U.S. Government Declassifies Cold War Footage Of Some Of History’s Largest Nuclear Tests

Published March 17, 2017
Updated September 17, 2017

Though only tests, some of the very explosions depicted here in fact resulted in devastating human and environmental casualties.

Operation Hardtack I – Nutmeg at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands of the Pacific. May 22, 1958.

What was once some of the most guarded and top-secret footage on Earth is now freely available to all on YouTube.

This week, the federally funded Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California released 62 newly declassified and restored films of U.S. nuclear testing conducted in conjunction with the lab between 1945 and 1962.

During those Cold War years, the LLNL carried out 210 tests, resulting in approximately 10,000 film clips. Of those, about 6,500 have been found and 750 have been declassified, according to an LLNL news release. The 62 that are now on YouTube are just the first batch to see release.

Operation Teapot – Tesla at the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. March 1, 1955.

Before releasing any footage, LLNL experts must continue to work on this new initiative’s true goal: restoring these films before they decompose into uselessness. For the last five years, LLNL weapon physicist Greg Spriggs and his team have been working to find, analyze, and restore these films — with plenty of hurdles in terms of missing documentation and outdated technology along the way.

Why invest so much time and energy into restoring these short, grainy clips of explosions so large and unfathomable that they often don’t even look like explosions as we know them?

Spriggs and the LLNL hope that viewing this unfathomable devastation will deter the world from ever actually using these weapons. As Spriggs puts it:

“It’s just unbelievable how much energy’s released. We hope that we would never have to use a nuclear weapon ever again. I think that if we capture the history of this and show what the force of these weapons are and how much devastation they can wreak, then maybe people will be reluctant to use them.”

Operation Plumbbob – Rainier at the Nevada Test Site (underground test). September 19, 1957.

Of course, even when only being tested — as opposed to being actually deployed in warfare — these weapons can be utterly devastating. In fact, some of the very tests that the newly-released footage depicts resulted in enormous environmental and human casualties.

For one, Operation Plumbbob (see video above) and many others like it conducted at the Nevada Test Site, located just 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, spread harmful radiation over more than a dozen states and resulted in more than 200,000 cases of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Thus the world can only hope that the kinds of tests depicted in the newly released LLNL footage will remain a thing of the past.

Next, watch an underground nuclear test literally melt the earth above. Then, discover four nuclear testing sites that humans destroyed far worse than Chernobyl.

All That's Interesting
Established in 2010, All That's Interesting brings together a dedicated staff of digital publishing veterans and subject-level experts in history, true crime, and science. From the lesser-known byways of human history to the uncharted corners of the world, we seek out stories that bring our past, present, and future to life. Privately-owned since its founding, All That's Interesting maintains a commitment to unbiased reporting while taking great care in fact-checking and research to ensure that we meet the highest standards of accuracy.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.