Capturing Armageddon: Nuke test films digitized in the nick of time

Posted at 9:51 AM, Mar 17, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-17 11:45:58-04

After decades in their film cans, thousands of nuclear testing explosion films are finally seeing the light of day, thanks to a project by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).

Over a period of about 20 years after the end of World War II, the US conducted 210 atmospheric nuclear tests. Each was captured by multiple cameras, rolling at around 2,400 frames per second.

A handful of the estimated 10,000 mesmerizing test films have been declassified and the National Laboratory, custodians of the material, has uploaded more than 60 videos to a YouTube playlist.

The project to digitize the aging film came just in time. Greg Spriggs, a nuclear weapons physicist at the laboratory who’s in charge of the project, says the films were decomposing “to the point where they’ll become useless.”

The film is made of organic material and each film canister he cracked open gave off a strong odor of vinegar, he says, indicating the decomposition had already begun.

Jim Moye, a film expert with four decades of experience in the motion picture industry who was brought on to the project, says the films are remarkably well preserved, given that they weren’t stored particularly carefully.

About 65% of the films have been located from the various top-secret bunkers where they were stored, and of those, more than two-thirds have been scanned. Only about 500 films have been actually analyzed so far, with modern techniques giving far more accurate readings of the explosions than the nuclear physicists of yesteryear were able to muster.

The released tapes include footage of atmospheric tests, such as Operation Dominic, which is filmed as a expanding sphere, through the clouds, as well as surface tests.

Looking at the films, the team found that a lot of the information Spriggs was interested in hadn’t even been analyzed back in the 1950s, and the analysis that was done wasn’t particularly accurate — inaccuracies were found in as much as 20-30% of the data.

“One of the payoffs of this project is that we’re now getting very consistent answers,” he said in an article on the LLNL website.

“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.”

Spriggs says he hopes to provide a set of “benchmark data which can be used by future weapons physicists.”

His goal, he says, is making sure that the US is prepared — but never needs to use the weapons he’s spent his career developing.

“It’s just unbelievable how much energy’s released. We hope that we would never have to use a nuclear weapon ever again,” he said.

“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.”