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.

    • 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.

  • 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

  • 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’.

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