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Atom Museum Visit and WiN Retreat

 

Retreating to the forests of Bohemia

The WiN IAEA 2013 retreat, held in the Czech Republic on 22–24 November, was a retreat with a difference. This time, it was planned around a visit to a secret bunker — a Soviet facility for storing nuclear warheads during the Cold War — that had recently been restored to its original state to be preserved for posterity as a museum — Atom Muzeum Javor 51 - AMI 51.

You may wonder what the old bunker, nestling in its idyllic camouflage in rural Bohemia, would have to do with the IAEA or with WiN. At first glance, the Atom Muzeum might be seen as more relevant to a disarmament movement than to the IAEA with its mission of promoting peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Nevertheless, the WiN Executive Committee were keen to visit this slice of nuclear history so, on their behalf, I attended the museum’s inauguration in August 2013 — along with Czech Government dignitaries, the press, an international array of Cold War historians, and hundreds of members of the public. The Czech director of the Iron Curtain Foundation — the association that maintains the bunker in its original form — gave me a VIP tour and, on the spot, we agreed on a WiN IAEA visit in November.

Back to the retreat. We stayed in a comfortable spa hotel near the museum and fitted our planning sessions — an essential part of WiN retreats — around the bunker tour. Twenty-one participants — seasoned, recent and potential WiN members — discussed the expectations of the new members, shared ideas for the coming year, and considered upcoming events (see: https://sites.google.com/site/winiaeachapter/events-archive/upcoming-events).

Needless to say, the highlight of the retreat was the visit to the bunker. This underground nuclear-weapon storage facility was fully under Soviet control from 1968 until 1990. It then passed to the Czech Ministry of Defence and, in a few years, will be taken over by the Iron Curtain Foundation, which has restored it and will continue to maintain it as a museum. Of the 12 identical twin bunkers (i.e. 24 storage facilities) in the former East block, only this one remains. What also makes it unique is that no other nuclear weapon storehouse has become a museum.

The original robust Soviet construction and equipment have been meticulously preserved. We chilled in the halls kept year-round at 6ºC and 90% humidity, gaped at the 6.5 ton security doors and mammoth cranes, marvelled at the still-functional, simple, ingenious contraptions in the technical rooms, and were fascinated by the detailed exhibitions in the four side-halls, which had each housed 20 nuclear warheads — weapons that could have destroyed Europe and beyond. The exhibitions had different themes: the Cold War, the Soviet military programme, the United States military programme, and peaceful uses of nuclear power.

The Atom Muzeum owes its existence to the vision, dedication, and tenacity of the three directors of the Iron Curtain Foundation, who invested their time and resources in its creation. It is well worth a visit, which can best be arranged by emailing one of the directors, Václav Vítovec, at vitovec@volny.cz. We have invited Mr. Vítovec to make a presentation at a WiN luncheon next year and WiN also hopes to hold an exhibition — in collaboration with the Czech Embassy — in the VIC Rotunda. We in WiN regard the bunker — this unique vestige of nuclear military history — as both a sobering memorial of the arms race and a warning for the future. In short, a colossal monument to non-proliferation!

Susan Cohen-Unger

Vienna, December 2013