Lab publishing thousands of US nuclear weapons test films on YouTube

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ByJonathan Bloom KGO logo
Saturday, March 18, 2017
Lawrence Livermore Lab publishing US nuclear weapons test films
The Lawrence Livermore National Lab is beginning to publish thousands of films of U.S. nuclear weapons tests.

LIVERMORE, Calif. -- What was once highly classified can now be found on YouTube -- and this isn't a leak. The Lawrence Livermore National Lab is beginning to publish thousands of films of U.S. nuclear weapons tests.

The images are both frightening and fascinating.

These are no Hollywood effects. They're films of real U.S. nuclear tests conducted in the 1950s and 60s. They were made for science and measured to create parts of the nuclear prediction models that are still in use today.

"One frame at a time, and they would shine it onto a grid and somebody actually had to eyeball what the answer was or what the measurement was," Lawrence Livermore Lab's Greg Spriggs said.

And that was a problem. With an error of plus or minus 10 percent, it was far less precise than today's computer image analysis. So Spriggs is leading a project to re-analyze the films for data that could be critical if there's ever a nuclear war.

"That he's not going to drop a bomb on one of our enemies and it's going to wipe out one of our allies," he said.

Getting those films into the computer required starting from a dizzying array of different film sizes and formats shot at all different speeds.

"They were looking for every way to possibly capture information from these detonations," Spriggs said.

And James Moye is an expert in most of them. "This camera is the Eastman high speed camera type three," he said.

It shoots thousands of frames per second to capture every detail of the initial blast.

Moye has to clean and splice the films and scan them before even more of them start falling apart. "The data that we took back then is it. That's it. We're never going to test an atmospheric shot again, so need to preserve these data," Moye said.

But why make them public? Spriggs said they're priceless for academic research but also as a reminder. "Of the immense energy that's produced with a nuclear detonation, and hopefully that nobody will ever want to use these things or attack the United States. I don't think they want to have the retaliation of one of these nuclear weapons being dropped on their country," Spriggs said.

Click here to watch the nuclear weapons tests posted on Lawrence Livermore National Lab's YouTube page.