Germany dusts off its nuclear fallout shelters

STORY: This is Robert Schwienbacher and he's taking us on a tour of a fallout shelter here in Cologne, Germany - designed to protect over 2,300 people from a nuclear war.

It's decommissioned. It's not in use. It's a relic.

Schwienbacher is the head of the Association for the Documentation of the Cold War in Germany, when the half the country was behind the Iron Curtain.

Here's the water treatment facility. Here's the kitchen. Just look at this old phone.

But the reason we're here is decidedly more current.

Earlier this year the German government announced it's actually reexamining facilities like these -- the ones that weren't decommissioned -- and even considering upgrading them, because of the war in Ukraine. The country had 2,000 in the 1960s and was in the process of slowly shutting them all down. Only 599 are still in service.

And there are other crisis preparations. Coming up in December the country is going to test all of its disaster warning sirens simultaneously, complete with text messages to every person's mobile phone. They're calling it "Warning Day," and it's only the second time in the nation's history that it's been done.

Towns across Germany are also getting ready for scenarios like power outages.

Schwienbacher's facility is built into a subway station and even though it's not in service, it's suddenly getting inquiries from people wondering, "Can they use it in the event of the once unthinkable situation?"

Imagine: thousands of men, women, and children of all ages, closely packed. There are no showers.

"The whole thing is popularly called a nuclear fallout shelter, but strictly speaking it's a civil defense facility. And the big difference between a bunker and a civil defense facility is that a bunker can possibly take a direct hit. This facility absolutely cannot."

“Right now there are no people sitting here, but if you imagine people sitting here on the left and on the right, then it's like running a gauntlet. If they don't pull their feet in on time, then it's a bad tripping hazard. In other words, the social tension is relatively high in a case like this. We also have children playing and running through here.”

It's important to remember that many older Germans experienced the Cold War first hand, when Germany was a major focal point for the armies and espionage of the Soviets and the West.

Ukraine is only a nine-hour drive from Berlin. There's no immediate threat, but a survey by an insurance company this month suggests 42% of Germans fear a war involving their country, up from 16% last year.

Mark Schmiechen is with a company called BSSD, which in English stands for "Bunkers-Shelters-Systems-Germany." They make shelters for private citizens. It's a niche industry, but regardless it's reporting a major uptick in business.

They told us they make about a hundred sales a year. Now, after the war started, they say they've already seen a 300% increase.

"Before, we always had 100 to 300 hits on our website. And on February 25, in the morning we were at over 10,000 hits. It was the same with the telephone. While the attack on Ukraine was going on, our phones suddenly started ringing. I would say almost every second or ten seconds, so that at first we didn't really know what was happening."

Hopefully, these will never have to be used.