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Two days in a shelter with 27 neighbours and a barking dog

Blick in einen Schutzraum mit dicker Betontüre und Notausgang
The thick concrete doors of a nuclear shelter near the Mühleberg nuclear power plant.

The work to dismantle the Mühleberg nuclear power plant in the Swiss capital of Bern has begun but a nuclear accident can’t be ruled out for some time. What would happen in the case of a nuclear alert?

Risks remain for some years

The dismantling process of the Mühleberg plant will take 15 years and costs CHF3 billion ($3 billion). According to the plant operator BKW, a nuclear accident cannot be completely ruled out until the fuel elements are transported to an interim storage facility – the first operation of its kind in Switzerland. The risk of a meltdown is greater in the first few years, but soon becomes significantly smaller.

First, the fuel elements are moved from the reactor to an adjacent storage pool, where they will cool down before being transported to an interim storage facility in northern Switzerland. Between 2021 and the end of 2024, all fuel elements should be moved to the facility, which will remove 98% of radioactivity.

As a resident of a small house on the western outskirts of Bern, I am part of the population that would be directly affected by a nuclear accident in Mühleberg. The authorities speak of zones 1 and 2, located within 20 kilometres of the nuclear power plant. Just like everyone in Switzerland, I have been assigned a shelter.

Mine is 50 metres from my apartment building. I would have to share it with 27 other people if there was a significant radioactive leak. This is a scenario that we have played down in recent years.

Most people have pragmatically converted their private shelters into normal basement rooms. It is both legal and understandable. Who wants to constantly face an unlikely disaster? It’s easier to ask what this emergency would be like now that the danger is about to go away.

The authorities happily provide information. Their emergency plans are at hand and have gathered no dust. Some cellars would have to be converted from private storage space to shelters with palette beds and dry toilets in just a few hours of a serious nuclear accident.

This is what a major nuclear alert would look like for me based on the existing protection plans.

First, an alarm. What does it mean when I hear the siren alarm? It is definitely not a test because those aren’t carried out in the middle of the night. First thing to do is turn on the radio or an alert app on a smartphone.  

*FOCP: The National Alarm Center measures radioactivity at 76 locations around the country every ten minutes. If a siren alarm sounds outside of the previously announced testing times, it signifies a potential risk. People are asked to listen to the radio, to follow instructions from the authorities and inform the neighbors.

On all radio stations, the authorities are telling people in zones 1 and 2 to prepare to go to their nearest basement or shelter. My direct neighbors and I don’t have a basement. We are assigned to the shelter in the apartment building next door.

** BSM: It is important that all people stay in buildings or seek protection in a local cellar.

Emergency supplies should be made available, in particular 9 liters of drinking water plus food, medication, a battery-powered radio, hygiene products, flashlights with spare batteries and iodine tablets, says a government spokesman on the radio. 

* FOCP: Every 10 years, iodine tablets (potassium iodide 65 AApot) are distributed to people living around the five Swiss nuclear power plants.

In the basement of this multi-family house is the shelter for me and 27 neighbours.

I hear the authorities appeal for calm, to carry out initial instructions and to await further information.

A checklist also tells me to take my Will with me. A realistic recommendation, I think, when the sirens roar again three hours later. The accident now actually threatens the safety of people in the vicinity of the Mühleberg nuclear power plant.

The National Alarm Centre reports on the radio: “Do not go outside anymore. If you are outside, immediately seek protection in the nearest house. Close windows and doors. Switch off all ventilation and air conditioning. Take the potassium iodide tablets according to the instructions on the package.”

* FOCP: When radioactive substances are released, there is a distinction between the several phases. The preliminary phase is the time from when they are first detected until they build up to dangerous levels. This can take hours or days.

I put on a jacket with a hood and gloves and try to protect my face with a transparent cloth. If it doesn’t help, at least it doesn’t hurt. Then I leave my apartment with a crammed suitcase and go straight to the entrance of the three-story apartment building, 50 metres away, in which my allotted shelter is located in the basement.

Around a dozen women, men and children have arrived there in front of me and are standing around with their luggage, rather at a loss. The basement is still occupied with the tenants’ private utensils, and the wooden barriers in the narrow corridor have not been removed.

Nobody seems to know where the property manager is, who should re-equip this room. A tenant reaches him on the phone to find he is ten kilometres away. At this distance, he cannot say where the obligatory beds and mattresses, the dry toilet and the emergency power radio are to be found. 

** BSM: The property owners are responsible for the condition of the private shelters and equipment.

*** Civil protection commander: These rooms must have berths and emergency facilities [dry toilet].

There is a lot of confusion and a lot of hustle and bustle. Some make phone calls to their relatives. An older woman didn’t want to leave her pets behind – a dog, two cats and two canaries. The Dachshund barks without interruption and even drowns out the howling of an infant who just woke up in a stroller.


I suppress the idea of having to spend up to two days in this narrow space with 27 other people – including a baby and three other children – and various pets.

*** Civil protection commander: The civil defence recommends that pets be accommodated in the adjoining room to the shelter.

More people are arriving, some with large suitcases and bags, as if they were traveling on vacation. Few have the recommended 9 liters of drinking water with them.

Some have bottled tap water after hearing the siren alarm, hoping that it is not contaminated.

Some try to arrange themselves with their preferred neighbors and distance themselves from others. “Who’s in charge here?” a tall person in his mid-40s asks.

**BSM: You can still drink the tap water.

Because his question remains unanswered, he starts issuing instructions: “Please keep calm so that we can understand the instructions given by the authorities on the radio.” The Dachshund and the toddler refuse to obey.

“I suggest that the men sit in the front, the families in the middle and the women in the back,” says the self-proclaimed shelter boss, while behind him four young men who don’t live here ask for admission. A violent discussion arises as to whether they should be admitted.

** BSM: There are no legal requirements or recommendations for this.

Fortunately, the “shelter chief ad interim” gives reasonable instructions, which are usually followed without hesitation. Most of those seeking protection still subordinate their individual needs to the common good. Hopefully this will continue until the cloud phase is over.

* Federal Office for Civil Protection (FOCP)External link

** Canton Bern Office for Civil Protection, Sport and Military (BSM)External link

*** Civil Protection, Canton BernExternal link

As soon as people, animals and the environment are at immediate risk from increased radioactivity, the National Alarm Centre orders immediate measures. It operates a standby service around the clock.

Apart from a relatively small number of mostly old buildings, most residential buildings in Switzerland have a private shelter.

In addition to 360,000 private personal protection rooms, there are public protection rooms in municipalities and urban quarters that are activated by the authorities if necessary. These were built to accommodate “stranded” people in an emergency who could not get into their private shelter in time or would have any allocated protection area, such as business travelers or tourists.

Source: Federal Office for Civil Protection (FOCP)External link

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR