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Nuclear testsDeclassifying rescued nuclear test films

Published 17 March 2017

The United States conducted 210 atmospheric nuclear tests between 1945 and 1962, with multiple cameras capturing each event at around 2,400 frames per second. But in the decades since, around 10,000 of these films sat idle, scattered across the country in high-security vaults. Not only were they gathering dust, the film material itself was slowly decomposing, bringing the data they contained to the brink of being lost forever. For the past five years, physicists, film experts, archivists, and software developers have been on a mission to hunt down, scan, reanalyze, and declassify these decomposing films. The goals are to preserve the films’ content before it is lost forever, and provide better data to the post-testing-era scientists.

The United States conducted 210 atmospheric nuclear tests between 1945 and 1962, with multiple cameras capturing each event at around 2,400 frames per second. But in the decades since, around 10,000 of these films sat idle, scattered across the country in high-security vaults. Not only were they gathering dust, the film material itself was slowly decomposing, bringing the data they contained to the brink of being lost forever.

LLNL says that for the past five years, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) weapon physicist Greg Spriggs and a crack team of film experts, archivists, and software developers have been on a mission to hunt down, scan, reanalyze, and declassify these decomposing films. The goals are to preserve the films’ content before it is lost forever, and provide better data to the post-testing-era scientists who use computer codes to help certify that the aging U.S. nuclear deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective. To date, the team has located around 6,500 of the estimated 10,000 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 — tests conducted by LLNL — were published today in an LLNL YouTube playlist.

You can smell vinegar when you open the cans, which is one of the byproducts of the decomposition process of these films,” Spriggs said. “We know that these films are on the brink of decomposing to the point where they’ll become useless. The data that we’re collecting now must be preserved in a digital form because no matter how well you treat the films, no matter how well you preserve or store them, they will decompose. They’re made out of organic material, and organic material decomposes. So this is it. We got to this project just in time to save the data.”