Atmospheric nuclear tests were banned by the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. Nuclear physicists today run virtual nuclear tests on supercomputers. But before the atmospheric tests were banned, the United States tested as many as 210 nukes between 1945 and 1962 in numerous isolated islands in the Pacific Ocean and in the Mojave desert of Nevada.

Atmospheric Nuclear Tests
Image Source: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory / YouTube video (screenshot)

More than 4,000 films have been scanned

Each explosion was captured from multiple angles using multiple cameras, which eventually resulted into about 10,000 films. But these films were never made available to the public until now. The government-commissioned footage was stored in high-security vaults scattered across the country. A large number of them were stored at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Thanks to the efforts of a team of nuclear physicists led by Greg Spriggs of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the decades old films have been digitized, declassified and put on YouTube. Until now, more than 4,000 of the films have been scanned, 750 have been declassified, and 64 have been published on YouTube. The films are impressive and terrifying.

The films can teach us a lot of atmospheric nuclear tests

The declassified videos show the real power of nuclear weapons. Greg Spriggs said they used special scanners to digitize the footage because the films had begun to decompose. Some of them were smelling like vinegar. Spriggs and his colleagues wanted to preserve the films, reanalyze them, and collect all the possible data from them. We still don’t know a lot of things about the effects of atmospheric nuclear tests that we can now learn from the declassified footage.

When scientists started reanalyzing the old films, they discovered that the nuclear yield data was wrong because the methods of measurement available at the time were not accurate. Spriggs reanalyzed them using modern techniques that have a greater accuracy. The duration, size, speed and other factors can be used to estimate the yield of a nuclear explosion. Spriggs found that some of the old estimates were off by as much as 20-30%.

A ‘huge bureaucratic undertaking’

The videos posted on YouTube do not offer any description regarding location or date of the tests. Each video – some in color and some in black and white – is accompanied by nothing more than the code name such as Operating Dominic, Operation Teapot, Operation Plumbbob, Operation Hardtack, etc. The videos have no sound at all.

According to Wired, declassifying the top-secret films was a “huge bureaucratic undertaking.” For every single film, Spriggs had to fill out a form that is forwarded to the Department of Energy for approval. There are more than 10,000 films. Spriggs has been able to reanalyze only 400-500 of them in the last five years. Even though the US has been reducing its nuclear arsenal, it still spends more than $50 billion every year to maintain its nuclear weapons.