History Stories

In 1945, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the conclusion of World War II showcased the devastating effects of nuclear weapons. It also launched the Atomic age, an era of testing these hugely destructive weapons within the U.S. and abroad to better understand their fearsome power—and help America compete for supremacy in its weapon arsenal. For the next two decades, high-atmosphere nuclear testing conducted around the world helped scientists survey the bomb’s impacts. These came to a close after the harmful effects of nuclear testing were discovered and the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963.

VIDEO: Operation Hardtack testing. (Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

More than 50 years later, following the discovery that some of the data collected during these tests was inaccurate, nuclear weapon physicist Greg Spriggs of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) launched an initiative to collect, declassify, scan and assess through footage. The records captured more than 200 atmospheric tests that were conducted. As all were shot from various angles, that resulted in nearly 10,000 films to review.

So far, approximately 6,500 have been located and 4,200 have been digitally scanned. Between 400 and 500 of the scanned films have been analyzed by Spriggs and his team. And the process is in no way succinct, so things could take a while.

VIDEO: Operation Teapot testing. (Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

Before moving forward with analyzing the films, each piece has to be handled with the same care that would be used to examine an ancient artifact. Sitting idly for decades has left most of these films fragile, with some partially decomposed. Luckily, much of the video found by Spriggs can still be salvaged, scanned and archived. But before each piece can be properly analyzed, it has to be submitted to the Department of Energy for declassification. Only 750 have been declassified so far.

Spriggs estimates it will take another two years just to scan the remaining films, and even longer for the declassification and examination process to play out. However, as the data is refined and the films are declassified, videos of these nuclear bomb tests are being made available to the public for the first time, and footage of mushroom clouds that filled the sky in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s can be found online for generations to come thanks to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

VIDEO: Operation Dominic testing. (Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

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