The cameras shudder as blinding light flashes across the earth. Deformed white clouds balloon and mutate from the force of the nuclear test explosions.
These are some of the images captured in raw footage of bomb tests carried out by the United States between 1945 and 1962 in Nevada and the Marshall Islands. For the first time, the footage is available in an online archive after some of about 10,000 nuclear testing films were restored, scrutinized and declassified in a project by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
The bulk of the videos, some only seconds long and others just over seven minutes, had been stored at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. But the experts in Livermore, about 40 miles southeast of San Francisco, have been working for years to retrieve and preserve the films, which over time had begun to turn brittle or curl, and then to create digital imprints.
So far this week more than 60 of the nuclear tests films were published by the Livermore lab’s YouTube account, and more will be added. They offer an evolving glimpse of the closest that most people (one hopes) will ever get to a nuclear blast.
Operation Plumbbob – Diablo 41549 Video by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
“ It’s just unbelievable how much energy is released,” said Dr. Gregory D. Spriggs, a weapons physicist in charge of the project at Livermore, in a statement accompanying the release of the first batch of films on Tuesday.
“ 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.”
Operation Hardtack-1 – Nutmeg 51538 Video by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
The films intersect with the history of the nuclear program. After the United States dropped atomic bombs on two cities in Japan in 1945, killing hundreds of thousands of people, it embarked on years of experimentation with its growing nuclear arsenal, conducting 210 atmospheric nuclear tests on Pacific islands and in the Nevada desert from 1946 to 1962.
Many thousands of soldiers and sailors — some estimates say as many as 400,000 — observed the explosions on the sea or in trenches a few miles from the sites.
“You feel the heat blast from it,” said Frank Farmer, who witnessed 18 atomic detonations in 1958 while stationed on a ship in the Pacific, according to a Times report last year. “It’s so bright you actually see your bones in your hands.”
After a 1963 treaty banned atmospheric tests, the United States started experimenting underground.
For each of the 210 tests conducted before the ban, multiple cameras were used. That means an estimated 10,000 films were created, Livermore’s statement said. So far, the laboratory has located about 6,000 and scanned about 4,000 of them. The 64 films published on YouTube are among the 750 that have so far been declassified, it said.
There is still much work to be done.
Operation Teapot – Turk 28112 Video by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
The mission of the Livermore facility is to ensure that the safety, security and reliability of the United States nuclear deterrent is maintained. Its work falls under the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is part of the Department of Energy.
In an interview on Thursday, Dr. Spriggs said that the aim of the work on the films was to use modern imaging technology to verify data about shock waves produced by the explosions to a degree that was not possible in the 1950s.
Questions about shock waves, such as their intensity and speed, are a matter of life and death. It indicates where the damage from a nuclear bomb would be inflicted over a certain distance. As the force travels, it leaves a wake of destruction but gets weaker and weaker until it becomes a sound wave.
The laboratory is working with archivists, film restorers, software developers and other scientists on the project.
Operation Teapot – Tesla 28644 Video by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
The United States no longer does nuclear testing, relying instead on experimental data from computer models, then comparing it with the data derived from the testing period of its history. The aim is to reduce the uncertainty between the two, and then use the latest data as a benchmark for scientists.
“So everything we are asked to calculate in terms of emergency preparedness, we are being asked ‘what is going to happen if it is dropped downtown’ or whatever,” Dr. Spriggs said. “If we can’t believe our computer codes, we can’t give the government an accurate estimate of this and how many people will get hurt.” Analyzing the films will give them more confidence in the answers, he said.
Operation Dominic – Housatonic 120256 Video by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
In one detonation film, showing Operation Dominic-Housatonic over more than seven minutes, the fireball swells to several miles across, suspended in the sky.
“When people could realize how much energy is released and how much damage they can do, maybe they would think twice,” Dr. Spriggs said. “It is a deterrent. We maintain the stockpile hoping that we never have to use it.”