In a matter of weeks, COVID-19 pandemic fears in Europe have given way to another concern that nightmares are made of: the possibility that Russia could use a nuclear weapon.
Since Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, U.S. and overseas manufacturers of residential bunkers say they’ve seen a spike in customer inquiries and orders — a surge they attribute to the war in Eastern Europe and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision late last month to put his country’s nuclear forces on alert.
Gary Lynch, general manager of Rising S Company, a residential bunker builder based in Murchison, Texas, said he recently started receiving inquiries from prospective customers in Italy, Romania, Sweden and the U.K., in addition to the U.S. and Canada.
“We’ve got a world superpower threatening to use nuclear weapons; that alone is enough to be scary,” he told CBS MoneyWatch.
“Excellent man caves”
Manufacturers say the pre-fab shelters will withstand exposure to chemical, biological and nuclear attacks. Some use a steel frame strong enough to resist earthquakes and include bullet-resistant doors. The highest-end models — which can cost millions of dollars — may include air filtration systems, solar charging stations, freshwater inlets, waste removal tanks and infrared security.
Rising S makes bunkers in a local factory and ships them overseas. Over a recent 10-day period, Lynch said he got 1,600 inquiries from people interested in an underground shelter where they could take refuge in the event of a nuclear incident. That compares with the two to six calls he normally would have fielded over that same span of time from consumers looking to build a panic room or secure storage spaces for weapons or valuables.
Forty of those customer inquiries led to sales of bunkers ranging in price from $60,000 to around $200,000, including installation.
“Normally, in that same time frame I would have sold five,” Lynch said, describing his new customers as “hardworking people who are taking the measures to protect their loved ones.”
“They make excellent man caves or extra sleeping for extended family, and they’re good for safe rooms,” he added. “Maybe you don’t use it today, but you use it in a week or a year.”
Interest in residential bunkers is coming from people across the income ladder. Mathieu Séranne, founder of Artemis Protection, a Paris-based company that sells and installs luxury, prefabricated bunkers for a variety of uses, said he’s noticed a similar uptick in interest for his company’s products.
Before the war, Séranne’s 1-year-old company primarily worked with wealthy clients, but interest in shelters is now pouring in from people of various income levels in Finland, France, Poland, Russia, the U.S. and Canada, he told CBS MoneyWatch. That includes inquiries from entrepreneurs, a doctor, a postal worker and an Amazon worker, among others.
“I used to cater to all high-net-worth individuals because the shelters we build are spacious and equipped with everything they need. Since the Ukraine crisis happened, we’ve heard from so many normal people, and we had to adapt in an emergency to build smaller, bare-bones shelters that we can produce and deliver quickly,” he said.
Million-dollar panic room
Today’s generation of residential bunkers are far more comfortable than the spartan fallout shelters that many Americans added to their homes in the early days of the Cold War, when President John F. Kennedy urged people to build radiation-proof structures.
Indeed, a premium Artemis Protection bunker resembles a luxury apartment, complete with high ceilings, recessed lighting and high-end fittings, along with basic amenities including a living room, shower and television.
A basic model with fewer amenities and measuring just over 30-square-feet runs roughly $166,000.
“Then the sky is the limit for the rest,” Séranne said. “Some people want them to be more than 100 square meters [1,076 square feet], which costs more than 1 million euros.”
The nicer bunkers are designed to resemble “an underground mountain chalet,” according to Séranne. “We’re not selling creepy bunkers. Clients come to us because they want something nice that they can live in all year and feel good in. It’s something warm and welcoming that changes the image one has of a bunker.”
Since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, Séranne has received over 700 requests for quotes, about 40 of which ended in sales.
“It’s an emotional situation. People are afraid. We didn’t expect this in our marketing strategy,” he conceded.
“Only calling about fears of atomic war”
Séranne also thinks some new clients are stretching their budgets, an indication of the intense level of anxiety the Ukraine conflict — the biggest land war in Europe since World War II — has caused among Europeans. In another sign of the times, pharmacies in Finland, Norway and Luxembourg have sold out of iodine and potassium iodide pills, which can be used to blunt the effects of exposure to nuclear radiation.
“Some of them can afford it, others will take out lines of credit with their banks — or are deciding not to invest in an RV and go on a road trip, and are instead putting the money into a home extension,” he said.
Giulio Cavicchioli, owner of Minus Energie, an Italian maker of “secured homes,” said that over the past two weeks he has received more requests from prospective buyers than he has in the past 22 years.
Previously, Minus Energie catered largely to clients interested in building safe rooms for their valuables or weapons storage structures. “Now they are only calling about fears of atomic war; that’s it,” Cavicchioli said.
From start to finish, securing the appropriate permits and building a bunker designed to survive a nuclear blast takes about four months.
“I hope this tragedy will be over a lot sooner than that,” he said.