Declassified nuclear films yield new insights for scientists

Films were decomposing, in danger of being lost

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Old films of U.S. nuclear weapons tests sat for decades in high-security vaults gathering dust.

But now a crack team of scientists, film experts and software developers are breathing new life into these fascinating, yet frightening films.

“When you open up these cans after being sealed up for 60 years, the first thing you smell is vinegar, and you know that the film is decomposing,” said Greg Spriggs, a weapon physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

Spriggs, who’s leading the project, says the films are a big part of history.

He says the team has been working to locate, scan, reanalyze and declassify the films.

In addition to preserving the footage before it’s lost forever, there’s an important scientific reason to get this done.

“We wanted the data off of these films in order to analyze it and hopefully get more accurate and more precise information that we can use to validate our computer codes,” Spriggs said.

Courtesy: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Courtesy: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Courtesy: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Courtesy: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Courtesy: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Since the U.S. no longer tests nuclear weapons, scientists are relying on experimental data from computer models.

The computer codes help certify that the nation’s aging nuclear weapons remain safe, secure and effective.

Between 1945 and 1962, the U.S. conducted 210 atmospheric nuclear tests. Multiple cameras captured each event at around 2,400 frames per second.

Spriggs says there were usually about 50 cameras used per test shot.

According to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, around 4,200 films have already been digitally scanned and 400 to 500 have been reanalyzed.

Some of the declassified films have been posted online for the public to view.

“Just by the glow time we can figure out what the yield is, “Spriggs said.

Will Kinney, a professor of physics at the University at Buffalo, doesn’t have a direct connection to the project, but says he’s deeply interested in this kind of work.

“It’s hard not to look at these things and just sort of imagine the scale of the destruction that you’re looking at,” Kinney said.

Kinney says back in the day the original analysis was done manually.

“They had more than a thousand staff people who were actually measuring things on the frames, frame by frame with rulers,” he said.

Now, these same films are being reanalyzed using modern computer imaging techniques to improve accuracy and reduce uncertainty.

Greg Spriggs says scientists are now in a position to collect more data than they can possibly analyze.

“Every time we do this and we look at this is greater detail, we find out something new that we knew did not exist back in the 1950’s and 60’s, or something they didn’t analyze,” Spriggs said.

“In most cases they were within maybe 10 percent of the answers that we’re getting, which is still a pretty good number,” he added. “In order to really do a better job validating the codes we want the number to be as accurate as possible and to have as little uncertainty as possible.”

Will Kinney believes the public history that’s being created with the release of the films will “prove to be of tremendous importance.”

“At the end of the day, those bombs are out there and it’s probably a good idea to make sure that we have a very clear idea of how they’re going to behave and what their characteristics are at this point,” Kinney said.

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