Rare Atomic Bomb Test Footage Reveals Weapons Are Deadlier than Believed
March 19, 2017 Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory & Peter Fimrite / The San Francisco Chronicle
The US conducted 210 atmospheric nuclear tests between 1945 and 1962, with multiple cameras capturing each event at around 2,400 frames per second. Over the decades, around 10,000 of these films remained scattered across the country in high-security vaults, gathering dust and slowly decomposing. Greg Spriggs, a weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is hoping to preserve and share as many as 10,000 deteriorating films known to have been taken of the atmospheric blasts.
Weapon Physicist Declassifies Rescued Nuclear Test Films Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
(March 15, 2017) -- The US conducted 210 atmospheric nuclear tests between 1945 and 1962, with multiple cameras capturing each event at around 2,400 frames per second. But in the decades since, around 10,000 of these films sat idle, scattered across the country in high-security vaults. Not only were they gathering dust, the film material itself was slowly decomposing, bringing the data they contained to the brink of being lost forever.
(March 16, 2017) -- The videos are both familiar and gripping: blinding sun-like flashes, mushroom clouds, otherworldly spheres and violent shock waves.
They are US nuclear bomb tests conducted at the height of the Cold War, and for the Bay Area scientist whose team recovered the once-secret images and uploaded them Wednesday to an unusual YouTube playlist, they are a kind of sentry against Armageddon.
Greg Spriggs, 65, a weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is hoping to preserve, analyze and publicly share as many as 10,000 deteriorating films known to have been taken of the atmospheric blasts, which irradiated everything from sea life to soldiers while perpetuating post-World War II fears of world annihilation.
The military held 1,080 nuclear tests between 1945 and 1962 -- 210 of them featuring bombs detonated near Pacific islands, over the ocean, suspended from balloons and on giant towers perched over the Nevada desert. The explosions shared on YouTube have everyday names like Operation Hardtack, Plumbbob, Dominick, Teapot and Knothole.
"When I look at these films I'm absolutely amazed," said Spriggs, who has analyzed 400 to 500 films so far. "Every time I look at one, there is something new I haven't seen before. It's just unbelievable how much energy's released."
The idea behind the project is to digitally preserve the images, which were captured on high-speed film, and recalculate the explosive power of each test. This way, future generations -- including physicists who now do bomb tests only through computer simulations -- will know the precise perils of nuclear weaponry.
Spriggs and his team of film experts, archivists and software engineers expect to spend the next two years gathering data at the Livermore lab, one of the nation's hubs for weapons research. They have so far identified and located 6,500 old films and have collected 4,500 of them from high-security vaults, many untouched while moldering on dusty shelves for decades.
The study comes at a time when nuclear fears, fueled by militaristic bluster, are growing around the world, especially after recent missile tests by North Korea. Spriggs' work is yet another reminder that the atomic age, which began with the Manhattan Project and hit its zenith with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, is still with us.
The films Spriggs is seeking were all taken by US government photographers, but the atmospheric shots weren't the only tests. At least 800 bombs were detonated between 1,000 and 4,000 feet underground, Spriggs said. Some lower-yield bombs also were detonated on the ground, but those tests were halted after researchers discovered that they spread too much nuclear fallout.
It took Spriggs' team two years to find and declassify the films, 64 of which were posted on the Livermore lab's YouTube playlist.
About half of the footage that the Spriggs team is studying was taken around the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean, where military ships were placed nearby so that the nuclear damage could be studied. In some cases, soldiers were brought in to witness test explosions, and were close enough to feel the spread of the blast.
The old films were high-tech for the time, recording at speeds of up to 3,000 frames a second; standard modern video is recorded at 30 frames per second.
Jim Moye, a rare-films expert known for his work on the Zapruder film taken of President John Kennedy's assassination, helped Spriggs preserve the footage. About 10 percent of it was in color, but it proved to be too grainy, he said, so most of the images were captured in black and white.
The first obstacle was the condition of the old film, rolls of which were scratched up or had emulsions flaking off.
"We're digitizing them all in order to preserve the data and the historical significance," said Spriggs, who had help from Moye in locating Hollywood-style scanners.
What Spriggs saw when he sat down to review the films were intensely bright fireballs that sent out shock waves at speeds 200 times the speed of sound. He used computer technology to analyze the explosive force, or yield, of the bomb blasts and discovered that much of the original analysis was off by as much as 20 to 30 percent.
"One of the payoffs of this project is that we're now getting very consistent answers," said Spriggs, who also analyzed the velocity of the rising mushroom cloud and how long each fireball glowed. He said the analysis is important for training because "the weapons designers we have now have never seen a detonation."
Spriggs, however, recalls seeing a nuclear explosion when he was 11 after his father, who was in the Navy, took him to Midway Island. He remembers the colorful aurora, but didn't understand at the time the almost unimaginable forces at work -- and the terrible devastation they can cause.
"I hope this research will tell people that if we get to the point of dropping nukes we are in trouble," he said. "They are horrific. We hope that nobody ever has to use one ever again."
Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @pfimrite