It’s been decades since Norwegians and their political leaders thought much about the need for bomb shelters. They’re thinking about it now, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and finding that their existing shelters’ capacity and condition leave much to be desired.
Many have been used as storage rooms, and are packed with old furniture and other cast-offs. Most lack water and working sanitation facilities. State regulations still demand, though, that bomb shelters (called tilfluktsrom in Norwegian) be ready for service within 72 hours, prompting lots of cleaning and quick refurbishment around the country right now.
The biggest challenge, however, is capacity. Norway’s state directorate for security and preparedness (DSB) confirms that all the shelters combined can only accommodate 2.5 million people, less than half Norway’s current population. Norwegian Broadcating (NRK) reported how state authorities, believing the Cold War was over, decided in 1998 to remove long-standing demands that all public buildings be built with new bomb shelters. Not a single new bomb shelter for the public has been built in Norway for more than 20 years.
In the Oslo suburb of Bærum, for example, only 25 of 43 elementary schools have their own shelters. Most new schools weren’t built with them: “It’s been a long time since the authorities demanded that we should have them,” Lars Erik Holth of Baerum’s public property division told newspaper Aftenposten.
Now Russian President Vladimir Putin has launched a war, raising threats especially against countries bordering on Russia. Few believe Putin will attack NATO member countries like Norway, but his war against Ukraine has nonetheless sparked anxiety nationwide and renewed public interest in bomb shelters.
“People are asking about things they haven’t asked earlier during my time,” DSB director Elisabeth Aarsæther told Aftenposten. “And they’re reading up on where the bomb shelters are located and evaluating their own preparedness for an emergency.” Internet searches for “tilfluktsrom” have soared in Norway.
For the first time in decades, local officials and civil defense authorities are thus evaluating their own regions’ bomb shelter availability and access. Erik Furevik, leader of the Midtre Hålogaland Civil Defense District in Northern Norway, also reports a sharp rise in inquiries from the public. He told NRK that he’s been referring many people to DSB’s website that has maps (external links) showing where all the shelters are located.
The Norwegian government, the Parliament and even the defense department’s own research institute (FFI) had determined that bomb shelters had “lost much of their relevance” because of what was viewed as major declines in risk and vulnerability and new weapon technology. That was before the war broke out, leading to a huge reassessment of security policy all over Europe just in the past few weeks.
Preparedness ‘only positive’
“We can well understand that people are now seeking information (about shelters) given what’s happening in Ukraine, and we think that’s only positive,” Jørgen Mauno Johansen, district civil defense chief in Troms, told NRK. He and his colleagues stress, however, that there’s no cause for alarm, only preparedness.
“Shelters are there, and available for the population,” Johansen said. He added that older shelters can be cleaned out and renovated, while many other options can be made available, like an underground garage in Tromsø and similar facilities in Oslo. DSB director Aarsæter, meanwhile, told NRK that her agency is also looking at “creative solutions” that can provide emergency shelter, including train tunnels and the capital’s metro system.
Many private homes and modern residential buildings also have cellars or garages. DSB aims to offer new options and overviews by the end of the year. Asked whether there’s really still a need for public bomb shelters, Aarsæter told Aftenposten: “Yes, there is, even though we hope we never need them.”