May 23, 2017

Astro-Vid of the Week: Nuclear Test Films Made Public

Operation Teapot.

Credit: LLNL

It was the worst of times. If you’re over 40, you remember the good old/bad old days of the Cold War as a kid, and the sort of inevitable feeling that the world would end in a nuclear cataclysm. And though that existential threat still exists, the fear of the Evil Soviet Empire has largely been replaced with terrorism, climate change and an uneasy, unknown future.

We got a fascinating glimpse back into those early days of the Cold War recently, when physicists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory brought some of these old films of early atomic testing back to light. 210 atmospheric nuclear tests were conducted by the U.S. between 1945 and 1962, and about 10,000 films were made using high speed cameras shooting from various vantage points.

They’re both stark and eerie to watch. Researchers soon realized as they dug into the vaults and began digitizing these films that much of what was recorded was either misidentified or had never been scientifically analyzed. About 6,500 of the films have been located, 4,200 have been digitized and 750 have been declassified to date. The LLNL has begun posting them up to their YouTube website for public viewing.

The United States ceased nuclear testing in 1992. The films were beginning to degrade, and researchers realized that the window of opportunity to digitally archive these films for posterity was soon closing.

And as a new wave of nationalism seems to sweep the planet and we now sit just 2 ½ minutes to midnight, its worth watching these films both as a reminder of the promise and peril that wielding the power of the atom provides to the fate a future of humanity.