Behold the Power of the Atom With Declassified Nuclear Blast Footage
Knowing more about nukes doesn’t dispel the terror
Nuclear weapons have been on people’s minds lately and that’s a good thing. As Washington and the Kremlin stoke the fires of nuclear armageddon, it’s important for the world to remember the deadly and horrifying cost of atomic weapons. Since the weapon’s creation, humans have only used them on each other twice and we live with the consequences to this day. But that doesn’t mean that only two nukes ever exploded.
Since the ’40s, the world’s nuclear powers have detonated more than 2,000 nuclear weapons in various tests. America alone is responsible for more than 1,000 of those. Though the public has seen much of the test footage, such as the famous picture of Castle Bravo and footage of houses exploding in the Nevada test range, much of the material from those tests has been classified.
From 1945 to 1962, the U.S. conducted 210 atmospheric nuclear tests. To better understand the horrifying power of the atom, the nuclear scientists filmed every single test from multiple angles. Those 210 tests became roughly 10,000 different film reels that remained classified, stuffed into high-security vaults across the country, never to be seen again.
Enter the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a federally funded facility in California that conducts a wide variety of scientific research. However, the Department of Energy picks up most of LLNL’s tab, so a lot of the research is nuke related. Over the past five years, a weapon physicist named Greg Spriggs has championed an effort to restore, declassify and study the 10,000 film reels of nuke footage.
Spriggs and his team have tracked down 6,500 of the movies. His team has scanned 4,200 of them and Spriggs has analyzed around 500 of those. Only 750 are declassified. Those film reels are finding their way to YouTube now and the world is getting a new glimpse at America’s Cold War nuclear tests.
Film restoration is also central to Spriggs’ work. Early films reels were mostly cellulose nitrate, which is flammable and led to many movie theater fires. The replacement, cellulose citrate, didn’t burn down as many theaters but decayed at a rapid rate. As the acetate breaks down, it emits an unpleasant vinegar-like smell.
“You can smell vinegar when you open the cans, which is one of the byproducts of the decomposition process of these films,” Spriggs said in a LLNL YouTube video about the restoration. “We know that these films are on the brink of decomposing to the point where they’ll become useless.”
“The data that we’re collecting now must be preserved in a digital form because no matter how well you treat the films, no matter how well you preserve or store them, they will decompose.”
Preserving the films was just the first hurdle. The point of this project was not just to save history, but to double check the nuclear data of early American scientists.
Once Spriggs and his team tracked down the data sheets for the nuclear tests and went over the published results, he discovered something shocking — it was all wrong.
“We were finding that some of these answers were off by 20, maybe 30, percent. That’s a big number for doing code validation,” Spriggs said. “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.”
In the ’50s and ’60s, scientists measured the results of nuclear detonations by hand. They used a large machine called a kodagraph to blow up each frame of the films and measure the explosions. Spriggs and his team have computers that do most of the hard work for them. It’s much easier, faster and more precise.
Spriggs operates with the logic of an old-school Cold Warrior. He’s obsessed with this project because he doesn’t want the world to ever see another nuclear attack. To make sure that doesn’t happen, he believes in keeping America’s nuclear stockpile as a deterrent. He thinks that understanding these old explosions will help people better understand the power of the atom … and learn to fear it.
“The legacy that I’d like to leave behind is a set of benchmark data that can be used by future weapon physicists to make sure that our codes are correct so that the U.S. remains prepared,” Spriggs said.
“It’s just unbelievable how much energy’s released. 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.”
In a world where Washington and Moscow have both rattled the nuclear saber recently and the old Cold Warriors are dying off, Spriggs’ fears feel prescient. Until the world rids itself of nuclear weapons, it’s best to keep the fear of them close. When it comes to the atom, knowing more doesn’t dispel the terror.