From 1945 until 1962, the United States conducted 210 atmospheric nuclear tests—the kind with the big mushroom cloud and all that jazz. Above-ground nuke testing was banned in 1963, but there are thousands of films from those tests that have just been rotting in secret vaults around the country. But starting today you can see many of them on YouTube.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) weapon physicist Greg Spriggs has made it his mission to preserve these 7,000 known films, many of them literally decomposing while they’re still classified and hidden from the public.
According to LLNL, this 5-year project has been tremendously successful, with roughly 4,200 films already scanned and around 750 of those now declassified. Sixty-four of the declassified films have been uploaded today in what Spriggs is calling an “initial set.”
“You can smell vinegar when you open the cans, which is one of the byproducts of the decomposition process of these films,” Spriggs said in a statement to Gizmodo.
“We know that these films are on the brink of decomposing to the point where they’ll become useless,” said Spriggs. “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.”
It’s a race against time, and Spriggs figures it will take at least another two years to scan the remaining films. The declassification of all the remaining 3,480 films, a process that requires military review, will take even longer.
“It’s just unbelievable how much energy’s released,” said Spriggs. “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.”