Nuclear testing is rare today, but at its peak it wasn’t unusual for 100 bombs to be detonated in a single year. Many of those explosions were captured on tape, and today the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is working to restore the rare footage and share it with the public. As Paleofuture reports, 62 newly declassified test films have just been released as part of the project.
The clips, once considered sensitive government material, are now available on YouTube for anyone to see. They date from the 1940s to the early 1960s and depict atmospheric explosions, a practice that ended in 1962. The U.S. signed a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union in 1963.
Many of the tapes have been rotting away in government storage facilities after years of neglect. Some films have degraded beyond repair, but most of the dirty, aged material can be salvaged.
"Back in the 1950s they were analyzing frame by frame manually, so the frames were marked with tape so they could keep track," Jim Moye, a rare film expert at the lab, tells Mental Floss. "The tape has to be removed and the adhesive cleaned off. The film is then run through an ultrasonic film cleaner. Then it’s ready for scanning." By cleaning and creating exact copies of the old film, the team is able to preserve that chapter in history for future generations.
Weapon physicist Greg Spriggs is leading the laboratory’s effort to preserve the tapes. The restored films are meant to be seen by the general public, but there’s another audience Spriggs and his team have in mind: other scientists. Today, any nuclear tests conducted by the government are generated by computers. By studying footage from actual explosions, scientists are able to program more accurate models. "Because the United States no longer tests nuclear weapons, it is absolutely essential that we preserve (and improve) these data so that we can continue to study nuclear weapons and their effects," Spriggs tells Mental Floss.
The lab released an initial batch of videos earlier this year, prior to the recent collection shared in December. With thousands of films still left to analyze and restore, viewers can expect a lot more nuclear test content in the coming years.