A clip from Operation Hardtack. (Screenshot/LLNL)
Just months after President Donald Trump advocated for “greatly” strengthening and expanding the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, dozens of video recordings of weapons tests, long hidden from public view, became available to watch after being declassified.
An estimated 10,000 films exist; 4,200 scanned; and roughly 750 declassified. Now, 64 have been uploaded to YouTube as part of a digitization effort led by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) physicist Greg Spriggs, who is hoping to use the videos to analyze the weapons’ data and dissuade their future use.
“We need to be able to validate our codes and trust that the answers that are being calculated are correct,” he said. “The legacy that I’d like to leave behind is a set of benchmark data that can be used by future weapon physicists to make sure that our codes are correct so that the U.S. remains prepared.”
Some footage shows mushroom clouds blooming at high altitudes, while others show shock waves caused by an underground explosion. The clips are titled after the names of the missions, conducted between 1945 and 1962—names like Operation Castle, Operation Hardtack, Operation Plumbbob, and Operation Teapot, among others.
“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.”
The project is expected to take about two more years to complete. And it’s good that his team got to the films when they did, Spriggs added.
“You can smell vinegar when you open the cans, which is one of the byproducts of the decomposition process of these films,” he said. “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.”