The U.S. government conducted 210 atmospheric nuclear bomb tests before the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 outlawed detonation of the big bombs in space, underwater or in the atmosphere. (After the treaty, the U.S. continued to test bombs underground until 1992.) While those initial open-air tests were, ostensibly, for research purposes, as it turns out the Energy Department and other agencies haven't been very good at keeping track of their data.
According to a press release from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the 10,000 films made of those first tests conducted between 1945 and 1962 were kept by various agencies in classified vaults, slowly decomposing. That’s why, over the last five years, weapon physicist Greg Spriggs and colleagues at LLNL have been rounding up and digitizing the footage.
So far, Spriggs has located 6,500 of the films and digitally scanned 4,200 of them. Of those, 750 have been declassified, and he's made 64 of these films available to the public on YouTube. While he has a personal interest in the project—Sarah Zhang at Wired reports that as a child living at a naval base on Midway Island, he saw the high-altitude Starfish Prime bomb go off in 1962—Spriggs' primary motivation is to get more accurate data about the tests.
Several years ago, Spriggs was looking at simulations of nuclear explosions on his computer when he decided to take a closer look at some of the data underlying the models. What he found was that not only were the data and films scattered all over the place, but much of the data derived from those films was computed by hand and inaccurate.
That’s why he decided to begin the project tracking down, digitizing and reanalyzing the films. Digitizing the reels of cellulose hasn't been an easy task because most of the cellulose acetate film was not well-preserved. “You can smell vinegar when you open the cans, which is one of the byproducts of the decomposition process of these films,” Spriggs says in the press release. “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.”
Spriggs brought on board film historian Peter Kuran and film preservationist Jim Moye, who helped the Smithsonian preserve the Zapruder film, which shows the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The team uses the type of scanner Hollywood studios rely on to archive their aging films. But scanning the variety of films, which included 70, 35, 16 and 8 millimeter reels, turned out to be just the beginning.
Spriggs is also calculating the power yield of each blast to ensure the data from these tapes are accurate. During the Cold War era, this was a laborious process that took days going frame-by-frame. Now, thanks to computer programs, the task to determine the size of a blast’s shockwave has been significantly shortened.
Thus far, Spriggs has reanalyzed between 400 and 500 of the films, finding that some calculations were as much as 20 percent off. While the new data will help researchers have more accurate data about nuclear explosions since the era of testing is over, Sprigg is a bit of peacenik when it comes to the project. “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,” he says in the release.
Spriggs still has about 4,000 films to scan in, a project that will take several more years of steady work, Zane reports. After that he tells Zhang, he can retire.