US Government Declassifies Cold War Nuclear Test Footage

Hundreds of films showing US nuclear tests conducted between 1945 and 1962 have been found, analyzed and declassified by physicists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), officials at the California-based research facility announced this week in a statement.

According to the laboratory, the US conducted 210 atmospheric nuclear tests over that span, and each test was recorded by multiple cameras. About 10,000 such films were made, capturing all of the action at a rate of about 2,400 frames per second, and stored in vaults around the country.

Eventually, the film started to decompose and threatened to destroy the footage the contained for good. So in 2012, LLNL weapon physicist Greg Spriggs and a team of archivists, film gurus, and software developers joined forces on a project to locate, preserve and declassify those films.

“You can smell vinegar when you open the cans,” Spriggs said in a statement, “which is one of the byproducts of the decomposition process of these films. 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,” he added. “They’re made out of organic material, and organic material decomposes. So this is it. We got to this project just in time to save the data.”

Officials hope the footage will deter the use of nuclear weapons

Thus far, they have managed to locate nearly 6,500 of the atmospheric testing films, scanning an estimated 4,200, reanalyzing 400 to 500 of them and declassifying around 750, officials from the lab said. Dozens of those films, which feature tests conducted at LLNL with code names such as “Operation Plumbbob” and “Operation Teapot,” were published Tuesday on YouTube.

The project has not been easy, according to the laboratory. First, it took the team years to even track down many of the films, and once they did locate them, they discovered that they did not have a scanner capable of reproducing the films’ optical density. They overcame this by altering a Hollywood-style scanner, but doing so took nearly an entire year.

Next, they needed to find the data sheets for the test to find out the location of the cameras, their speed and the focal length before the contents of the footage could be properly analyzed. During this process, they discovered that much of the data published about the tests were incorrect. The films had to be reviewed using modern technology to ensure the accuracy of their contents.

Spriggs believes that it will take another two months or so to scan the remaining films, and even longer before they can be fully analyzed, declassified and made public. However, he said that he believes the work is of the utmost importance and intends to see it through to the end, no matter how long it takes.

“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,” 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.”


Image credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory/YouTube