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Exploring Reuse or Dereliction of a Cold War Era Nuclear Bunker: An Observational Study of Canada's Diefenbunker

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posted on 2023-01-31, 00:20 authored by Christian Faize CanaanChristian Faize Canaan, Jack RozdilskyJack Rozdilsky


Exploring Reuse or Dereliction of a Cold War Era Nuclear Bunker: An Observational Study of Canada's Diefenbunker 

by Christian Faize Canaan

January 4, 2023

In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Master’s degree in Disaster and Emergency Management 

  • Research Supervisor: Jack L. Rozdilsky, Ph.D.  Associate Professor of Disaster and Emergency Management, York University

Past civil defence efforts are the foundation for modern day disaster and emergency management. Today, approximately 60 years later, at a few locations in Canada remnants of Cold-War era civil defence efforts still exist.  Located outside of Ottawa, the Diefenbunker is a large underground nuclear bunker complex that once served as the location for Canada’s Federal government to continue operations in the event the national capitol was targeted in a nuclear attack. 

While the existential threat of nuclear war was a national security priority that served as a catalyst for preparedness efforts during the mid-twentieth century, until recently awareness of the horrors of nuclear war has not been of the greatest concern or priority.  During 2022, that began to change as the world watched with dread as Russia, one of the nine nations with a nuclear armed military, invaded Ukraine and on numerous occasions directly and indirectly threatened use of nuclear weapons. For 2023, it is in the range of possibilities that nuclear weapons may be used in warfare for the first time in 78 years. What was old is again becoming new. The once obscure topic of nuclear war bunkers is increasingly becoming a subject area of more concern related to emergency preparedness. 

The question asked in this study is “What are the lessons learned from Canada’s Diefenbunker that can help us to understand the opportunities leading to repurposing or the barriers leading to dereliction for large-scale Cold War era nuclear bunkers?” 

The Background Chapter of this study provides information about the past and present uses of the Diefenbunker site.  The literature review provides a context for civil defence and the risk of nuclear war.  The methodology used in this study was qualitative, observational, unstructured, and participatory.  The Findings Chapter addresses the data collected, which in this case was photographs, and the data were sorted according to themes derived from literature and observational fieldwork.  Ten images from the Spring 2022 fieldwork at the Diefenbunker are highlighted and then discussed in the context of four key themes.  ‘Upkeep and maintenance’ and ‘time travel’ are themes which represent barriers for adaptive reuse of former Cold War nuclear bunker sites.  ‘Continuity of government and civil defence’ and ‘uncomfortable sites’ are themes offering opportunities for adaptive reuse.  This study also considered the case of reuse of Vienna’s Flak Towers to highlight the importance of creativity in finding new and novel uses for former military structures.  Due to the characteristics of large-scale devastation and human suffering associated with any use of nuclear weapons, sites supporting aspects of nuclear warfighting are deeply uncomfortable in nature. However, the fate of former Cold War nuclear bunkers can be addressed in positive ways by promoting their adaptive reuse through application of creativity. 

Canada’s Diefenbunker is an example showing how creativity, planning, hard work, and perseverance were used to convert a nuclear bunker into a Cold War museum. The significance of the Diefenbunker is that it provides a ‘best in class’ example of how adaptive reuse can repurpose a former nuclear war preparedness and response military site.  It is also one of the few examples of a site that showcases historical aspects of the disaster and emergency management profession.  In conclusion, it would be a shame if our disaster and emergency management Cold War heritage of nuclear war civil defence is lost through neglect and subsequent dereliction.


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