- Amid protests in Washington, D.C., President Donald Trump left a darkened White House behind and took shelter in an official bunker.
- Technology for drilling safe, stable caverns underground has been improving for thousands of years.
- The most powerful U.S. warhead can blast up to 1,000 feet deep.
In the midst of ongoing protests of police violence and racial injustice around the U.S., President Trump was whisked away to a “White House bunker” on Friday night. An inside source told the Associated Press that Trump “spent nearly an hour in the bunker, which was designed for use in emergencies like terrorist attacks.”
There’s a whole city’s worth of stuff underneath the White House and other government buildings in and around Washington, D.C. But what exactly do we know about the bunker where President Trump would be?
In 2018, The Drive reported on the bunker following the development of a sinkhole in the White House lawn. Separate from the Situation Room, “this is an entirely different and far more secure facility, and it in recent years it was likely augmented by a much more extravagant and modern complex buried deep beneath the western side of the North Lawn adjacent to the West Wing,” according to the report.
These date mostly to the 1940s and then the Cold War, when a massive White House remodel included tons of extra security. Over thousands of years of human development, security has increased to be able to absorb the full impact of the latest weapon, from sharpened wooden fences to reinforced keeps, all the way to deep underground bunkers.
The White House had to be retrofitted for the new threat of nuclear weapons, including the ability to “whisk” the President and other leaders and officials to a safe location deep underground. (In the most immediate sense, directly beneath the White House is a layer of more offices—and the iconic bowling alley.)
The Drive links to a National Archives collection of photos that follow then Vice President Dick Cheney on September 11, 2001. And before the end of that year, he’d sequestered himself somewhere in the network of bunkers. NPR reported in a 2008 book review that the bunker was “one of several Cold War-era nuclear-hardened subterranean bunkers built during the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations, the nearest of which were located hundreds of feet below bedrock in places such as Mount Weather, in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, and along the Maryland-Pennsylvania border not far from Camp David.”
Get ready for some classic underground alphabet soup. These facilities, including the President’s Emergency Operations Center (PEOC) and Deep Underground Command Center (DUCC), are staffed by the White House Military Office (WHMO), whose soldiers staff the facilities in 12- or 24-hour shifts.
According to the White House, “the WHMO units include the White House Communications Agency, Presidential Airlift Group, White House Medical Unit, Camp David, Marine Helicopter Squadron One, Presidential Food Service, and the White House Transportation Agency,” representing the unification of what used to be several groups—dating back to President George Washington’s Aide-de-Camp. (The White House cafeteria—technically a mess hall!—is run by the Navy.)
How are these bunkers built? Well, their locations are top secret, so naturally, their contents are even more top secret. But other structures built deep underground are less shrouded in secrecy.
A giant team of engineers and scientists collaborated to plan and build the European Organization for Nuclear Research’s (CERN) Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which opened in 2008. Talks about LHC date back to at least 1984, when scientists met to discuss extending CERN by building LHC into an existing tunnel.
To build the compact muon solenoid (CMS), which is one arm of LHC, “a total of almost 250,000 m3 of soil and rock was excavated from the CMS site,” CERN’s website explains. The project manager says on the CERN website that the team found entire archaeological sites during their “trial pits” phase, “because the archaeology of an area is always something we have to consider.” If those materials or artifacts are discovered, any plans need to change by either allowing time for scholarly excavation or changing the location enough to avoid destroying artifacts.
Once the site was cleared for construction, the CMS team had to do things like flash freeze parts of the water table so they could build through. To protect nearby workers from radiation and shore up the soft, unstructured native bedrock materials, they built an overall structure with walls more than seven meters thick. And all of it was cleared out a small area at a time by clearing the rubble, “setting” the exposed area with the concrete version of hair spray, and then sending a 12-meter-long steel anchor directly into the bedrock.
Since CERN isn’t secret, the engineers piled all of the removed material into a brand new hill that they planted with grass and turned into a landmark. That’s not possible for a secret government bunker, where there must be some version of putting the rubble in your Shawshank Prison pants pockets. And if the facilities are waterproofed like the ones at CERN, there’s the potential to literally float toward the surface a little bit every year.
One of the only places in the world with a more public form of this kind of tunnel is beneath England’s Dover Castle, a nearly thousand-year-old fortress at the place where England is the closest to neighboring France—the waypoint of Calais is on the other side of the Strait of Dover, which is the narrowest part of the English Channel. The original Dover tunnels date back to the wars with Napoleon, and they were outfitted to help supervise and rescue soldiers during World War II. Today, they’re a public historic site.
There are likely thousands of sites of large underground bunkers around the U.S., some built in retired mineshafts that have already been excavated and stabilized. Detail-obsessed Lee Child used a retired U.S. military bunker as a major setting in one of his best Jack Reacher novels. One decommissioned bomb shelter in West Virginia, large enough to hold the entire U.S. Congress, is now a tourist destination and historic site.
While the defense bunker where Trump spent time over the weekend was likely built through fresh bedrock and in total secret, all facilities like this share some engineering challenges in common. But as the Union of Concerned Scientists points out, the highest yield nuclear warhead in the U.S. arsenal can blast up to 1,000 feet deep. The presidential bunker must be at least that far below the surface.
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