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These massive nuclear blasts happened decades ago. We're just seeing the videos now



The United States government declassified hundreds of Cold War-era nuclear testing films, allowing the public release of dozens of previously secret videos of exploding nuclear weapons.

Most of the 64 videos released by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California are in black and white and range from just a few seconds to several minutes. Under the names "Operation Teapot," Operation Hardtack" and "Operation Upshot-Knothole" among others, the explosions often start with bright flashes of light followed by massive, billowing smoke clouds.

The collection, released on YouTube in March, are part of an estimated 10,000 videos of the 210 atmospheric nuclear tests conducted by the U.S. government from 1945 to 1962. A team of film experts at Lawrence Livermore tracked down about 6,500 of the tapes, of which about 750 have been declassified. The rest are somewhere in the crowded and sometimes poorly cataloged archives of the United States government.


The above-ground tests took place in sites in New Mexico, Christmas Island and the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The purpose was to test the weapons and their effects. Since 1962, all U.S. nuclear tests have been underground and mostly in Nevada. Those underground tests stopped in 1992.



For decades, the films sat idle in high-security vaults, gathering dust and decomposing. Film is made of organic material that eventually decomposes. Lawrence Livermore nuclear physicist Greg Spriggs said his team got to the archives just in time.

Spriggs and his team are reanalyzing and preserving the content, which serves both scientific and historical purposes. Scientifically, the team is reanalyzing the videos to gather more precise data on the explosions. Historically speaking, Spriggs said it's unlikely we'll ever test nuclear weapons again and the videos serve as our best resources of their impacts. 

Altogether, Spriggs estimates about 3,000 films will be released in the coming years. It could take about two years to scan the rest of the films. Then the films will need to analyzed and declassified.

Spriggs hopes the team's work is useful to future generations of weapon physicists.

"It's just unbelievable how much energy's released," Spriggs said. "We hope that we would never have to use a nuclear weapon ever again. 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."

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