Want to watch a nuclear bomb go off? You can!


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Engineers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) have obtained declassified films of many of the nuclear tests performed by the U.S. from 1945 to 1962 and are digitally scanning them and preserving them for posterity.

Conducted by LLNL weapon physicist Greg Spriggs and a team of film experts, archivists, and software developers, the project’s goal was to track down as many as possible of the ten-thousand 2,400 frames per second reels of film. This was because the cine film, and its immense historical and scientific value, was in danger of being lost for all time. The reels were mostly of acetate stock that was not stored under anything like ideal conditions and was slowly decaying or being attacked by fungus and microbes.

“You can smell vinegar when you open the cans, which is one of the byproducts of the decomposition process of these films,” says Spriggs. “We know that these films are on the brink of decomposing to the point where they’ll become useless. 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.”

You can view a number of the films at the second link above. I have embedded below the fold just one, from Operation Teapot in 1955. This was a series of 14 tests in Nevada. In this particular video the explosion occurs in the air, and you can sense the incredible force of the explosion when the shock wave hits the ground and bounces back, producing the mushroom cloud. Not much would have survived that impact.

18 comments

  • Chris

    Thank you for posting this. I am fascinated with explosions and I would not have otherwise known about this.

  • Matt in AZ

    For anyone who hasn’t seen it, the excellent documentary Trinity and Beyond is well worth watching. It conveys quite well the mad rush of warhead development from WW2 to 1964, moving at such a pace that’s… almost impossible to fathom nowadays. For instance, the US went from A-bombs to H-bombs in just 7 years – when was the last time the US gov’t did anything in 7 years?

  • wayne

    Matt in AZ–
    Yes, absolutely–Trinity & Beyond does have a lot of spectacular photography. They have an agenda, but the film clips are great & everything is identified.
    In a similar vein, I’d recommend “Atomic Café” for doing a semi-reasonable job of presenting the cultural back-drop at the time, although they present a distinct anti-nuclear viewpoint.

    Highly recommend accessing the Internet Archive, http://www.archive.org, they have an extensive collection of interesting films and shorts covering atomic testing, nuclear war, civil defense, “Duck-and-Cover,” the whole bit.

    (I never had to duck-n-cover, but we all knew where the Shelter was in our elementary school.)

    Chris–
    Ditto. I’m downloading them all right now.

  • LocalFluff

    “- Duck and cover, then get up and just brush off the radioactive dust and continue the battle and kill the enemy, always kill the enemy! There are no excuses.”
    My Rittmeister told me when I was a teenage conscript war slave in the cold third world war.

    BBC made a great movie in the 1980s called “Threads”. Realistically playing out in England during and after a total nuclear war. With a random civilian woman as the main character. I especially appreciate how the bureaucrats work, trapped in a bunker. Those supposed to somehow make things good again.

    It used to be available full on youtube, but now there seems to be some immaterial property rights issue about it, so you’ve gotta pay a dollar or two to see it. A great movie, actually the worst movie ever made! Reagan and Gorbatjev are said to have taken impression of it. BBC was high quality high relevance back then. Warning, it does not have a happy ending! You will not have sweet dreams after seeing it. You will actually wish that you never saw it.

    Having seen it again in modern times (unfortunately), I’m surprised to see how poor and miserable the English were before the war started. They didn’t lose much after all.

  • wayne

    LocalFluff–
    -There are files of that movie, “Threads,” on YouTube, and I will download a copy & watch it.

    If that is blocked on Youtube in your country,try this link
    http://m.cda.pl/video/183048ba
    -from Poland I believe. (?)
    -The stream does play for me, and the file is around 600 MB in size.

  • wayne

    This is an extremely well done dramatized short, with a distinct point-of-view.

    “Our Cities Must Fight”
    1951 Civil Defense short
    https://youtu.be/nSl6aiM4hpc
    (9:00)

  • J Fincannon

    I am surprised that they did not consider the problems of atmospheric testing in these early days. Did they not think they might be breathing some of the byproducts some day? What I find odd too was that with all the above ground testing (~400megatons by 1/1963), you do not see any blip in the atmosphere (CO2) or temperature records.

  • LocalFluff

    wayne,
    You should publish your video links on some web site. Just listing them all would do it. Do you do that? To comment a few of the statements made in that latest clip of yours;:

    Japan surrendered all their cities during the late WW2, they literally moved to tents in order to avoid having their children burned to death in fire storms meaninglessly terrorized against innocent civilians by US bombers, causing total global popular and eternal hate against the US and against all Americans and against everything it and they pretend to stand for.

    “Sunday traffic jams”? What are they talking about in that clip of yours, Sunday traffic jams?

    And the refugee streams, from Germany to Germany and from Finland to Finland (no border crossings, no asylum), to mention the two completely dominating refugee streams, saved millions of lives from death in the socialists’ concentration camps. Those were unplanned spontaneous escapes from Hell.

    A nuclear bomb detonation in your home town is to prefer over days of bombers dropping many thousands of chemical bombs. Chemical bombing were much more effective than nuclear bombing in WW2. The images of the flattened Hiroshima shows the result of a fire storm. It was a wooden town. The few concrete buildings and bridges still stood even right at ground zero. The problem with nukes is the fire storm, not the radiation imagination that environmentalist fantasize about.

  • wodun

    As long as we are recommending movies, here is my contribution.

    Into Eternity, a movie about how Scandinavians are dealing with nuclear waste. It is a little melodramatic but not too preachy.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1194612/

  • James Stephens

    May I recommend “Dark Sun – The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb” Non-fiction by Richard Rhodes. The story of the intrigue behind the development of the bomb is gripping. This book also explores the physics involved in the contest of the larger story, making it quite understandable. 731 pages cover to cover. I read it in two nights. Couldn’t put it down!

  • LocalFluff

    @wodun
    It’s so stupid and uninformed, the movie you linked to, that even I get speechless.
    Digging a hole in the ground is a natural instinct of all surviving mammals, isn’t it? Uranium from earth to earth. Dig it up, dig it down.

  • Edward

    LocalFluff wrote: “Japan surrendered all their cities during the late WW2, they literally moved to tents in order to avoid having their children burned to death in fire storms meaninglessly terrorized against innocent civilians by US bombers, causing total global popular and eternal hate against the US and against all Americans and against everything it and they pretend to stand for.

    Interesting that the world cherry picks who to blame and who to hate. Too bad history is not taught in other countries, because attacking civilian populations and cities started with the Axis powers (of which Japan was one of the offenders). The Allied forces naturally followed the lead of those powers. If the enemy thinks that it can influence the minds of your own people by attacking the civilians, then it is logical to believe that their own people would also be influenced into demanding peace.

    If only Japan and Germany learned from the Italians that surrender should happen earlier, not later, millions of lives would have been saved.

    Fortunately, the fire storms in Japan eventually worked, including the two that were started by atomic bombs. Otherwise the invasion of Japan would certainly have cost the lives of millions of civilians as they futilely defended their homeland and emperor.

  • LocalFluff

    When you burn children, no one will love you anymore. Bombing innocent civilians instead of the enemy’s military prolonged the war and led to the unnecessary death of tens of thousands of US troops. US Air Force charcoaled children in their homes instead of supporting the troops on the ground.

  • Dick Eagleson

    All sides in WW2 “burned children.” In the Axis countries, especially Germany, doing so was often a matter of deliberate policy. In the death camps doing so often didn’t even involve use of military ordnance. On the Allied side it was generally a matter of unavoidability, accident and the inherent inaccuracy of munitions in those pre-PGM days.

    Contra your premise, the vast majority of strategic bombing in WW2 was aimed at military and military-industrial targets. That included the housing tracts occupied by skilled armaments plant workers. If you successfully kill a lead machinist with a bomb when he’s at home, the odds are near certainty his wife and kiddies are going to be shredded too. War is an ugly business. Regrettably, it is sometimes an unavoidably necessary business.

    The idea that aerial bombing somehow prolonged the war is just nonsense. Not all of it shortened the war significantly, but some of it did, especially the attacks on Germany’s and Japan’s petroleum and refined products infrastructure and supplies. Ditto for transport infrastructure such as bridges, roads, train tracks and marshalling yards.

    As the war dragged on and Allied commanders found out that most of that “wild propaganda” stuff about the Axis was actually true, the killing of civilians changed from a matter of regret to one of indifference. The fire-bombing of Dresden, for instance, occurred not long after the bloody Battle of the Bulge which included German commandos dressed in American uniforms behind the lines and the Waffen SS summarily slaughtering Allied POW’s at Malmedy and elsewhere.

    The same was largely true of the mostly-U.S. prosecution of the Pacific War, except the transition was from initial indifference to active enthusiasm for the slaughter. Adm. Halsey may have been the first to say, “By the time this is over, the Japanese language will be spoken only in Hell,” but the normative American completely endorsed this view as early as mid-1942. Americans of the time thought of the Japanese as sub-human goblins. Actually encountering the Japanese, starting with the Guadalcanal campaign, did nothing to ameliorate this view. Both sides viewed WW2 in the Pacific as a race-based war of extermination.

    The idea that the bombing of Japan, in particular, prolonged the war is the goofiest of counterfactual fantasy, especially the two atomic bombings. From the time of the second mushroom cloud over Nagasaki to the cessation of hostilities was six days. To the deck of the Missouri in Tokyo Bay was a matter of only 18 more. The pre-atomic bomb plan for the invasion and final conquest of Japan was envisioned to take until at least late 1946 or early 1947. Had it come to pass, it might easily have taken longer. Certainly no other objective in the Pacific War had been taken in as little time or with as few casualties as had been initially predicted.

    Bottom line? The United States has nothing to apologize for anent its conduct in WW2.

    Plenty of people around the world hate the United States for all sorts of reasons. The vast majority of them seem to fall into the two categories of Muslims and leftists. But there are also a lot of people around the world who admire the United States or at least would like to come here to seek their fortunes. My suspicion is that the latter outnumber the former. If a nation is going to have enemies, it might as well have the right ones. The U.S. does.

  • Garry

    The Japanese military was clearly not going to surrender; the Bushido code was too ingrained (and those trying to surrender were often killed by their comrades). In the island campaigns the number of Japanese who surrendered was always minuscule, and those who surrendered were overwhelmingly Korean laborers who had been conscripted (a more accurate title would be “slaves”). At the very end, the military tried to pull off a coup rather than let the Emperor surrender.

    In some cases, Japanese civilians, rather then surrendering, committed suicide, including thousand on Saipan who threw their children off cliffs then jumped themselves, to the horror of US troops who tried to stop them.

    In the early battles, American troops trying to surrender to the Japanese would often be killed instead. Some Japanese troops would feign surrender, then kill the American troops who temporarily let their guard down to accept the surrender. Before long, American troops would not accept any offer of surrender, as they saw it as a ruse. Among troops on the ground, the goal on both sides became genocide (luckily the higher ups, at least on the allied side, had better ideas, which they could because they weren’t on the front lines).

    As I mentioned in another thread recently, even when I lived in Tokyo in the late 90’s there were a lot of factories scattered in my residential area, often in basements of what looked like apartment buildings. During the War, ordinary citizens were consigned work that they did in their homes, rather than in large factory complexes that were prominent targets. The firebombing of Tokyo was all about destroying that part of industry (facilities and labor).

    The atom bombs were all about showing power, to convince the Emperor that we could destroy his cities at will. Hiroshima was chosen because it was one of the few cities that hadn’t been bomber extensively; we wanted the damage from the bomb to be unambiguously caused by the bomb. Another option considered was dropping the bomb somewhere in the ocean with Japanese invited guests watching, but this was judged ineffective (I agree).

    Even after the 2 atom bomb attacks, we didn’t necessarily expect surrender; the plan was to ramp up to 5 atom bomb strikes per month by November.

    The alternative to the bombs was simply unthinkable. Women, children, and the elderly were issued long poles, bayonets, and rope to make long spears to kill off the invading imperialists who would come. The invasion plans made no mention of the Second Marine Division, my old outfit and about 20,000 strong in 1945, after Day 4, because the assumption was that it would no longer exist as a fighting force. The projection of just the initial invasion (before going to Tokyo) was 1 million US casualties.

    After the surrender, it turned out the Japanese had much more armaments than we had thought, which would have made the invasion much more bloody than we anticipated.

    It’s always tragic when civilians, including children, are killed in war, but I don’t see any alternatives in the case of defeating Japan in World War II.

    To me the miracle is how peaceful the surrender and occupation turned out to be (at least in Japan itself; it was a different story in China and other places, where the locals sometimes slaughtered the Japanese soldiers)

    As late as the 70’s there were still single Japanese soldiers in remote islands still fighting the war. My friend who grew up on Okinawa where his dad was stationed in the 70s talks of a crazy Japanese soldier who lived in the woods behind his house. still trying to fight the war.

    Even in the late 90s, I occasionally had disturbing conversations with unrepentant Japanese veterans of World War Two, which I always ended by saying “As a former US Marine, I much prefer having Japanese soldiers as my friend rather than my enemy.” But I have to say that these conversations were greatly outnumbered by conversations with Japanese of that age who were grateful for what the US did to rebuild Japan, and amazed that we didn’t just go in and pillage and enslave, as were their custom when the won a surrender.

  • F-16 Bill

    I’ve seen Los Alamos where the bomb was made
    I’ve seen Wendover, NV wherethe Enola Gay trained for the bomb drop
    I’ve visited Trinity Site where the bomb was tested
    I’ve seen Tinian where they took off from to bomb Hiroshima
    I’ve visited Hiroshima
    In the Navy I was authorized to carry nuclear weapons on an A-7

    I’m still in awe of the power of these weapons

  • wayne

    F-16 Bill:
    That, is an amazing list!

    LocalFluff– not sure what your point actually is.
    “You Europeans” have been killing people, non-stop, for thousands of years, in the most gruesome ways imaginable. We had to save you all, twice in one century.
    (The only mistake we made, was not wiping the soviet union, off the face, of the earth.)

    Referencing “Operation Downfall,” the planned invasion of the Japanese homeland:

    “Operation “Olympic,” the invasion of Kyushu, was to begin on “X-Day”, which was scheduled for 1 November 1945. Operation “Coronet,” the invasion of Honshu at the Kanto Plain south of the capital, was to begin on “Y-Day”, which was tentatively scheduled for 1 March 1946.”

    “In April 1945, the Joint Chiefs of Staff formally adopted a planning paper giving a range of possible casualties based on experience in both Europe and the Pacific. Given a troop list of 766,700 men and a 90-day campaign, the US Sixth Army could be expected to suffer between 514,072 casualties (including 134,556 dead and missing) under the “Pacific Experience” (1.95 dead and missing and 7.45 total casualties/1,000 men/day) and 149,046 casualties (including 28,981 dead and missing) under the “European Experience” (0.42 dead and missing and 2.16 total casualties/1,000 men/day)”

  • wodun

    LocalFluff
    March 16, 2017 at 4:41 pm
    @wodun
    It’s so stupid and uninformed, the movie you linked to, that even I get speechless.

    /shrug. It is a movie about an actual place where nuclear waste is stored. It was cool to see the shots of the tunnels and listening to the engineers talk about why the site was chosen and how the site will be sealed.

    It came off as an informative documentary: How do you store nuclear waste for a period of time longer than you expect your country to exist? This is how.

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