. However, bear in mind that most fallout shelters remain active - and are regularly checked by cantonal authorities - so make sure you have permission before you make any changes. 

Jan de Boer

Author

Jan de Boer

Jan studied in York and Sheffield in the UK, obtaining a master's in broadcast journalism and a bachelor's in history. He has worked as a radio DJ, TV presenter, and...

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