Russian threats rekindle old nuclear fears in central Europe
Two floors below a modern steel production plant on the northern outskirts of Warsaw is an intact relic of the Cold War: a shelter containing gas masks, stretchers, first aid kits and other items intended for help civil defense leaders survive and guide rescue operations in the event of a nuclear attack or other disasters.
A map of Europe on a wall still shows the Soviet Union – not an independent Ukraine. Old boots and jackets give off a musty smell. A military field switchboard warns: “Attention, your enemy is listening.”
Until now, no one had seriously considered that the chambers built in the 1950s – and now maintained as a “historical curiosity” by the ArcelorMittal Warszawa factory, according to spokeswoman Ewa Karpinska – might one day be used again. used as shelter. But as Russia pounded Ukraine, with bombings around a nuclear power plant and repeated Russian threats to use a nuclear weapon, the Polish government this month ordered an inventory of the country’s 62,000 air-raid shelters.
The war has sparked fears across Europe, and these are particularly felt in countries like Poland and Romania which border Ukraine and would be highly vulnerable in the event of a radiological disaster.
Following the Polish government’s order, firefighters visited the steelworks shelter last week and entered it into their registry. Warsaw leaders have said the city’s metro and other underground shelters could hold all of its 1.8 million-plus residents in the event of a conventional weapon attack.
Karpinska from the ArcelorMittal Warszawa factory suddenly receives inquiries about the shelter. Following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats to carry out a tactical nuclear attack, “everyone is worried”, she said. “I think he’s not going to (arrange a nuclear attack), that would be completely crazy, but nobody really believed that he would start this war.”
Amid fighting around Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Poland also hatched a plan to donate potassium iodide tablets to local fire stations, which would distribute them to the population if needed. There has been a rush elsewhere in Europe on potassium iodide – which protects the thyroid gland in the neck from radiation exposure – including in Finland where the government has urged people to buy it.
During the Cold War, there were hundreds of thousands of shelters in Europe. Some dated to the World War II buildup, while Communist-era authorities also ordered new residential and production facilities to include underground shelters.
Finland, which borders Russia, as well as Sweden and Denmark, kept their shelters in order. Finland, for example, maintains shelters in cities and other densely populated areas capable of accommodating around two-thirds of the population. A few of them are designed to withstand the explosion of a 100 kiloton nuclear bomb.
While some countries still retain their underground Cold War shelters, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, some have been turned into museums – relics from an earlier era of nuclear fears that would offer no real protection today. .
Bomb shelters were a key part of the former Yugoslavia’s preparedness doctrine against nuclear attack.
The most famous of all, located in a mountainous area 60 kilometers from Sarajevo in Bosnia, is a vast underground fortress built to protect military and political leaders. Known then only to the Yugoslav president, four generals and a handful of soldiers who guarded it, the Konjic site was transformed in 2010 into a modern art gallery.
“From a military-political and geopolitical point of view, the current global environment is unfortunately very similar to what it was (during the Cold War), weighed down by a very heavy feeling of an impending war,” said Selma Hadzihuseinovic, the representative of a government agency that manages the site.
She said the bunker could be put back into service in a new war, but that with nuclear weapons having become much more powerful, it would not be “as useful as it was supposed to be when it was built”.
In Romania, a huge former salt mine, Salina Turda, which has become a tourist attraction, is on a government list of potential shelters.
Many city dwellers also pass shelters every day without realizing it when taking the metro in cities like Warsaw, Prague and Budapest.
“We measured how many people could board trains along the entire length of the metro, in metro stations and other underground spaces,” said Michal Domaradzki, director of security and crisis management for the city of Warsaw. . “There is enough space for the entire population.”
Attila Gulyas, president of the Hungarian capital’s Urban Transport Workers’ Union, has been involved in regular drills of the city’s metro lines. It was formed to house thousands of people as the station manager of Astoria on Line 2 of the Budapest Metro.
“The system is still in place today, it works perfectly, it can be deployed in an emergency,” Gulyas said. “Up to 220,000 people can be protected by the shelter system in the tunnels of metro lines 2 and 3.”
But with Russia waging an energy war against Europe and electricity costs soaring, for many the main concern is how to get through the winter.
Sorin Ionita, a commentator at the Expert Forum in Bucharest, Romania, said many consider a Russian nuclear strike unlikely because it “would not bring much military advantage to the Russians”.
Yet Putin’s threats add to a general sense of anxiety in a world in turmoil.
Just days after the Russian invasion began, the Czechs bought potassium iodide pills as a precaution against a nuclear attack. Experts say it could help in a nuclear disaster, but not against a nuclear weapon.
Dana Drabova, head of the State Office for Nuclear Safety, said that in such a case anti-radiation pills would be “useless”.
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