Inside the luxury nuclear bunker protecting the mega-rich from the apocalypse
A volcanic-ash scrubber, a decontamination room, a waterslide -- when it comes to surviving a nuclear apocalypse, the Survival Condo has everything you could need, at a price.
For most of my adult life, I've had an apocalypse plan.
It's been straightforward. Grab my go bag, drive out to a shack in the woods, then hunker down under the floorboards eating canned food through the valve in my gas mask, waiting for the nukes to drop.
But after visiting my first real nuclear bunker, my apocalypse plan has been upgraded. Now my list of needs includes "underground swimming pool" and "postapocalyptic rock-climbing wall." I've become fussy about how I'll spend time during the planet's dying breaths. My bug-out bag has gotten bougie. I've seen the world's most high-tech bunker, and I want in.
Welcome to the Survival Condo. This former Atlas Missile silo turned luxury condominium complex offers the world's rich and powerful a chance to buy into the ultimate life insurance: an apocalypse bunker that promises the perfect combination of shelter and style.
The Survival Condo has a lot of the hallmarks of your standard fallout shelter. It's underground (200 feet underground, in the middle of rural Kansas, 200 miles from Kansas City). It was built during the Cold War (as a nuclear missile launch facility). It's also been retrofitted with nine-foot-thick reinforced concrete walls designed to survive everything from tornadoes to 12-kiloton nuclear warheads dropping half a mile away.
But if the proverbial hits the fan and you need a place to go, don't plan on coming here. Even if you could find it (the location is secret), the bunker is guarded 24 hours a day. Besides, that's not even your main problem. Your biggest barrier to getting in? This kind of security comes at a price.
The starting cost for a unit in this complex is $1 million, plus an extra $2,500 per month in dues to cover your living expenses: electricity, water, internet, all the tinned eggs you could dream of.
For the ultra-rich and paranoid, though, you can't put a price on safety. When nuclear war is on our doorstep, do you think the world's rich and powerful will be quaking in the streets? Hell no. They're going underground. And I'm determined to join them.
Hacking the Apocalypse is CNET's new documentary series digging into the science and technology that could save us from the end of the world. You can check out our episodes on Pandemic, Nuclear Winter, Global Drought, Tsunamis, Cryonics and Escaping the Planet and see the full series on YouTube.
The end of the world as we know it
Nuclear winter isn't like spending Christmas upstate. It's a global nightmare realm, where Ice Age-like temperatures last for years, populations perish and life as we know it becomes the stuff of sci-fi nightmares.
At least that's according to Brian Toon, professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Colorado and world-renowned expert on the global effects of nuclear war.
I met with Toon in his offices in Boulder, Colorado, to learn about exactly what happens when a 100-kiloton nuclear weapon falls.
"If you get within a mile or so, the pressure wave is so intense it will blow down concrete buildings," says Toon. "And somewhere in that zone, there's a blast of radiation ... and basically half of the people exposed to that would die over a week or two from radiation burns on their skin and radiation poisoning."
Toon says a nuclear explosion is like "bringing a piece of the sun down to the Earth," and the aftermath of that kind of explosion causes huge fires -- think citywide infernos. Those fires push huge amounts of smoke up into the stratosphere. And because it never rains in the stratosphere, sunlight can't reach Earth. Welcome to nuclear winter.
"The temperatures become colder than the last Ice Age," says Toon. "So we have sub-Ice Age temperatures over the whole planet for about 10 years."
That's exactly why the Survival Condo exists -- to protect the mega-rich from the devastation of global nuclear war, and to make sure the world's most powerful people can survive in comfort, rather than shivering in the wasteland, waiting to have their billionaire brains eaten by hungry hordes.
The Survival Condo
It took three hours to get to the Survival Condo from the Kansas City airport, though your mileage may vary (citywide evacuations and blown-out bridges will add travel time). But after passing broad fields and bright red barns, I've found what I came for: The best the world has to offer in high-tech apocalypse prepping.
From the outside it doesn't look like much. A guard behind a barbed-wire fence. A wind turbine quietly turning in the breeze. Carefully placed surveillance cameras. And two eight-ton doors set into the nondescript hill in front of us. But this isn't some foxhole in the middle of nowhere. Inside is one of the most luxurious and unusual apartment complexes you're likely to find.
After I'm ushered through the perimeter fence, the massive doors in the hill open and I'm greeted by Larry Hall, the owner of the Survival Condo. He's a burly man with a firm handshake, and he's the picture of Kansas hospitality -- he invites me into the bunker like a neighbor having me over for Sunday afternoon beers.
But as we step inside, I realize this is no ordinary house tour. Despite the glaring sun outside, the air inside is cool and still. My footsteps echo on cold concrete. And as the eight-ton doors slam behind me with a resounding bang, it occurs to me I'm essentially trapped. There's no way I'd be able to get out of here on my own.
I'm at the very top of a bunker that descends 15 floors and 200 feet underground. On this upper level, a wide dome set into the hill houses the main entry and communal recreation facilities. That's where you'll find the pet park, climbing wall and swimming pool (complete with a water slide).
Beneath the dome, the cylindrical silo houses a further 14 floors -- the top three floors are where you'll find the mechanical rooms, medical facilities and a food store (complete with a full hydroponics and aquaculture setup), followed beneath by seven levels of residential condos. At the bottom, the final four floors house the classroom and library, a cinema and bar, and a workout room (with a sauna).
As we make our way through the main entry chamber (which acts as a protected car park if residents need to unpack their all-terrain vehicle during lockdown), Hall talks me through the layout, rattling off a baffling array of features like ballistic walls and bulletproof doors. We kick things off in the "entrapment area."
"If there's rioting or food shortages, that's a normal thing," Hall says, referring to the kind of run-of-the-mill emergencies you might find in the apocalypse.
"But what if there's radiation because of a dirty bomb? You would have to go in this room, which is a decontamination scrub room. The chemicals in here can take care of everything. We have iodine pills to treat you for radiation, we have Geiger counters that detect radiation, and we have special chemicals to scrub both biological and radioactive contaminants from you. But you would lose your clothes. You'd be naked and afraid."
As we wind our way through the Survival Condo, it's like I'm in an episode of Cribz, set in a dark, alternate reality. This is where we keep the camo gear! This is the gun range! Here's how we scrub the volcanic ash out of the air in the event of a supervolcano!
A short elevator ride down to the cinema level, and we stop to scroll through the 2,000 films on the Survival Condo's internal database (we settle on Armageddon). I head to the gym and try out the exercise bike and sauna room. We pop into the school room and walk past a row of sleek iMacs, still in their plastic wrapping, awaiting the classroom of students that may never come.
The computers here are also equipped with internet... sort of. Everyone who has bought a unit in the Survival Condo has also provided a list of their interests: woodworking, knitting, post-apocalyptic survivalism. Hall and his team feed those keywords into software that crawls the internet, downloading and caching information and websites for each resident.
"So in the event that we had a catastrophe where the internet went down, we would have downloaded a lot of medical information and survival and hobby information for our residents so that they could still use their search engine," Hall says.
After touring the shared facilities, we get a look inside the condos themselves. These aren't the tiny panic rooms I'd been expecting -- they feel like units in a new apartment complex in San Francisco or Manhattan. The kitchens are full of stainless steel appliances, a Sub-Zero fridge here, a Wolf cooktop there. There are brand-new couches, untouched coffee tables and beds that are, frankly, way more comfortable than my bed back home.
In the bathroom, an automated bidet awaits. While it's not my first preference in post-ablution freshness (I tried once, there was a lot of shrieking), Larry Hall tells us the complex was designed with long stays in mind -- up to five years. The amount of toilet paper required for the maximum occupancy of 75 people over five years would fill an entire floor of the condo. Turns out everybody poops, but in the apocalypse, you're going to have to do it without TP.
Toilets aside, I could see myself living here. It doesn't feel cramped, and that's probably because of the view. In a decorating touch straight out of Back to the Future II, TV panels built into the walls of each condo act as high-tech "windows" to show residents the real world.
As a bonus, if the world is really ending, these windows display a real-time view of the carnage outside, thanks to the Survival Condo's external surveillance cameras. Everyone come to the kitchen! The surface-dwellers are hunting in packs now!
Lifestyles of the rich and frightened
Down the road from the Survival Condo, Hall has secured a second missile silo he plans to convert into an even bigger bunker. Right now this space isn't much more than a concrete shell, but it gives me a sense of the scale of the kitted-out bunker I've just visited. The deep silo has been divided up with new concrete floors, but an elevator shaft cut down the middle gives me a giddying view of just how deep this place goes.
Down a side passage, separated from the main silo by massive blast doors, we find the original living quarters for the military personnel who staffed this facility during the 1960s, living and working in cramped rooms for two weeks at a time. The place looks like a scene from the game Half-Life: peeling paint, rusted metal, old bathroom stalls that definitely look haunted.
This place is a Cold War relic now, but Hall plans to spend the next two years retrofitting it to create another luxury bunker. Given that it's three times the size of the original Survival Condo, he's expecting a price tag of $50 million to $60 million on the build, but he already has a waiting list of people interested in buying the new units. Clearly, business is booming.
Getting a bolt-hole in one of these bunkers doesn't come cheap, however. The smallest half-floor unit in the original Survival Condo sells for $1 million, while the large, full-floor units go for up to $3 million.
Despite that high cost, Hall says his clients are willing to spend the money.
"All of our people are self-made millionaires," Hall tells me. "They're very successful: doctors, engineers, lawyers, international business people... almost all of them have children. And they're concerned about the 'what if' scenario."
Hall rattles off a list of potential "what ifs": Superstorm Sandy, tsunamis, Pacific earthquakes, hurricanes in Texas, global climate change, food shortages, economic collapse, meteorite impact, solar flares...
"If those are the kind of things that bother you, this is the kind of facility it takes to not worry," he says.
Those are the kinds of things that bother me, Larry. But frankly, I'm learning that I can't really afford to be worried. I don't have the money to buy a pied-à-terre in Kansas, just in case.
I don't own a bulletproof, extended-range vehicle to get me there, and you'd better believe I don't have a private jet waiting in the garage.
I realize with a kind of cold, inevitable terror that I've been blessed with nuclear fears and a tin-foil-hat budget.
I guess there's a grim irony in the idea that even when the nukes drop and the very fabric of society has disintegrated beyond recognition, the rich and powerful will still have it better off than the rest of us.
We'll still be a society of haves and have-nots. Except in this case, the haves will be watching Armageddon from the comfort of their air-conditioned, underground cinema. And the have-nots will be out in the wilderness, freezing through nuclear winter and picking over the bones of our loved ones, trying to survive the real thing.