During the Cold War, the threat of a nuclear war caused many people to build fallout shelters. Fallout shelters were designed to protect people from radioactive dirt and debris that can fall out of the air following a nuclear detonation. While fallout shelters are no longer commonly built, the basic principle remains the same: during a radiological emergency, concrete walls act as a protective barrier between you and radiation outside. This activity is intended for middle and high school students.
- Next Generation Science Standards
- Materials and Resources
- Common Core State Standards
- Printable Worksheets and Classroom Aids
- Tour a fallout shelter or research information about fallout shelters.
- Examine the concepts of buildings as shielding and shelter in place.
Next Generation Science Standards
The concepts in this activity can be used to support the following science standards:
- PS4. Waves and Electromagnetic Radiation
Materials and Resources
Each italicized document title can be found at the bottom of this page, and is available for printing and distribution.
- Radiation Protection: Teacher Background Information
- Vocabulary Materials
- Emergency Planning and Preparedness Quiz (one per student, pair or group) and teacher answer key
- Fallout shelter; determine if there is a fallout shelter location in your school or community
- Fallout Shelters Worksheet (one per student, pair or group) and Fallout Shelters Teacher Answer Key
- Buildings as Shielding image (one per student, pair or group)
- Student computers with Internet access to: (optional)
- A copy of your school’s emergency response plan (optional)
45-60 minutes, not including optional activities or extensions.
- Ionizing radiation
- Radiation exposure
- Radiation protection
- Start with a vocabulary activity if students are not familiar with radiation and the terms used in this activity, or provide students with the terms and definitions.
- Ask students to hypothesize what they might do in the event of an airborne radiation incident. Explain that these events are rare, but might occur, for example, in the event of a traffic accident if a tractor trailer is carrying materials that may pose a risk, a natural disaster (such as Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant incident or other historical nuclear power plant incidents), or a terrorist attack. Student answers will vary, but may include going to a basement or other shelter for protection.
- Distribute the Emergency Planning and Preparedness Quiz if using it as a pre-test. Have students complete the quiz. NOTE: the quiz can be used as a pre- and/or post-test based on your preference. Review the correct answers after students have completed the post-test. If using the quiz as a learning tool only, let students know the quiz is meant to be a fun way to determine what students know and learn and will not be graded.
- Explain that the United States and Soviet Union were in a race to develop atomic weapons between 1947 and 1991. This period was known as the Cold War. Many people were fearful of a nuclear attack and many fallout shelters were built during this time. These shelters were designed to protect people from the nuclear fallout should a nuclear explosion occur.
- Ask students:
- What is nuclear fallout? Particles of radioactive debris that fall from the atmosphere following a nuclear explosion. Exposure to gamma radiation is a primary concern because gamma radiation can pass through many kinds of materials, including our bodies.
- How does a fallout shelter serve as a form of radiation protection? It serves as shielding.
- Tour or research a fallout shelter. Students may visit a designated fallout shelter location within your school or community or research the Greenbrier Bunker (also known as Project Greek Island. The Atomic Heritage Foundation Exitmaintains information about the bunker which may be useful to students.
- Provide students with a copy of the Fallout Shelters Worksheet. Have them answer questions 1–5 while touring or researching a fallout shelter. Review their responses as a class. Internet resources may include the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), among other resources found online.
- Provide students with a copy of the Buildings as Shielding image. Have students examine the radiation dose reduction factors within the two images, answer questions 6 and 7 on the Fallout Shelters Worksheet, and discuss and compare their responses.
- Asks students:
- Why do the third floors of the 5-story building and office/apartment building offer more protection than the first and second floors? Because when the radiation falls and settles on the ground, the first and second floors are closer to the radiation source. Therefore, the third floor offers more shielding.
- Why are we not able to completely avoid exposure to radiation? Gamma radiation can pass through many kinds of materials. Additionally, it is very difficult to completely seal off a building to avoid exposure. Radiation may enter through doors, windows, ventilation systems and other cracks or openings.
- Distribute the Emergency Planning and Preparedness Quiz if using it as a post-test. Have students complete the quiz and review the correct answers.
- Optional extension: Direct students to:
- Develop a plan with their family in the event of an airborne radiation incident when advised to remain indoors. Resources may include:
- Review your school’s emergency response plan to determine where students should go in the event of a radiation emergency.
Common Core State Standards (CCSS)
The concepts in the Buildings as Shielding activity align with the following:
CCSS English Language Arts Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, & Technical Subjects
- CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-12.1 Comprehension and Collaboration
- CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.2 Comprehension and Collaboration
- CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-12.4 Craft and Structure
- CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-12.9 Research to Build and Present Knowledge
CCSS Mathematics Standards:
Printable Worksheets and Classroom AidsYou may need a PDF reader to view some of the files on this page. See EPA’s About PDF page to learn more.
- Emergency Planning and Preparedness Quiz (one per student, pair or group) and Fallout Shelters: Teacher Answer Key. (PDF)(1 pg, 103 K)
- Emergency Planning and Preparedness Quiz: Teacher Answer Key (PDF)(1 pg, 140 K)
- Fallout Shelters Worksheet (PDF)(1 pg, 209 K)
- Fallout Shelters: Teacher Answer Key (PDF)(1 pg, 100 K)
- Buildings as Shielding (PDF)(1 pg, 309 K)