How to watch a declassified nuclear test film like a weapons physicist via The Verge

‘We’re working our little rear ends off trying to perfect a product that none of us ever want to use.’

Greg Spriggs likes to joke that if he were a better golfer, he would never have become a nuclear weapons physicist. But it’s a good thing he’s not professionally smacking golf balls right now, because Spriggs has an important mission. He’s working with film preservation expert Jim Moye to save decades-old films of nuclear blasts that are among the last, best sources of real-world information about nuclear explosions. 

The best way to test what happens when a nuclear weapon explodes is to just blow it up. So from 1945 to 1963, the US exploded 210 nuclear devices in the air. Scientists captured the massive fireballs and mushroom clouds on camera — preserving the data in at least 10,000 films. The films were then analyzed to determine key details like the energy released by the blast, or its yield. 

Those measurements, however, were done by hand, without the assistance of computers — and Spriggs discovered that some of that data wasn’t quite right. He works for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he and other scientists write computer codes to predict how modern nukes will perform and the damage they will cause. The US no longer explodes nuclear devices in order to test them, so scientists run their models against the historical data to see if predictions match reality.


But then he noticed that the yield measurements were off, too. And that’s a problem, because the destruction a bomb causes and the radioactivity it produces are both connected to its yield. So he decided to track down all 10,000 of those films to reanalyze them from scratch. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory recently published 60 of the declassified nuclear test films on YouTube, where anyone can watch them. But there are many more to digitize and save, and the team is working as fast as it can. 

After 60 years in storage, the films are quickly disintegrating. With the help of nuclear historians Alan Carr at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Pete Kuran, Spriggs and Moye have scanned 4,200 of the 6,500 films they’ve recovered, and analyzed between 400 and 500 of them.


What are you measuring in the films?

GS: You can’t really see the fallout, per se. You can see a cloud, and that’s potential fallout. But you had to know what the cloud heights were in order to predict [fallout]. So that’s what we were trying to measure — an accurate cloud height.

Read more at How to watch a declassified nuclear test film like a weapons physicist

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One Response to How to watch a declassified nuclear test film like a weapons physicist via The Verge

  1. yukimiyamotodepaul says:

    Here is another myth that the nuclear weaponry protects “us,” while so many Americans suffer from radiation exposure from uranium mining to enriching uranium, transportation of it, nuclear waste, and so on.

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