Armageddon Declassified — Terrifying Images From The Birth Of The Atomic Age

A frame from the film made of one of the Operation Dominic series of nuclear tests. This aerial burst came from a bomb dropped by a B-52 and detonated in free-fall. It appears similar to the sun but scarier. See the video below. Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL)

We’ve been playing with fire for a long time. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s the U.S. routinely conducted above ground, underground and atmospheric testing of nuclear and thermonuclear devices during the height of the Cold War against the then Soviet Union. By 1959, radioactive debris from the tests were found in wheat and milk in the northern United States, raising concerns from both scientists and the public about the dangers of radioactive fallout. Finally, on August 5, 1963, the U.S., Soviet Union and Great Britain signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to ban testing in the atmosphere, in space, and underwater. Underground testing was still allowed because debris could be contained.

Operation Dominic – Housatonic. This is one of 31 test explosions conducted in 1962. Click HERE for full-screen.

An estimated 10,000 films were made of the tests, and for the past five years, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) weapon physicist Greg Spriggs and a team of film experts, archivists and software developers have been on a mission to hunt down, scan, reanalyze and declassify the films. Their goal? Digitize the films before they’re lost forever to decomposition.

Operation Plumbbob – Rainier. The seismic wave from this first fully contained underground test conducted on September 19, 1957 set off an avalanche. Click HERE for full-screen.

The team also wants to provide better data to today’s post-testing-era scientists to help certify that the aging U.S. nuclear arsenal remains safe, secure and effection.  To date, the team has located around 6,500 films created during atmospheric testing. Around 4,200 films have been scanned, 400 to 500 have been reanalyzed and around 750 have been declassified. An initial set of these declassified films, which were tests conducted by LLNL, were published this week.

Another in the Operation Hardtack I test series involved a high-altitude 3.8 megaton detonation 47.7 miles (76.8 km) high over the Pacific Ocean. It created its own auroral display. Credit: LLNL

You can view 64 short videos right now on youtube and get a feel for the terrifying power in the hands of (currently) nine countries: the U.S. (1945), Soviet Union (1949), United Kingdom (1952), France (1960), China (1964), India (1974), Pakistan (1998), and North Korea (2006). Dates are when each country made its first successful test of a nuclear bomb.

Operation Hardtack I – Nutmeg. Click HERE for full-screen. 

It took several years to locate the films, and when Spriggs did get his hands on the first few, it took about a year to convert a Hollywood-style scanner into one that could provide the level of scientific accuracy required for digitizing. Then he had to locate the data sheets for each test — without knowing the camera location, its speed and focal length, he wouldn’t be able to analyze the films. Once Spriggs completed the first scans, he discovered that much of the data published were wrong. All the films needed to be reanalyzed.

Canisters containing films made of nuclear testing from the 1950s and early 1960s. Most are in some process of decay and are currently being digitized. Credit: LLNL

Now Spriggs is getting good data that can be applied to the current weapons stockpile. He also discovered new things about the detonations that were missed in the 1950s. And since today’s nuclear weapons scientists can no longer test weapons above ground, the films are the only means to study the effects of the powerful bombs on the atmosphere, underwater and other above ground targets.

Learn more about the effort to preserve the nuclear testing films from weapon physicist Greg Spriggs. Full-screen.

For you and I, watching these films takes us back to a tense time in our country’s history we hope we don’t ever have to revisit. It also reveals how our species has touched-the-stars-darkly by learning how to unleash the power of nuclear fusion, the process that powers the sun, right here on Earth.