Pandemic Fears Give Way to a Rush for Bomb Shelters

Since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, European anxiety has shifted from Covid to nuclear annihilation. Bunkers, survival guides and iodine pills are flying off the shelves.

BAGNOLO SAN VITO, Italy — Across a footbridge from a busy shopping outlet surrounded by verdant fields in northern Italy, workers in a nondescript warehouse are preparing for a nuclear attack, its radioactive fallout and the end of the world as we know it.

“We have found ourselves in the midst of this giant cyclone of demand,” said Giulio Cavicchioli, as he showed off an underground air filtration system that “cleans” radioactive particles, nerve gas and other biological agents and played a video tour of a nuclear shelter that was “ready to use.” His company, Minus Energie, has gone from working on 50 bunkers in the past 22 years to fielding 500 inquiries in the past two weeks.

“It’s a hysteria for construction of bunkers,” he said, driven by the fear of Russian nuclear warheads reaching across Europe. “It’s much scarier now.”

In the days since President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia launched his war on Ukraine, and put his nuclear forces into “special combat readiness,” the intensifying violence and the legacy of two world wars has revived fears in Europe of nuclear calamity for the first time in decades.

Europe has already spent two years on high alert against the pandemic. But now the manifestations of its anxieties and desires for self-defense have shifted from the masks, vaccines and lockdowns of Covid to the bunkers, iodine pills and air raid sirens of nuclear war.

Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times

From Italy to Sweden, Belgium to Britain, the specter of nuclear war, which had seemed a relic of the past, is permeating a new generation of European consciousness. And it is prompting a new look at defense infrastructure, survival guides and fallout shelters that not long ago were the purview of camouflage-wearing, assault-weapon-toting survivalists or paranoid billionaires.

“We are extremely concerned by the nuclear safety, security and safeguards risks caused by the Russian invasion on Ukraine,” the European Union said in statement on Wednesday.

“Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we’ve all forgotten about it and put it to bed, until, you know, the madman invaded,” said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, the former commander of the United Kingdom’s and NATO’s Chemical, Biological and Nuclear Defense Forces, and now a visiting fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

He said that bunkers across Europe “have fallen into disrepair” and were decayed. “We are completely unprepared,” Mr. de Bretton-Gordon said. “But each day that it goes forward, it’s becoming more of a reality that actually this is something maybe we need to think about in some detail.”

Countries that sit closer to Russia are already thinking about it.

Finland, on Russia’s western border, has maintained high military readiness for years, regularly testing alarms, and has a “long tradition of preparedness,” according to Petri Toivonen, the secretary general for Finland’s Secretariat of the Security Committee. He wrote in an email that “we have been continuously constructing shelters.”

He added that “at the moment our capacity is for approximately 4,000,000 people in approximately 50,000 shelters.”

Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

In Sweden, Russia’s annexation of Crimea jump-started a “total defense” strategy that had eased after the fall of the Soviet Union. Now, Sweden’s Civil Contingencies Agency is testing its air-raid warning system and issuing a Cold War-era-style precautionary pamphlet. The 20-page guide includes a checklist for basic supplies to get from the supermarket to survive on the run or in a shelter.

Even farther afield, demand for bunkers and fallout shelters is increasing, penetrating a market broader than just the wealthy.

“Picture it like a chalet, but underground,” said Mathieu Séranne, the founder of Artemis Protection, a French maker of prefabricated luxury bunkers with air-filtration systems, which cost at least a half-million euros per shelter.

Previously, only “really wealthy people” were interested in them, he said.

“But then, two weeks ago, we started receiving tons and tons of demand from normal people,” Mr. Séranne said. “We had to change our whole commercial strategy.”

He said that he had received about 300 inquiries, and that he was selling stripped-down shelters that are much cheaper — about €140,000, or about $152,000 — and smaller “to adapt to this new demand.” Ten bare-bones bunkers were already in production, he said.

But he said France lagged far behind its neighbor, Switzerland, in preparedness. The Swiss passed legislation in the 1960s requiring nuclear shelters in residential buildings. While the obligation was more recently softened, the reinforced steel doors and gas filters of bunkers are familiar aspects in houses around the country. There are also more than 350,000 communal bunkers — including one shelter atop a Lucerne highway for 20,000 people — that could protect the entire population.

Sebastian Derungs/Reuters

Mr. de Bretton-Gordon said that almost all of the roughly 650 bunkers in use after World War II in Britain were no longer operational, some were tourist attractions and at least one was now used as a fine wine cellar. The few that still worked served government officials.

Outside the bunkers, others are seeking protection from iodine pills, which, when taken correctly, can help absorb radiation in the thyroid and help prevent cancer from exposure to it.

Belgium is meeting a sharp increase in demand with packs of pills free for anyone with a Belgian identity card. Michael Storme, an official with the country’s Pharmacists’ Union, told the Belgian news agency Belga that last Monday alone, the country’s pharmacies distributed more than 30,000 boxes. Demand has also gone up in the Netherlands and Finland.

In Italy, iodine-based vitamins have been flying off the shelves.

“It’s the new trend,” said Stefano Franceschini, a pharmacist in Rome. “People buy vitamins with small quantities of iodine in it, without a clear understanding of what those are and what could really shield them in case of a nuclear explosion. Basically out of fear.”

Andrea Neri, a pharmacist in central Trieste, a city in Italy’s northeast, added that the vitamins were probably useless, but that at least they were not dangerous.

“Potassium iodide was taken in the 1980s after the Chernobyl explosion, but it is a poison and is available only under medical prescription,” he said. “Most people who inquire about it give up once they find out that they need to ask their general practitioner.”

Mr. de Bretton-Gordon said iodine pills could do only so much and the best prevention was averting the conflict — and readiness.

Denis Lovrovic/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Briefings to civilians on what to do and how to survive,” like many countries had during the Cold War, Mr. de Bretton-Gordon said, could teach people to shield themselves behind stone walls that blocked radiation or to avoid drinking contaminated water.

But he also said Europe should be “hugely concerned” about Russian accusations pertaining to chemical and biological weapons in Ukraine, which both he and the White House called a possible false-flag operation to lay the groundwork for the potential use of such weapons.

Mr. Putin, he said, appeared to have already used a deadly military-grade nerve agent for a poisoning in Salisbury, England, where Mr. de Bretton-Gordon lived. “I think we need to sit up and listen,” he added.

Mr. Cavicchioli of Minus Energie agreed. But as he walked around his office with a beeping Geiger counter, he said he would prefer the new demand to taper off if it meant the end of a war that he called “a tragedy without end.”

As he returned to his office — where he said that day he had received 20 emails and phone calls from potential clients “who can’t sleep at night” — he said that there was a misplaced view of bunker owners as doomsday enthusiasts.

“Someone who has a bunker is an optimist,” he said. “They believe there will be something afterwards — that life will go on.”

Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting from Siena.

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