Declassified Nuclear Films Prove We Were Wrong About Their Explosive Power

A weapons physicist is working on a special project to scan & reanalyze all nuclear test films to preserve history and update critical data

In July 1945, scientists detonated Trinity, the world's first nuclear bomb. At the time, no one was sure what was going to happen. But the test was a terrifying success, and it led to an international arms race.

The United States conducted over 200 atmospheric weapons tests for two key reasons: grandstanding and fine tuning. They wanted to prove their military might, and make better, more powerful nuclear weapons. So, they tested out new designs in the air, on the ground, and at sea. All of these massive fireballs were captured by strategically placed cameras around a test site, and then analyzed by scientists. The big number they were all after? The yield, or the amount of energy released. These films hold the best scientific data we have of our nuclear potential. That is, until a weapons physicist decades later found out the data from these films might be off a bit.

Greg Spriggs, a weapons physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is working on a project to scan and reanalyze all of the Cold War-era films. He's had to track down thousands of canisters that have been collecting dust in high security vaults for decades. Each film canister is like a mini time capsule. By digitally scanning the films, Greg can reanalyze the blast footage and update computer codes about a nuclear weapons potential. The hope is that these weapons will never be used again, but if it ever comes to that point, the data has to be accurate.