Restored and declassified videos reveal power of Cold War nuclear tests

In the thick of Cold War tensions from 1945 to 1962, the United States carried out a whopping 210 atmospheric nuclear tests, with multiple cameras filming each test from different angles. Some 10,000 of these old films were stashed away and virtually forgotten, slowly decomposing in high security vaults across the country — the images contained inside at increasing risk of being lost with every year that passed.

Now, a self-described “crack team” of film experts, archivists and software developers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has brought some of these films to light for the first time in decades on the most public platform there is: YouTube. Working from a pool of 6,500 films, the laboratory team painstakingly scanned, reanalyzed, and released an initial set of 63 nuclear test films this month.

“We know that these films are on the brink of decomposing to the point where they’ll become useless,” LLNL weapon physicist Greg Spriggs, who led the team, said in a statement. “The data that we’re collecting now must be preserved in a digital form because no matter how well you treat the films, no matter how well you preserve or store them, they will decompose. They’re made out of organic material, and organic material decomposes. So this is it. We got to this project just in time to save the data.”

The films, like this one of Operation Plumbbob, are mesmerizing to watch:

This one, showing what was called Operation Hardtack, is in vivid color:

Operation Hardtack-1 – Nutmeg 51538 by
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on

 Tracking down and reanalyzing the films has already led to new insights, thanks in part to using new, automated techniques that weren’t available to the scientists who carried out the nuclear tests last century. 

“One of the payoffs of this project is that we’re now getting very consistent answers. We’ve also discovered new things about…

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