BAGNOLO SAN VITO, Italy — Across a pedestrian bridge from a busy shopping mall, surrounded by green fields in northern Italy, workers in a nondescript warehouse prepare for a nuclear attack, the fallout, and the end of the world like us who know.
“We are in the midst of this massive cyclone of demand,” said Giulio Cavicchioli, showing off an underground air filtration system that “cleans” radioactive particles, nerve agents and other biological agents and playing a video tour of a nuclear shelter that is “ready to use.” ‘ used to be. His company, Minus Energie, has grown from working on 50 bunkers in the past 22 years to 500 investigations in the past two weeks.
“It’s a hysteria for bunker construction,” he said, driven by fears that Russian nuclear warheads would reach Europe. “It’s much scarier now.”
In the days since President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia launched his war against Ukraine and put its nuclear forces in “special combat readiness”, the mounting violence and the legacy of two world wars have revived fears in Europe of a nuclear disaster for the first time. . time in decades.
Europe has been alert to the pandemic for two years. But now the manifestations of his fears and self-defense desires have shifted from the masks, vaccines and lockdowns of Covid to the bunkers, iodine pills and air raid sirens of nuclear war.
From Italy to Sweden, from Belgium to Britain, the specter of nuclear war that had seemed a relic of the past is permeating a new generation of European consciousness. And it necessitates a new look at defense infrastructure, survival guides and bomb shelters that not so long ago were the domain of camouflage-wearing, assault-weapon-carrying survivors or paranoid billionaires.
“We are deeply concerned about the nuclear safety, security and safeguards risks posed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” the European Union said in a 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 Chemicals and NATO. Biological and Nuclear Defense Forces, and now a visiting fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge.
He said bunkers across Europe had “fallen into disrepair” and were dilapidated. “We are totally unprepared,” said Mr De Bretton-Gordon. “But every day that it goes on, it becomes more of a reality that this is something that we may need to think about in detail.”
Countries closer to Russia are already thinking about it.
Finland, on Russia’s western border, has maintained high military readiness for years, regularly tested alarms, and has a “long tradition of preparedness,” said Petri Toivonen, the secretary-general of the Finnish Security Committee secretariat. He wrote in an email that “we have been building shelters all the time.”
He added that “our capacity currently includes about 4,000,000 people in about 50,000 shelters.”
In Sweden, Russia’s annexation of Crimea marked the start of a “total defense” strategy that had been relaxed after the fall of the Soviet Union. Now the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency is testing its air raid siren system and is issuing a Cold War-style precautionary pamphlet. The 20-page guide includes a checklist of basics to get from the grocery store to survive on the run or in a shelter.
Even further afield, the demand for bunkers and air raid shelters is increasing, penetrating a market wider than just the wealthy.
“Imagine it as a chalet, but underground,” says Mathieu Séranne, the founder of Artemis Protection, a French maker of prefabricated luxury bunkers with air filtration systems, which cost at least half a million euros per shelter.
Previously, only “really rich people” were interested in them, he said.
“But then, two weeks ago, we got tons and tons of demand from normal people,” said Mr. Séranne. “We had to change our entire commercial strategy.”
He said he had received about 300 applications 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 bunkers were already in production, he said.
But he said France was lagging far behind its neighbour, Switzerland, in readiness. The Swiss passed legislation in the 1960s requiring nuclear shelters in residential buildings. Although the requirement has been relaxed recently, the reinforced steel doors and gas filters of bunkers are well-known features in homes across the country. There are also more than 350,000 communal bunkers – including a shelter atop a highway in Lucerne for 20,000 people – that could protect the entire population.
Mr de Bretton-Gordon said nearly all of the approximately 650 bunkers in use in Britain after World War II were no longer in use, some were tourist attractions and at least one was now used as a fine wine cellar. The few who still worked served government officials.
Outside the bunkers, others seek protection from iodine pills, which, if taken properly, can help absorb radiation into the thyroid and prevent cancer from being exposed to it.
War Between Russia and Ukraine: Important Things to Know
To the ground. Russian forces, battered by local resistance, have stepped up their bombardment over Ukraine, targeting locations far from the front lines. Satellite images of a convoy north of Kiev suggest Russia is repositioning its forces for another attack there.
Belgium is meeting a sharply increasing demand with free packs of pills for everyone with a Belgian identity card. Michael Storme, an official at the national Pharmacy Union, told Belgium’s Belga news agency that last Monday alone, the country’s pharmacies distributed more than 30,000 boxes. Demand has also increased in the Netherlands and Finland.
In Italy, iodine-based vitamins are flying off the shelves.
“It’s the new trend,” says Stefano Franceschini, a pharmacist in Rome. “People buy vitamins with small amounts of iodine in them, without clearly knowing what they are and what they could really protect in the event of a nuclear explosion. Actually out of fear.”
Andrea Neri, a pharmacist in central Trieste, a city in northeastern Italy, added that the vitamins were probably useless, but at least they weren’t dangerous.
“Potassium iodide was ingested in the 1980s after the Chernobyl explosion, but it is a poison and can only be obtained with a medical prescription,” he said. “Most people who inquire about it give up when they find out they need to ask their GP.”
mr. de Bretton-Gordon said that iodine pills could only do so much, and the best prevention was averting the conflict — and the preparedness.
“Letters to citizens about what to do and how to survive,” as many countries had during the Cold War, Mr De Bretton-Gordon said, could teach people to protect themselves behind stone walls that block out radiation or to stop drinking. from contaminated water.
But he also said that Europe should be “hugely concerned” about Russian accusations regarding chemical and biological weapons in Ukraine, which both he and the White House mentioned a possible false flag operation to lay the groundwork for the possible use of such weapons.
Mr Putin, he said, already appeared to have used a deadly military-grade nerve agent to poison him in Salisbury, England, where Mr de Bretton-Gordon lived. “I think we should sit down and listen,” he added.
Mr Cavicchioli of Minus Energie agreed. But as he walked through his office with a beeping Geiger counter, he said he’d rather the new demand dwindle if it meant the end of a war he called “a tragedy without end.”
When he returned to his office – where he said he had received 20 emails and phone calls that day from potential clients “who can’t sleep at night” – he said there was a misguided view of bunker owners as lovers of the day. of judgment.
“Someone with a bunker is an optimist,” he said. “They believe there will be something after that — that life will go on.”
Gaia Pianigianic contributed reporting from Siena.