The United States famously developed the first atomic bombs at the end of the second World War as part of the Manhattan Project. The bombs Little Boy and Fat Man that were dropped on Japan are the most well-known nuclear weapons ever developed, but there were over a thousand more detonations in the decades that followed. The US filmed every single nuclear test, and some of those films have now been declassified. However, the years have not been kind to them. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) is in the process of restoring those films, and they’ve uploaded the first batch to YouTube.
As the Cold War ramped up, the US detonated hundreds of nuclear weapons in the South Pacific and American Southwest as it built ever more powerful bombs. Every single test was filmed, often from many different angles. The government contracted AT&T to film the tests and analyze the images. However, the accuracy of measurements in those days wasn’t as good as it is now. Additionally, the condition of the original film was degrading fast. Old film was mostly made from a nitrocellulose base, which is an organic material that is flammable and breaks down over time. It didn’t help that the nearly 7,000 film reels were not stored properly.
According to LLNL’s Greg Spriggs, if the recovery process wasn’t underway now, it would never be possible. The team has been at it for five years now, having scanned about 4,200 of the films recovered from classified archives. Only 750 of them have been declassified so far, but the military is slogging through, giving LLNL the okay to release more records.
Atmospheric nuclear tests were banned in 1963, so the only data we have on how these weapons behave comes from these old tests. Only a few hundred of the scanned films have been analyzed for data, but the early results are encouraging. The 64 videos posted to YouTube are just a taste of what LLNL has in store. They include tests from different periods between 1945 and 1962, but some depict the same detonation from different angles. Several videos were shot in high-speed so extreme you can watch the fireball expand during the first fraction of a second after detonation. That’s an impressive feat for the time.
While most of the video footage of tests is still classified, the basic stats of the bombs themselves are public. Wikipedia has a good list of all the tests, which have quirky names like Teapot Tesla and Nougat Gnome (testing series, bomb designation). For example, the screen at the top of the article comes from a test called Hardtack Nutmeg, which was detonated on May 22, 1958 at Bikini Atoll and had an explosive yield of 25.1 kilotons. The video above is from Plumbbob Diablo, a 17 kiloton bomb detonated in 1957 on the Yucca flats of Nevada.
These videos contain valuable scientific data, but they also serve as a reminder of the incredible destructive power mankind wields. If we’re not careful, the more powerful nuclear weapons of today could cut short our reign as the dominant species on Earth.
Now read: Explaining the unimaginable: How do nuclear bombs work?