How to Build a Nuclear Bunker: 3 Inexpensive Life-Saving Methods

With everything that goes on in this day and age, you can never be ‘too prepared’! Natural disasters, terrorist attacks, killer viruses and even war are just a few instances where you may need to seek refuge away from the outside world. Do you have somewhere that you and your family can hide out if shit really hits the fan? Having your own survival shelter or bunker sounds a bit far fetched, but considering the amount of horrible situations that you can be thrown into unaware makes the idea sound a heck of a lot more comforting… Should you learn how to build a nuclear bunker?

So in this guide, you’ll find out how to build a nuclear bunker. Nuclear? Wait….What? Bomb shelter, fallout shelter, doomsday shelter, call it whatever you want, but this guide will give you all the information you need to protect you and nearest and dearest in the worst possible scenario!

Reasons and Considerations

Have you ever looked at your sunscreen bottle and wondered what the heck SPF and its associated numbers were? SPF refers to (Sun Protection Factor). If you’re packing SPF 15 for example and you plan to be out in the sun for 30 mins then you multiply 15 X 30 which gives you 450. The number 450 = the minutes (or 7.5 hours) that you are technically protected for.

Ok so what the heck does this have to do with nuclear stuff?

I’m getting to that! So, just like sunscreen, nuclear/fallout shelters have their own rating system. They are rated by ‘PF’ (Protection Factor)

The PF number represents the relationship between the amount of radiation an unprotected person would experience compared to the amount one would receive in a shelter. The higher the PF rating for your shelter, the more protection it has against radiation. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) pamphlet Standards for Fallout Shelters, a fallout shelter is “any room, structure or space designated as such and providing its occupants with protection at a minimum protection factor (PF) of 40 from fallout radiation resulting from a nuclear explosion”. 

This means that the people inside would receive one-fortieth (or 2.5 percent) the amount of radiation they’d receive if they were outside after a nuclear explosion, which is much safer than a PF of 5.

A fallout shelter or nuclear shelter is designed to allow us to limit our exposure to any harmful fallout/nuclear waste until the radioactivity particles have withered down to a level deemed safe for humans. The aim is to shield us during the blast.

Believe it or not, these kinds of protective shelters, above and below ground, have been around for a very long time. Even animals have burrowed underground on instinct from danger long before us. So it’s only natural that us as humans do the same. There are many reasons that you should take extreme prepping measures for an event like this:

  • Apocalypse – Take this with a grain of salt. There are a few apocalypse situations that are seemingly plausible. Others…. Well, you be the judge. Either way, it’s better to be safe than sorry, right? From the more likely cases such as Technology Fails, Nuclear Holocaust, Virus Infection, Natural Disasters, Plagues, Societal apocalypse. To the least likely albeit a little over the top including: Zombie Apocalypse, Alien Invasion, Biblical Apocalypse, Asteroid / Comet / Meteor Apocalypse. These are just to name a few
  • TEOTWAWKI – (The End Of The World As We Know It) You just never know…
  • World War III – This reason actually has a bit of merit. It seems that there is a lot of power and greed these days that someone, someday, will have their finger itching to push the red button!
  • All Out Nuclear War – On the back of World War III, that same powerful greedy soul will more than likely have access to some decent size nuclear weaponry. I’m not saying this in a sarcastic manner either.

So all in all, having a protective area close by, that helps to keep you and your family safe before, during and after a nuclear attack or disaster could be one of the best investments you make. It doesn’t even have to cost you your life savings either. Let’s face it, it’s not like the authorities are going to stop time and swoop down to save Mr and Mrs Jones when things have turned pear shaped are they? Doubt it!

You would hope that there would never be a time in your life where you would actually have to use your shelter but if you did have one, then you have one less of life’s stresses sitting on your shoulders. The only main consideration besides your survival is your budget. There are many alternatives for all wallet sizes which we will go through in the next section

Types and Styles

There are 2 different types of nuclear bunkers which include private and public.

1. Private

The 2 types can come in various styles. For example, a private bunker can be built by or bought by a person and/or family. They can include converted basements, panic rooms, improvised bunkers inside buildings and even underground shelters (either within a person’s yard or away in a secluded location) to name a few.

A converted basement is a great addition to a possibly unused area underneath your home. The safest areas of your basement (which also have the highest PF factor) are in the corners. So although you may have the ability to build a complete fallout room, you should consider sectioning off a corner with the highest ground level on the outside. Use this as a ‘blast room’. This will be the area where you should be during the blast and/or fallout period.

A panic room is another decent choice but again, the best place to build is underground. If you don’t have the space underground and need to build an add-on to your home then try to use the same principle as the ‘blast room’ in the converted basement. If you can get a hold of some heavy duty lead sheeting and have the ability to cast concrete then it is possible to build above ground. The key is to make sure you can obtain a really high PF rating.

Everyone will have different ideas and needs when considering a private nuclear shelter. Factors such as availability to location and budget will play a big role in the final decision. Some people want the same comforts that they are used to at home, which is understandable. Unless you are loaded then your shelter will be a little cramped for space. A modest shelter would include basic necessities like foldable bunk style beds that could be doubled up as seating, separate rooms including a dining area and even a non-electric composting toilet. (separated from the sleeping area of course).

Others won’t have the cash to splash which is also fine. This may mean that they will try their best to construct the shelter with their own hands and have family and friends give them a hand. This type would look something like a ‘wait room’ and can be built on a very tight budget.

Ideally, if building underground, your design should include a main hatch, with easy access from below and can open above ground by use of a vertical ladder at the entrance. The shaft should be built with a tightly sealed blast door at the top of the shaft as well as the bottom for added protection when a blast occurs. A grenade sump should also be constructed at the floor directly below the hatch entry for additional protection against any form of blast. Again, it all comes down to budget.

In addition to your entry hatch, an emergency hatch should also be built at the rear end of your shelter. The emergency hatch is by far one of the most important parts of your shelter, especially when the entry or main hatch is compromised. The entry point of the emergency hatch should open inwards about a foot under sand or natural ground. It should be concealed from above the ground.

If you find yourself in a situation where you aren’t prepared and a blast is iminent, you can actually improvise and create a quick ‘safe zone’. You can build a simple pole-covered trench shelter by digging a trench and covering it over with logs or whatever you can find that is long and can hold weight, and dirt. A makeshift shelter like this can be both waterproof and radiation-resistant if constructed properly.

If you are inside a building or are close to one then you can also make your way in there and build a makeshift bunker. You want to make sure that the area is lined with concrete to provide the best protection. This will ensure that fallout particles, water and or gases have no chance of leaking through. Of course, you can’t be 100% sure when you go there as you may not know the first thing about concrete but any area surrounded by concrete is better than out in the open. We’ll go into more details in the ‘build’ section. This was more to be clear of how to find yourself some refuge!

2. Public

A public shelter on the other hand is “intended for use by or is accessible to the general public. Fallout shelters which are part of a residence and are intended for private use are not included” According to FEMA. Public shelters can include and are not limited to public buildings such as hospitals, police stations and schools. You can identify a public shelter by its recognisable “circle with 3 upside down triangles inside”

Public shelters can usually cater for around 50 people. In some cases, hundreds, of course this is space dependent. Authorities recommend staying inside a nuclear bunker for around 2 weeks. Most pubic shelters are well equipped with battery powered radios for full time contact. They also require to be fitted with radiation detection devices.

It is recommended that any shelter, whether private or public have the appropriate supplies. You could think that food is the most important supply but humans can actually survive for at least 2 week without food. It’s water that is the greatest survival need. 2 gallons per person per day is the minimum needed. This amount provides for drinking, hygiene and sanitation. Drinking water alone should be 1 gallon per person per day.

Nuclear bunkers are generally made by using thick concrete so it can be sealed tightly making it hard for any water and/or gas to make its way in. Any other materials like fibreglass or corrugated metal/iron are severely inefficient and way too flimsy. Reinforced, rust free steel is probably the better option but can be very expensive.

How to Build a Nuclear Bunker – 3 Makeshift Methods

1. Converted Basement

Converting your basement into a nuclear bunker isn’t as difficult as it sounds. Tt doesn’t have to cost an arm or a leg either. All you will need is of course your basement, some basic handyman skills and around $500-$1000 worth of materials. (Depending on the size of the room). The size of your basement isn’t so important as you’ll section off a small portion for your shelter anyway. The concept includes modifying the ceiling and adding a few walls. The planned room which should be built in the lowest corner of your basement.

Materials needed:

  • A screw jack
  • A Steel beam
  • Enough plywood to cover the space that will be your ceiling
  • Enough masonry (bricks/concrete blocks). Use as both ceiling fillers, a pillar/column for one side of the beam to sit on and your 2 walls.
  • Some basic carpentry fixings (screws, nails, hinges, etc)
  • Some bags of cement
  • A door
  • Air holes/vent/filter

Step 1: If your ceiling has already been built using concrete then skip step 1. If your ceiling has been built with timber/steel joists then you should add some filling between the joists. A combination of bricks and/or concrete blocks are perfect fillers but they will need a ceiling to hold them all up between the joists. This is where you’ll use some plywood, a strong beam (preferably steel) and a screw jack.

Build a column/pillar using bricks/concrete blocks on the outer side of the room. Leave enough space to sit the beam on top and wedged in. Prop the other side of the beam up with the screw jack. Leave enough space to slide the plywood over the top of the beam and then wind up the jack to pin it to the joists. Take some screws and fix the plywood hard up to the joists. Slide in the bricks and concrete over the top of the plywood, between the joists.

Step 2: Start to build your walls with bricks or concrete blocks. Use cement to seal each layer as you go up towards the ceiling. Leave space for the door. This should be securely placed hard against the outside wall of the actual house itself. There should be enough air space around the door and from the outside walls.

Step 3: Fill with necessities. It’s advisable that you have enough supplies for a minimum of at least 3 days. If you have an emergency survival kit or grab and go bag then take that with you. That will already be pre packed for situations like this. Otherwise, your main supplies should include:

  • Clean, bottled water
  • Low to no-prep snacks
  • Medical supplies and prescription medication
  • A toilet of some sort (a bucket is suffice)
  • A radio for communication.

Step 4: Wait it out and listen to any updates or further information.

2. Improvised Shelter (Inside a Building)

Step 1: As mentioned above, the first thing that you need to do is find a room or area made out of concrete. (Preferably 4 walls, floor and ceiling) This will help to ensure that you boost the PF rating. Finding something underground is important. Choosing an underground carpark or basement in a building are great examples. Think office or apartment blocks and shopping malls. They will usually have an underground area.

If you can’t find an underground area then your next best option is to build a makeshift room indoors. Try to choose a room or create a ‘wait room’ closer to the middle of the building. This will ensure that you have as much space between you and the fallout as possible.

Step 2: If you already have a room to shelter in then shield all walls and windows with heavy materials. Pretty much whatever you can find and stack. Sandbags, other bags, books, clothes, mattresses, etc. Try to shield anywhere radiation can seep in. The more coverage you can get on the walls, the more protection you have against the radiation and it’s fallout. Try to leave a few small vents for air at the entrances. Do your best to seal up the entrances with sandbags or other resistant material.

If possible, try to install an air ventilation pump. You may be able to connect it to existing ventilation pipes in the building.

Step 3: This is a bit of a backwards step as you may not have any warning of a blast, but if you have time, try to stock the shelter with food and other necessities. It’s advisable that you have enough supplies for a minimum of at least 3 days. If you have an emergency survival kit or grab and go bag then take that with you. That will already be pre packed for situations like this. Otherwise, your main supplies should include:

  • Clean, bottled water
  • Low to no-prep snacks
  • Medical supplies and prescription medication
  • A toilet of some sort (a bucket is suffice)
  • A radio for communication.

Step 4: Wait it out and listen to any updates or further information.

3. Underground – Budget/Modest

Building a nuclear bunker or fallout shelter underground is the best possible location to boost the PF rating. Before you just go ahead and dig up your backyard, there are a few things that you should do. Please note that this example is for a modest/mid range budget and there are many other options available. It will show more how to build with wood instead of concrete or steel which of course is possible but requires more funding.

Step 1: Planning –  Gone are the days when you can just do whatever you want without consequence. So the first thing you should do is go and get some plans created and detailed. It’s ideal to have them professionally formed as it could interfere with any insurance if the legalities aren’t formed correctly. (Unless you own a piece of land outright in the middle of nowhere).

The plans don’t have to be fancy but they should be structurally sound and stable. They will also give you all the measurements that you need to then go out and purchase materials to begin with your project accordingly. Then of course obtain the permits to commence the build. You can find some basic plans simply by searching for fallout shelter blueprints/plans online. An architect or drafter can provide guidance on what shelter best suits your needs.

The shelter’s size is totally user dependent. It’s advisable to add an extra 3 ft (1 m) of length per person who will hide there. A basic 4-person shelter is about 10 × 10 × 10 ft (3.0 × 3.0 × 3.0 m) in size

Consider including the absolute bare necessities as you’ll hopefully either never have to hide out in there or, if you do, then only for a short period of time. So this means a very basic small room with separate toilet/wash area and 2 entrances.

In the planning phase, it’s advisable that you get a soil test done to understand the soil conditions. The soil condition will vary with the seasons, so you need to know the right time to start doing your build site digging. There is a chance that the soil can cave in during the wetter months.

Step 2: Location – This will be your next big decision. As long as the plans go through the right process then the best place to build would be in your own backyard. It’s close by, meaning you will have easy access to build, re-stock and hide out. If you don’t have a sizable backyard to build in then you may have access to some land close by. This decision will be solely based on your personal situation and or circumstances. When choosing a location, try to decide on an area that:

  • Has a solid foundation and away from any obstructions. When a nuclear weapon is detonated, it creates a thermal pulse which can set things 20 mi (32 km) away on fire.
  • Is positioned away from both rainwater and/or dams that could drain into the hole where you are building. This means uphill from the bodies of water.
  • Has no services running through your build area (electricity, pipes, sewage)
  • Is on stable ground where trees and buildings won’t fall on your shelter.

Step 3: Building Materials – Depending on your budget, you can go all out like this guy, or you can just stick to what you’re comfortable to afford.

There are many building material options to choose from. For those with a higher budget, consider using reinforced, rust free steel or concrete. Low to medium budget projects can be built using wood logs/roofing poles. Wood logs/roofing poles are pretty much long, uncut lengths of timber. You can pick them up from your local lumber yards or even some home improvement stores. You will also need some kind of tarp or plastic materials for waterproofing. The following list will outline the bare minimum needed to complete your project: 

Materials:

  • Screws
  • Nails
  • Bolts
  • Fixing Plates
  • Rope
  • Tie Wire
  • Plastic Sheeting or Tarps
  • Wooden Logs or Poles
  • Rust Free Steel Plates
  • Lead Sheeting – If you can get a hold of some of this, you can count your lucky stars. Lead is one of the only materials that shields radiation. 
  • Concrete – As a rule of thumb for concrete, 4 inches of concrete is the minimum thickness that you should aim to use.

4 inches of concrete provides the same amount of shielding as:

  • 5-6 inches of brick
  • 6 inches of sand/gravel
  • 7 inches of earth
  • 8 inches of hollow concrete block
  • 10 inches of water
  • 14 inches of books or magazines
  • 18 inches of wood

Tools:

  • Shovels
  • Picks
  • Crowbars
  • Buckets
  • Hammers
  • Power tools (Drill, Tiger saw, etc)
  • Hand Saws
  • Welding Tools
  • Protective Clothing

Step 4: Excavation (Initial Shaping) – Peg/stake out your shelters area according to your plans.. Clean your planned shelters area plus an extra 3 meters on the outside of the perimeter of any grass, trees, rocks, rubbish and debris. (So you have ample space to work with and it gives you space to batter the edges of your hole.) Aim to have a clean fresh, bare soiled piece of land. Now that you can see a little better, mark out the excavation perimeter according to your plans with marking paint.

You can go down 2 different paths for the next bit depending on the size of the hole and your budget. You can either put your back into it and use hand tools like shovels, axes, picks, etc. Of course this will take longer and is more labour intensive but will cost next to nothing to dig. Or you can use an excavator, hire one, borrow one, make sure whoever is operating it, holds the right qualifications and is legally allowed to operate.

Start digging out the soil to form the basic outline of your shelter. Make sure that you have an angled batter from top to bottom to prevent caving of the soil. (A 45 degree angle is recommended, wider at the top). Try to keep the excavated dirt around 10 ft (3.0 m) beyond the pegged/staked out area. This will ensure that the excavated soil won’t fall back into the hole. Alternatively, if you don’t plan on keeping the soil, find a way to remove it permanently.

Trucks are your best option but can be costly. You could also use the soil somewhere else close by, shape it into a mound or spread it out to elevate some land.

Step 5: Excavation (Finalise Shaping) – Dig to create 2 entry/exit points at each end of the hole/trench. 1 will be for normal access, the 2nd will be for an emergency exit. The emergency exit will double up as extra ventilation.

At the entry end of the hole/trench, carve out a 1m (wide) x 1.5m (deep) crawl/access space just below the surface of the soil. (You can call this your ‘hallway’. Then carefully carve out on a 45 degree angle up-ways from the bottom of the crawl space toward the outside world. This will be the access point between your shelter and the outside world. At this point, you can either carve in some steps or dig them out later by hand and add them in with other materials.

At the emergency exit end of the hole/trench, create the same crawl space as you did with the entry. The same width and depth, the same angle upwards for steps. That’s pretty much it as far as digging is concerned.

Step 6: Framing – This is where your shelter will start to take a bit of shape. The aim is to form a roof over your hole. Starting from either end (entry or emergency exit) lay your wooden logs/roofing poles side by side along your hole. It is very important that they overhang the outside of your trench by 1m. This will ensure that the roof is stable and not collapse. Try not to leave any gaps between logs by pushing them as close together as possible.

Step 7: Cave Risk Safety Measures – Lay some wooden poles from the roof side top of each entrance, out-ways. The aim of this is to stop any soil caving into your shelters entry ways while you waterproof your roof. Bind together the roof and the cave protection pieces with rope.

Step 8: Initial Roof Waterproofing – Use a large tarp, multiple small tarps or other plastic materials to waterproof your shelter. Lay the tarp across the top of the roof leaving no gaps for water or soil to fall into. Fill any smaller gaps with clay, leaves, cloth or anything else you can find that can fit snugly between any remaining log gaps.

Step 9: Complete Roof Waterproofing – Cover your tarped roof with half a meter (50 cm) of soil. Leave the entrance ways free of soil for now. Create a dome shape with the soil. Keep a constant eye on the soil and make sure that it isn’t finding its way through any gaps in the roof. If you want to go hardcore, you can add another tarp over the dome and create another dome another 50 cm over the top.

Step 10: Entry/Exit Waterproofing – Build some side walls on each side of the entry/exit stairways using more wooden logs. Bind them together with tie wire or rope to hold them in place and pack any gaps with soil/clay from the outside so they are watertight. Create a slope/slant from the top out-ways to make sure any water will run away from your shelters entryways.

Step 11: Finishing Touches – Build 2 hatch doors out of wooden logs and bind them together with tie wire or rope. Remove the caving protection logs that you added earlier. Attach the doors to your shelters roof so they swing. One should swing upwards and one should swing downwards. (The emergency exit should swing downwards). This is to ensure that if the structure caves in for any reason, you aren’t stuck in there trying to push open the hatch from the inside. Fix some smaller tarps to the tops of your hatches, out-ways. This is to keep water from getting in through any smaller gaps around the entry ways.

To avoid running out of breath down there, you will need some kind of air filtration system. You should install a hand-operated ventilation pump just inside of the emergency exit. Have the filter unit sitting on the ground next to the exit and run the pipes along the crawl space out to the open air. You should try to hold the pipe in place with a peg or something so it doesn’t move around. Make sure that you have a pump that can be manually operated as well as automatic. You shouldn’t rely on batteries in an emergency!

The last piece of the puzzle should be a toilet. (This is non negotiable, you don’t want to be running up side the earth into a wall of radiation!)  A simple bucket and sanitation kit would be enough for a smaller budget. Seal the buckets and carry them to the surface as needed

Otherwise, if you plan to install a more permanent toilet, then it’s best to set it up in a separate area of the shelter. You have a few installation options here. The most efficient way is a composting toilet, they work pretty much like the ones in an RV.

This alternative requires a ventilation pipe to be installed. It will need to be run from the toilet to the outside surface. It’s best to place your toilet near the exit furthest from your sleeping area. Run the ventilation pipe through the nearest entryway, if possible. You can also try and join it to the pipe to the air pump’s ventilation pipe. Install a splitter/branch pipe so they both lock in place.

There are other options but unfortunately, most shelters won’t have access to running water. So a regular toilet isn’t usually an option. You may not be able to get clean, running water in an emergency, so you may need to install an expensive system of tanks, pipes, and filters if you want more comfort.

Step 12: Furnishings – This last step is going to come down to personal preference and budget. As far as furnishing is concerned, the simpler, the better. Simple furnishings could include:

  • Some folding chairs and table
  • Blow up/air mattresses/hammocks
  • A storage trunk that can hold any blankets, pillows spare, spare clothes, etc
  • An empty ice box for if the time comes to store any supplies that need to be kept cold

Supplies to Include:

When it comes to supplies, you will want enough of everything to last you a minimum of 2 weeks. Here is a list of items that you want to consider and again, they will all come down to budget and availability:

  • Food – Non-perishable, easy-to-prepare/ready to consume foods. High calorie, high energy items.
  • G.I can opener (manual can opener)
  • Water – 2 gallons fresh, clean water per person, per day. For drinking/hygiene/cooking
  • Water purification and filtration supplies if you choose to store water in your shelter that hasn’t already been treated.
  • Sleeping and Clothing Items
  • Hygiene Items (toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, soap, etc)
  • Medication
  • First Aid Kit – Include bandages, tape, splints, scissors, rubbing alcohol. Checked and re-stocked consistently
  • Moist towelettes/baby wipes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation
  • Entertainment Items – Books, pencils

Click here for a full guide on recommended supply items

Final Thoughts

Ok so there you have it, it was a lot of information to get through. But as you can see, careful and strategic planning will always make any job a lot easier. These kinds of events are once in a blue moon but that blue moon could in fact be life changing or ending. That’s for us to decide as well as either choose to or not to prepare for. You should now have all the tools and information you need to be able to build a nuclear bunker from scratch. If you don’t think that you do, then let me know in the comments what other things that you think should be included. This will ensure that we can add it in. It will enable everyone to feel confident when it comes to something as important as this in their lives!

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