Greg Spriggs is on a mission to save a big chunk of U.S. nuclear weapons history. As a weapons physicist for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Spriggs worked with a team of film experts, archivists and software developers to make sure that the films on early U.S. nuclear tests will not be lost forever. To date, he and his team managed to declassify as much as 750 films.
Between 1945 and 1962, the U.S. government conducted as much as 210 atmospheric nuclear tests. When they did, they used multiple cameras to capture each event. The cameras filmed the tests at a rate of 2,400 frames per second.
10,000 films sat decomposing.
For decades, as much as 10,000 of these films simply sat idle. They were spread all over the country and placed inside high-security vaults. When it was stored, however, it did not only gather dust. Instead, the film material itself started decomposing. If Spriggs and his team had not acted, the contents would have disappeared for good.
“We know that these films are on the brink of decomposing to the point where they’ll become useless,” Spriggs remarked. Fortunately, the weapon physicist knew how to detect signs of decomposition in films. “You can smell vinegar when you open the cans, which is one of the byproducts of the decomposition process of these films.”
However, the process of saving the films was not as straightforward as some may think. In fact, it took years to locate the clips. Afterward, it took a year to convert a Hollywood-style scanner into one that could do the work with a level of scientific accuracy.
Past data on nuclear weapons is ‘off’ by as much as 30 percent.
Afterward, Spriggs had to locate data sheets to be able to perform an analysis. It was from this analysis where Spriggs realized that most of the data published previously had been wrong. “We were finding that some of these answers were off by 20, maybe 30, percent,” he said.
As Spriggs and his team continue to analyze the films, he strongly hopes no one will use a nuclear weapon 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,” he remarked.
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