Friday 23 August 2019

In pictures: Inside Ireland's secret VIP nuclear bunker

Fresh tensions between North Korea and the US have put ­nuclear conflict back in the spotlight - but at the height of the Cold War the Irish government considered the threat so real that it built a bomb shelter to be home for the Taoiseach if ­Doomsday came. Our reporter goes inside Ireland's secret nuclear bunker

The phone room in the Athlone bunker to monitor how the rest of Ireland was faring
The phone room in the Athlone bunker to monitor how the rest of Ireland was faring
Kim Bielenberg inside the decommissioned bunker at Custume Barracks, Athlone. Photo: James Flynn/APX
Pages from Bas Beatha
The cooking facilities, which would have been equipped for up to 30 days
The nerve centre within the bunker
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

In the 1960s, the Irish government was so concerned about a nuclear attack that it urged householders to stock up on groceries for 14 days - just in case it happened.

Bás Beatha, a guide to surviving a nuclear war, was distributed to every home, telling the public what to do when Doomsday came and the country was hit by a nuclear blast.

And the government itself, including the Taoiseach, was all set to find refuge in their own special VIP bunker in Athlone.

The Irish people were advised to avoid going out, if at all possible, in the event of a nuclear attack, for fear of being scattered with radioactive dust.

The cooking facilities, which would have been equipped for up to 30 days
The cooking facilities, which would have been equipped for up to 30 days

If they had to go out, they were advised to wear a scarf and a pair of gloves, and bring a flask of tea.

The recommended nuclear holocaust diet included tinned meat, tinned fruit, tinned vegetables and biscuits. Homeowners were told to have a stock of these provisions in their cupboards in preparation for a thermo-nuclear explosion.

The first sentence of the booklet spelled out the danger: "Nuclear weapons have added a new and deadly peril to modern war - RADIOACTIVE FALL-OUT. It can affect every home and farm in the country."

It is comforting to note that the powers-that-be were taking measures to protect us, in terms that were occasionally alarmist. In case anyone was in any doubt, the booklet, which was to be kept handy in every home, warned that "in a nuclear war, thousands of our people could die".

The authorities did not just have the general population's interests at heart. They also made plans to try to ensure that they themselves would survive Doomsday intact.

At the height of the Cold War, in the years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the government ordered the construction of the nuclear bunker in Athlone.

The nerve centre within the bunker
The nerve centre within the bunker

For decades, there was a plan that the midlands town by the banks of the Shannon would become the effective capital of Ireland in a nuclear-war scenario.

Kim Bielenberg inside the decommissioned bunker at Custume Barracks, Athlone. Photo: James Flynn/APX

Former soldier Sgt Henry Brady, a local historian and tour guide, says: "Athlone was picked because it was right in the centre of Ireland, and it had good radio communications."

Mysterious underworld

With nuclear flashes in the sky pending, threatening to lay waste to our our fragrant green fields, the Taoiseach, his ministers and top civil servants were to decamp to Athlone, and live underground until the radioactive dust had settled.

I had long heard of this mysterious, subterranean underworld in the midlands, and was determined to visit it. Tracking down the elite nuclear shelter and obtaining special permission to descend into the network of corridors 40ft underground at Custume Barracks required weeks of planning.

After exhaustive enquiries, involving civil servants and the Defence Forces, I turned up at the entrance on the appointed day, and was taken by escort to an army accommodation block.

Sgt Ozzie Hackett, the man in charge of the block, took me into a hall and down stairs, switching on a light that illuminated a secret underworld.

I stepped into the bunker where our Taoiseach would have walked to take control as nuclear clouds swept across the country.

The cooking facilities, which would have been equipped for up to 30 days

Sgt Hackett remembers being in the bunker as a young soldier back in the 1980s when it was still fully operational.

He shows me the long, dark corridor where the survival of the country was to be carefully plotted with maps, ancient fax machines, and the type of bulky black phones that would not look out of place in the Hitchcock film Dial M for Murder.

Sadly, this antediluvian infrastructure has been removed since the bunker was decommissioned. Leo probably has another secret bolthole somewhere closer to Dublin with more luxurious amenities.

In the event of a nuclear attack, hordes of volunteer telephonists were supposed to be in this base monitoring how the rest of the population above ground were doing (probably not that well, if we had not already been vaporised). Readings were to be taken by wardens across the country, and then phoned into Athlone.

The bunker also housed a conference room with maps and a broadcast studio where RTÉ would issue bulletins. From here, the Taoiseach would give an address on the state of the nation (or what remained of it). According to some accounts, the bunker even had a special closed telephone line to Number 10 Downing Street in London.

The Athlone bunker was designed so that even if the building above it collapsed, its reinforced concrete ceiling could withstand the force.

A cabinet cannot be expected to get through Doomsday on an empty stomach.

So I was glad to discover that, our senior politicians would not have gone hungry in their midlands lair.

Hidden enclave

As he showed me through the hidden enclave of dark corridors and side rooms, Sgt Hackett recalls: "What I remember most was that when you came in at the entrance, there were shelves full of tins of food, and cookers."

A government memo from the 1960s outlined survival plans for a nuclear war. It was envisaged that ministers, civil servants and military advisers would have cooking facilities sufficient for a period of up to 30 days.

The plan even included instructions about the flushing of toilets: "In order to conserve water, the flushing of the WCs will not be permitted in wartime. Chemical closets should therefore be provided."

The facilities in the bunker would not be considered five-star when compared to the style that Leo Varadkar is accustomed to now in Merrion Street. It was believed that the shelter was to accommodate up to 100 people - but there were just two washrooms, with basins rather than showers.

Sgt Henry Brady, who served in the barracks, remembers that there were only a few beds set up in the underground complex, while others were stored against a wall for many years.

Although the Athlone bunker was to be the nerve centre and home for political VIPs amid the radioactive fall-out, it is not clear how the cabinet was supposed to get there. Some suggested that they go by boat along the Royal Canal and then transfer on to the Shannon; another proposal was that they travel by helicopter, but would that be safe during a radioactive plume?

In the 1990s, there was much discussion about how feasible this operation would be if a missile struck in Ireland's vicinity. There was speculation that the local minister and TD Mary O'Rourke would have to take control of the country.

She told Review: "I remember joking at the time that I would be the only member of the Cabinet who could get there in a nuclear war, because it is just up the road from me."

Despite the potential scale of a nuclear catastrophe, it was not always evident that the public, the media, or even politicians themselves ever took our planned response to Armageddon all that seriously.

There were several dress rehearsals for the nuclear emergency plan in the 1980s, including Network 84 in 1984, when the country's public-warning system was tested out at the bunker.

Charts were plotted for fall-out plumes being carried westward over Ireland after simulated nuclear strikes in Britain.

According to one press report, the atmosphere in the bunker for the nigh-time dress rehearsal was cheerful, but it was also a little unreal.

Many volunteers holed up in the bunker for the night were reported to have taken more interest in a raffle than the progress of the simulated nuclear dust cloud threatening an apocalypse.

Even the Minister of Defence of the time, Patrick Cooney, seemed to take the prospect of thermal warfare a little lightly. Asked in 1984 where he would most like to be when nuclear war broke out, he replied: "In the officers' mess at Custume Barracks."

So what would the rest of us do as the radioactive fall-out spread?

It was time to reach for our Bás Beatha nuclear survival booklet.

The leaflet came with a hole punched through one of the corners, so you could hang it from a nail next to the dresser in the kitchen. Many homes probably still have it in a drawer under the sticky tape, old string and scissors.

There are plenty of useful tips on what to do at home to while away those Armageddon hours.

Turn your back to the flash

In the leaflet, mammy is pictured in an apron in the kitchen sorting out the food, while a somewhat perplexed looking daddy appear to be trying to do something manly with a water tank.

The booklet has handy tips for what to do if Nagasaki ever came to Knocknagoshel.

The advice to those finding themselves close to a nuclear explosion was simple: "Turn your back to the flash." Then we were advised to throw ourselves face first on to the ground with an overcoat over our heads.

It would almost make you feel envious of the Taoiseach sitting in his cosy bunker in Athlone.

'Biggest fear is another disaster like Chernobyl'

The threat of nuclear fall-out is back in the news with the stand-off ­between US President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong-un.

Since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and the end of the Cold War, the Government has concentrated on the possible fall-out of an accident at a nuclear plant rather than a nuclear attack.

Security analyst Declan Power says an accident in Eastern Europe, similar to the incident at Chernobyl, is more likely than an incident at one of the British plants such as Sellafield.

If there was an incident, the response would be led by the Department of Housing in conjunction with other agencies including the Office of Radiological Protection.

The principal fear is that a nuclear accident in the UK or Europe could release a radioactive plume into the atmosphere. Depending on the wind speed and direction, it could eventually reach Ireland.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, due to Ireland's distance from any nuclear facility, it is unlikely that anyone in Ireland would need to stay indoors. However, in a serious case, the authorities could issue its warning to the public to "go in, stay in, tune in".

* Go in: Going indoors to your home, workplace or another indoor location could protect you from exposure to radiation and reduce your long-term cancer risk.

* Stay in: You should remain indoors until advised by the authorities that the radioactive plume has moved on. This may take a few hours, depending on the nature of the accident, and the weather.

* Tune in: TV and radio stations - both state and commercial - will be kept fully briefed about the emergency. You will be kept updated with the latest news and advice, and informed if any actions such as remaining indoors are necessary. Information will also be made available on the internet and social media.

In 2002, Irish households were issued with iodine tablets for use in a nuclear emergency. Stable iodine helps to counteract radioactive iodine, but because of the changing nature of more modern nuclear plants, these pills are now considered unnecessary and redundant.



Bás Beatha, the government's 1965 manual for householders, gives advice on how to survive a nuclear war:

"When you hear the national alert (ie war has broken out), keep your radio set switched on and tuned into Radio Telefís Éireann all the time."

* "Yellow flags hung along roads will indicate a final warning to motorists and other road users."

* "Plan to block windows and doors (in a refuge room) by making a barricade of containers filled with earth. Sacks, pillow cases, boxes, furniture drawers would do as containers."

* "You should be in your refuge room by the time fall-out starts. You will not be able to go outside again for at least two days."

* "Your stock of food will be made up of tinned goods and other foods which require little or no cooking."

* For sanitation "during the first 24 hours, a covered bin or bucket or chemical closet is recommended in the refuge room. Rig up a screen around it in a corner of the room and use it as a WC…"

* "Farm animals should be brought in under cover for at least the first two days of fall-out."

* "Do everything you are told by the authorities."

* "If you have to go out in fall-out, wear a cloth around your nose and mouth. Cover the head. Wear a scarf. Wear gloves. Tie cuffs of coat and ends of trousers. Do not smoke or eat."

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