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Scientists Opening Film Vault Of America's Above Ground Nuclear Testing

Greg Spriggs is a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, April 4, 2017.
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Greg Spriggs is a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, April 4, 2017.
Scientists Opening Film Vault Of America’s Above Ground Nuclear Testing
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is in the process of restoring and releasing the most complete record of America's involvement in above ground nuclear testing.

Lawrence Livermore Laboratory is restoring and preserving the most complete collection of films from America's role in the era of above ground nuclear testing.

Until the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty finally ended above ground nuclear testing in 1963, the federal government routinely satisfied the curiosity of military planners with tests like with Operation Wigwam — an underwater explosion which happened 500 miles off the coast of San Diego back in on May 14, 1955.

According to a previously declassified film, the shockwave from the underwater blast hit the Southern California coast about 10 minutes after initial blast. A few minutes later, a Greek freighter just off the Golden Gate in Northern California radioed the U.S. Coast Guard to ask if San Francisco had been hit by a severe earthquake.

Greg Spriggs is a nuclear physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. As a boy, Spriggs saw one of the last American above ground nuclear tests.

“I was a young man and my dad was stationed on Midway Island as part of the Navy,” he said. “And they did one of these over Johnston Island in 1962. It was called Starfish Prime.”

In that test, military planners wanted to know if a nuclear weapon detonated in the upper atmosphere could knock out one of our ICBMs, or stop one coming from the Soviet Union.

“It was done at 10 o’clock at night and it lit the sky up like it was noon,” Spriggs said. “It took about 10 to 15 minutes to get all the colors back to being pitch black again. It was like an artificial aurora borealis.”

A year later the U.S. signed a treaty with the Soviet Union and other nuclear nations, banning above ground nuclear tests. According to the Centers for Disease Control, anyone living in the contiguous United States since 1951 has had at least minute exposure to fall-out from this era. Tiny amounts of radioactive fallout remain around the globe.

“These are awesome weapons,” Sprigg said. “They can do a lot of damage. It scares me a lot. And I’m hoping we will never ever have to use a nuclear weapon ever again.”

For the last five years, Spriggs has supervised a project to restore and declassify all of the films from the 210 above ground nuclear tests the U.S. conducted from 1945 until they were banned in 1963. He found that some films were in terrible shape, including a few from the earliest tests.

“Some early Trinity films, which are of course very important to history,” he said. “And those had turn to powder basically. And they are now useless to history.”

Though the project isn’t just about preserving the historical record. For nuclear scientists, these films are the only scientific record of what happens when you detonate a nuclear weapon on the face of the earth.

Operation Wigwam tested a nuclear weapon fired  underwater, 500 miles off the coast of San Diego.
Operation Wigwam tested a nuclear weapon fired underwater, 500 miles off the coast of San Diego.

“These films contain a plethora of data that are very fundamental to nuclear weapon effects,” he said.

Spriggs originally became interested in the films when he was asked to work on some software. Computer models are now used to calculate the destructive capability of America’s aging nuclear weapons stockpile. He wanted to recheck the accuracy of the original data. The only way to do that was to look at film of the explosions.

Each test often had 50 cameras recording the event. Some films of Wigwam, Starfish Prime and other tests have been in the public domain for years. Livermore’s effort is expected to be the most comprehensive effort to preserve and de-classify what the U.S. did during that era.

“These films were classified,” Spriggs said. “They’re not classified now, so every American has the right to see them.”

The team has located about 6,500 of the estimated 10,000 films that were shot. The first batch of new footage declassified under the project was released on YouTube in March.