In the case of a nuclear emergency, Davidson students are recommended to seek refuge at South Iredell High School in Statesville, according to Duke Energy. Illustration by Richard Farrell ‘22

Drew Eastland ‘21

Staff writer

When the United States dropped the atomic bomb on August 6th, 1944, not only did it introduce a new kind of detonation, but also a new kind of chemical weapon: fallout. Fallout is defined as radioactive particles carried into the atmosphere after a nuclear explosion or accident and falling back as dust or in precipitation. The gridlock between the United States and the Soviet Union created a fear of nuclear bombing across American society. Davidson was not excluded from this fear.

Davidson first demonstrated a proactive mindset toward protecting against fallout with the creation of the Fallout Preparedness Committee in 1963. Dr. Hansford Epes ‘57, a former professor of German Studies at Davidson, commented that the Cuban Missile Crisis probably inspired the college to form a committee on fallout.

“Since it first shows up in the catalog in 1963, that suggests to me…it was precipitated by concerns [arising] during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962,” Epes said.

Chairman and Founder of the Fallout Preparedness Committee Dr. Samuel D. Maloney, a religion professor, wrote these words about the creation of the fallout plan: “I need not remind you that the Fallout Preparedness Committee cannot be considered as just another committee. The planning we do, the radiation shelter program we put into effect, may determine the future well-being of students and townspeople in Davidson.”

The committee maintained and stocked fallout shelters, so that in the event of an attack nearby students could survive any radioactivity in the area for several days. 

Many of Davidson’s buildings were approved as nuclear protection buildings, and evacuation routes were designed for students to access these buildings in a fallout event.

In a letter attempting to persuade Davidson to stock nuclear shelters, Mayor of Charlotte Stanford R. Brookshire wrote: “Because of the structural design of some of your buildings, you are in a unique position to contribute in a special way to National Defense and to the security of our [citizens].”

Davidson College received recognition from the Chairman of the County Commissioners, Sam T. Atkinson, in a 1966 letter. Atkinson hailed Davidson’s commitment to community and applauded their kindness.

“The County Commissioners and County Manager appreciate [your kindness very much] …inviting us through your letter of August 3 to attend the luncheon and ceremony in which Davidson College in recognition of the splendid work done in providing and stocking fallout shelter spaces for more than 100% of the community,” Atkinson wrote. “We are tremendously proud that…Mecklenburg County…include[s] the fine college and town of Davidson.”

By the 1980s, tensions on campus had mitigated. “The Vietnam War” was over and the threat of a nuclear attack, while very real, had not yet manifested. Political Science professor Dr. Brian Shaw, who arrived on campus in 1982, reflected this sentiment.

“Fortunately, the high marks of the Cold War (Berlin Airlift, Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam War, Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, etc.) occurred well before my arrival at Davidson,” Shaw remarked. “Just a couple of years before Gorbachev put an end to it, so campus was, as far as I recall, very quiet when I arrived in 1982.”

Today, the threat of bombs from the sky has yielded, but the threat of nuclear exposure remains. Duke Energy’s McGuire Nuclear Power Plant sits ten miles to the southwest of campus. This places Davidson directly in the fallout zone according to Duke Energy’s Safety Guide.

Students at Davidson each receive an annual booklet about McGuire nuclear station and how to evacuate in case of emergency. Depending on the extent of nuclear exposure, Duke Energy will announce the safest plan.

“A couple of radio stations will say this is something where we think you should leave, this is something where we think you can stay,” Davidson College Campus Police Chief Todd Sigler commented. “Sheltering in place may be enough.”

In the event of an evacuation, Duke Energy has outlined designated safe points outside of the fallout zone where those in affected areas can receive treatment and help. For Davidson students, that location is South Iredell High School. However, following this plan may not be  practical, depending on the situation.

“Do I think that it is realistic to think that close to 2,000 students are going to climb in a car and get on a highway that is probably gridlocked and get to Iredell County High School?” Sigler questioned. “I think it is probably more realistic to expect that students climb into a car and drive; I’m not going to try to stop that – distance is a big thing when you’re talking about nuclear exposure.”

Davidson also has a supply of Potassium Iodide pills (KI) for each student. These pills prevent nuclear exposure to some extent but are not a cure. Chief Sigler questioned their effectiveness. Nevertheless, Davidson keeps these on hand as an extra precaution.

“It’s one of the events that we have in our plan along with hurricanes and along with an active assailant.” Sigler said, “I would pretty much follow the same kind of thought process [as a tornado] when it comes to nuclear exposure.”

When asked about the infamous on-campus bomb shelter rumor, Sigler replied that to his knowledge, one does not exist.