Nuclear Weapon Test Films

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories has an archive of an estimated 10,000 films of nuclear weapons tests from the 1940's - 1960's.


Source: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Teapot. Redwing. Nougat. Dominic. Plumbob. While these random words may sound like the names of the latest Warby Parker frames, in fact these were some of the code words for top-secret military operations to test America’s new arsenal of post-World War II nuclear weapons.

The U.S. has conducted a total of 1,032 nuclear weapons tests between 1945 and 1992. 

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) maintains an archive of an estimated 10,000 films made to thoroughly document the explosions that these powerful weapons created during tests conducted between 1945 and 1962. 

Hundreds of nuclear weapons tests have left the Nevada Testing Site pockmarked with massive craters. Map: Google Earth. Image ©2023 Airbus, ©2023 Maxar Technologies.

Using specialized cameras shooting extremely fine grained film at 2,400 frames per second, these films capture the haunting, slow motion growth of otherworldly shapes of the nuclear fireball that emerges from what seems to be an impossibly bright pinpoint of light.

The size and power of the weapons tested in the films range from small “tactical” nukes that could be fired from an artillery unit such as the 1953’s 15 kiloton “Grable” device detonated during Operation Upshot-Knothole, to the most powerful nuclear weapon the U.S. has tested, Operation Castle’s “Bravo” 15 megaton device, detonated at the Bikini Atoll in 1954. 


Operation Hardtack I - "Nutmeg". May 21, 1958. Source: The EG&G Scientific Film Collection, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

The films are equal parts terrifying and fascinating. High altitude tests show what looks like a new sun spontaneously appearing in the sky, as shock and heat waves dissolve surrounding clouds in an expansive release of energy. Rippling shock waves can be seen racing across the waters of the South Pacific towards the camera as startled birds fly in confusion seconds after blasts at sea. Underground tests show a massive mound of earth rising like a mountain from the ground as explosions push massive columns of energy upwards. 

Scientists at LLNL still study these films, using new digital tools to reveal more of the valuable science captured on each frame. These films can be reanalyzed as a way to test and validate computer simulations, which is one of the main ways nuclear weapons are tested in the U.S. today.


Composite footage from the March 7, 1955 detonation of Operation Teapot's "Turk" device. Arrays of high-speed cameras shooting at 2,400 frames per second captured the explosion from different angles and focal lengths. Source: The EG&G Scientific Film Collection, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

In March of 2017, LLNL announced that an initial batch of these films had been scanned and re-analyzed by film experts working with nuclear weapons physicists. The films were declassified, which have been released on its YouTube channel in a playlist

A Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories video describing the process used to digitize and re-analyze the test films.

The Department of Energy has a fascinating book (available online as a free 258 page PDF) titled “Battlefield of the Cold War - The Nevada Test Site: Atmospheric Nuclear Weapons Testing 1951-1963” documenting the history of the tests, and how they were eventually moved underground as scientists began to calculate the dangers of the radioactive fallout released by the tests.

The book contains a thorough appendix listing the first 194 nuclear weapon tests from the very first Trinity test on July 16, 1945 through the Titania test on October 30, 1958. Another PDF "United States Nuclear Tests, July 1945 through September 1992" contains the full list of all tests, but is not as easy to read.

The U.S. and the Soviet Union signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on August 5, 1963 which ended atmospheric, ocean and space nuclear weapons tests, while still allowing underground tests. In 1992, the U.S. initiated a moratorium on all nuclear testing, and signed on to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty in 1996 along with dozens of other countries.

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Thanks for reading!
- Jon Keegan (@jonkeegan)

For this post, I grabbed the URLs of all of the videos in LLNL's playlist of the declassified films. Then I downloaded them all with the help of yt-dlp.

I used AfterEffects to make the composite videos, and ffmpeg to extract frames. ChatGPT 4 was extremely helpful (as usual) for building some complex image processing python scripts that let me play around with making some interesting promo images.