Weapons Physicist Posts Declassified Nuclear Test Videos to YouTube

By Nathaniel Scharping | March 16, 2017 2:44 pm

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A trove of footage from early U.S. nuclear weapons tests has just been declassified and uploaded to YouTube.

The film release was part of a project headed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) weapons physicist Greg Spriggs which aimed to digitize and preserve thousands of films documenting the nation’s nuclear history. The endeavor required an all-hands-on deck approach from archivists, film experts and software engineers, but the team says that this digitized database is already yielding new insights from the decades-old tests.

The Heyday of Nuclear Weapons

The films all stem from the 210 atmospheric nuclear tests undertaken by the U.S. between 1945 and 1962. There are an estimated 10,000 films from these tests, capturing multiple angles and data points. The project has so far tracked down 6,500 of them, and converted 4,200 to a digital format—750 have so far been declassified, and this week’s batch is the first to be released.

Preserving the films wasn’t easy. It required modifying equipment to match the specifications of the old film, and locating data logs that provide critical information about camera placement, speed and focal length.

Then, they watched each film to determine the exact frame rate, as it was known to vary from camera to camera at the time. Several programmers assisted Spriggs’ team and provided computational tools to analyze films frame-by-frame—a task that was once done by hand. Once a film was digitized and the relevant information matched to each, it can be used to study the behavior of nuclear weapons.

The videos include several of the major nuclear weapons testing runs from the era, including Operations Plumbbob and Dominic. The tests were mostly conducted at sites in Nevada or on atolls in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Several of the early tests would raise concerns over the fallout from nuclear device testing, both on soldiers involved in exercises nearby and on civilians in the surrounding areas.

Important Data

The films were originally meant for researchers, to be used as study guides for the next round of development and testing. In the years following the first nuclear explosion, the Trinity test in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, researchers raced to comprehend the magnitude of their creation. The hundreds of tests that followed comprised an array of bomb designs and testing environments, including underground, underwater and high-altitude tests. The videos of these events were obsessively studied frame by frame to gauge the magnitude of the explosion by looking at its brightness and shockwave, as well as the effects on nearby military equipment, towns and livestock.

Looking back through the footage today, Spriggs says it’s apparent some the data gathered 60 years ago is incorrect. With the benefit of modern-day technology, he is hoping to rectify those mistakes and provide accurate information after all this time.

“When you go to validate your computer codes, you want to use the best data possible,” he says. “We were finding that some of these answers were off by 20, maybe 30, percent. That’s a big number for doing code validation. One of the payoffs of this project is that we’re now getting very consistent answers. We’ve also discovered new things about these detonations that have never been seen before. New correlations are now being used by the nuclear forensics community, for example.”

Nuclear tests were halted worldwide in 1996, although several nations have carried out tests since then. The U.S. has not tested a nuclear weapon since 1991, making research into their capabilities and behavior difficult.

These decades-old films represent one of the best sources of information for researchers hoping to better understand the dizzying power contained in a nuclear bomb. Even on grainy film, the destructive forces unleashed by radioactive material is perfectly clear.

Spriggs says that he ultimately hopes that the information gleaned from the tapes helps to improve our knowledge of nuclear weapons while serving as a powerful reminder of what they’re capable of.

“It’s just unbelievable how much energy’s released,” he says. “We hope that we would never have to use a nuclear weapon ever again. I think that if we capture the history of this and show what the force of these weapons are and how much devastation they can wreak, then maybe people will be reluctant to use them.”

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  • Martin Marty マ (m)

    Turk28112 makes it seem that the painter John Martin was either a prophet or a time traveller.

  • Erik Bosma

    It always astounds me how much I hate nuclear bombs and yet I am mesmerized by films and photographs of the same. It’s art of the quantum world and I could watch them all day long.

    • MissJulia

      I had the same reaction.

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  • Ali Bagneid

    Any body knows how a nuclear explosion looks like in empty space?

    • ❄I, Jonathan W❄

      At a guess; a very bright, and brief, flash of light… and… errm… that’s about it.

      With no air/moisture to be heated and expanded (shock waves and visual expansion effect), and no ground material to be kicked up (and heated assuming an air burst was low enough, or a ground burst) there wouldn’t be much to see in space.

      Also, according to an article I read, barring the nuclear generated “stuff” (xrays, radioactive particles/material ejected, infra-red, etc.) it wouldn’t be that destructive to objects relatively “near” to the explosion as there would be nothing to transfer the kinetic energy.

    • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

      Popping a thermonuke in hard vacuum might be largely invisible. All its matter would instantly heat to black body radiate in the soft x-ray region It would expand and cool into visibility, dim, then vanish. We should look – say half-way between Earth and Venus.

      It would emit about a pound (about 10^26) of neutrons/megaton. A depleted uranium jacket gives tonnes of fiercely beta- and gamma-emitting fission products coming right at you. An inertial jacket is ignored by hot neutrons traveling a modest fraction of lightspeed (1 (fission) to 14 (D,T fusion) MeV of energy versus GeV rest mass), 14,7 minutes rest frame half-life, decay into mostly a 0.78 MeV electron.

      • Erik Bosma

        Hey Al… wouldn’t you just basically see the spec colour of the light emitted by whatever materials were being used and then quickly change into other colours as they cooled. Of course, the first few colours like groovy gamma and excellent xray may not be too visible and then you also wouldn’t be too visible either by the time you ‘saw’ them.

    • Terry Henderson

      Back in the 60’s or 70’s they exploded one in space and mos people alive saw it. Big greenish sphere. The government called it a test of something harmless in the atmosphere. They lied. I saw it.

    • Daniel San

      If you mean any type of nuclear explosion just take a look at any star. If you mean a nuclear fission bomb then see the other responses here. You would see a brief flash as the matter in the bomb converted but not much more. It would be cool to see one fire off in something like an asteroid belt though.

    • TomD

      Look up the U.S. tests in space: Hardtack-Teak, Hardtack-Orange, Operation Argus (3 successful launches), and Operation Fishbowl (5 successful launches). Videos are on YouTube.

  • janvones

    Cool! Now I can see why my Polish Uncle came back from the Pacific with a permanent tan line (his wrist was still white where his watch had blocked the radiation from the Bikini blast and why he died at 60.

    I am not complaining, he assumed the risk. I honor him for it. But our politicians knew better from 1945.

    • Mallet Head

      No they didn’t know in 1945. It wasn’t until the mid 50’s that they ‘knew’ and even then they weren’t quite sure.

      • Erik Bosma

        Ever hear of the Curies? So there goes your argument.
        They knew already for years. If 2 people can die from such a ‘small’ amount of radiation poisoning imagine how many could be cooked by MegaTons.

        • Mallet Head

          the Curies notwithstanding no they did not know. Read some history on it. When was it decided Madam Curie died of radiation? She certainly didn’t know.

  • http://pathoskeptic.com Timo Ylhäinen

    It is important to understand the power we can unleash.

  • My fair point

    And who would pay for all the radiation spread in the ocean, for the polluted marine ecosystem?

  • The History Man

    Any large scale detonation of nuclear weapons in any region of our planet will produce a nuclear winter which will create mass starvation and failed harvests across the globe. We had better never go there.

  • suzanne schauer

    I’m old, I remember school drills where we cowered under our desks, we just knew a neuclear bomb would get us hiding there, scary

    • M

      Duck and cover…….

  • boonteetan

    The awesome yet utterly scary power that is nuclear. Use the energy wisely, or else. No one can help humans unless they help themselves.

  • StanChaz

    Thank you for John Oliver’s incisive commentary.
    Let’s hope that we will survive Trump’s regime without a nuclear engagement. In fact we need to do more than simply hope — if we care about what kind of world we will leave to our descendents.

    • gofastgo

      Until the World relieves itself of ALL nuclear warheads, someone, at some time, will use them again. What would suppose regarding Iran? North Korea? The Middle East and ISIS? Ground fighting won’t get it ‘done’.

    • Mississauga_Dad

      Typical leftist horse puckey. The world is far safer wiht Trump than it could have ever been with Hilliary.

      • Erik Bosma

        I would one day love to read a book that explains to me in a satisfactory way how ‘right-wing reasoning’ works. I must be very stupid because I just, for the life of me, cannot understand it.

        • Mallet Head

          Erik, I vote for you being very stupid. Not stupid enough to not know you must be very stupid but stupid none-the-less. There in is your problem with understanding. Maybe one day there will be a coloring book to help you out, till then hideout in your safe space till help arrives.

          • Erik Bosma

            So then you agree with me. I knew I had to be very stupid in order not to understand right wing reasoning, although that sounds too much like an oxymoron to me. Kind of like ‘country music’.

          • Mallet Head

            You’re getting the hang of it but more apt examples of an oxymoron would be .. Union Worker, Liberal Values, health care reform, CNN… the Most Trusted Name in News, President Obama, liberal tolerance, and a nearly endless list in that vein .. but my favorite is a one word oxymoron when spoken by a liberal, it just screams cluelessness, .. drum roll plz .. DIVERSITY. Here’s the funny part, you don’t get it.

          • Erik Bosma

            You know, I’m just having a little fun with comments but I’m really starting to think you are serious. And, no, I don’t ‘get’ your little word game about DIVERSITY.
            I’m just thinking more along the lines of how you remind me of my younger brother. He also saw the world only in black and white and had an obsession to always be right. He finally married a woman who was like him but even more so. Now he just sits around the house pounding the benzos and living in denial about all the ‘illnesses’ he has come down with lately because hatred is like a cancer and will turn on you one day causing untold grief to your body and mind. Another old friend of mine (from a large ‘typical’ Irish family, all the way to the drunken father who would wake all the kids up when he got home drunk every night, line them up and yell at them) was the same – full of hate. It was either his way or no way at all. He died of cancer in his fifties. His brother had a heart attack in his forties. His other brother weighed about 350 lbs. last time I saw him so I imagine they’re both gone now too.
            Your nickname is such a great Freudian clue, meaning that inside you know something is not right. There’s still time my friend. The world is many shades of grey. And winning arguments all the time, especially by character assassination, just makes you lose friends and family.

          • Mallet Head

            I’m sorry I fell asleep about halfway through your family genealogy but
            this I can tell you. I too am just having fun in comments, I don’t hate
            but merely dislike sanctimonious liberals. It was you who declared you
            must be stupid. Don’t hate me for the assessment, you brought it up, I
            only agreed with you. The rest of it, what’s the problem? You need to
            retreat to a safe place? You got back what you dished out and now you
            cry. Insert work for cat here. I’m not your brother or your drunken dad,
            not even Irish. Crap I don’t even drink.

        • Azagthoth

          what about left, let’s let all the illegals come in and Suck the life out of our country and it OK if they break the law and it OK if we put criminals in charge that sell out our country to the Chinese and who cares if Clintons had people killed so they can get away with their crimes. and Obama is great cause he black, so it don’t matter that he was worst president we ever had he black so he is great let’s give him a Nobel prize, why? well let’s see he black, there is that. you know being black is not an accomplishment let’s stop Rewarding people just for being a certain race or gender . what matters is how what they do effects others and Obama ruined our health care a put our contry so far In debt we will never recover. if Hillary would have got in that would have been the end for sure.

          • Erik Bosma

            But we already did that once. The Pilgrims were the ‘righties’ and the indigenous people were the ‘lefties’. That sure left us with a huge debt in our Karma account.
            Just as an aside, I have a terrible hate-on for all the adjectives we use to judge (whoops, how gauche of me), I should say describe ourselves these days. War is no longer the solution as it once was. Imagine what the world will be like when the global population hits ten billion. Here’s our chance right now to practice some humility, generosity and, andbove all, understanding. Refuse to allow anyone to slap an adjective in front of your name or your nationality. Refuse, even, to give them your nationality.

          • J Smith

            the pilgrims were the lefties my friend

          • Erik Bosma

            They were the left in England. then they took all that immature “oh yeah, well show you!” along with them in steerage and the rest is history. It’s always like that… many of the greatest gay bashers around were in the closet. Etc etc etc…

    • Erik Bosma

      Know what? I’m secretly hoping we do realize a nuclear engagement while Trumpence is in power. Not big enough to completely destroy us (although that’s all up to Mother Earth anyways) but big enough to make the war mongers be the first in line to beg that we destroy all nukes NOW. Cuz their logic just doesn’t seem to leave any room for a loss on our side. They believe their Hollywood propaganda machine so much that they’ve lost all touch with reality. Napoleon also thought that way as well as a couple others I need not mention.

      • J Smith

        More likely Obama would have. He was a war monger.
        The left always has been war mongers. look at Stalin

        • Erik Bosma

          Stalin???!!!! I believe if any of those rascals was left wing it was Trotsky and his hero, Karl.

  • PhishPhace

    My uncle was one of the solders that had a front row seat at some of the early tests in Nevada. He hid in the bottom of the trench, with his goggles on, and with his hands over eyes when they lit one of these things off. He said it was so bright he could see the bones in his hands

  • J Smith

    The atomic bomb was a prevention against both Germany and Japan, and dropping it on Japan it prevented up to five million additional casualties. It also prevented world war III.

    It prevents war, why would we deactivate them?

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