Nuclear Renewal

Viewers can now browse footage of Cold War-era nuclear bomb tests on Youtube. What is the value of that access?

Earlier this year, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory posted a few dozen videos of 1940s, 50s, and 60s-era nuclear bomb test footage to Youtube. It is a strange archive to browse casually. The videos are short and silent, and all but one are black and white. Some feature an instantly recognizable mushroom cloud on a landscape of sea or cloud. Others are more abstract: a vague bright swell and then nothing, or a huge opaque balloon of light caught between heavy clouds and the earth. These films substantially add to the public record of the United States’ Cold War-era nuclear program; clicking through them at home, a viewer would do well to question the value of that access.

Before the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 all but ended above-ground nuclear tests, the United States conducted 210 of them, detonating bombs a few hundred yards in the air to estimate their destructive power. Films like the ones released on Youtube were an essential part of this calculation. The first few seconds after an explosion were captured by 50 or so high-speed cameras. Later, technicians projected the films frame by frame against a grid. First they measured the shockwave, visible as a subtle wavering of the air, whose speed and shape indicated the bomb’s yield, or the amount of energy released by its detonation. A half second or so afterwards, a hazy cloud forms from the condensation of water vapor in the sudden burst of extreme heat; its shape and duration was used to verify the explosion’s speed, altitude, and heat, as well as the temperature and humidity of the surrounding air. The height of the mushroom cloud suggested the scope of the resulting fallout. This data, available in the moment after a detonation, is much harder to measure after the fact.

Today, weapons physicists still rely on the data from these early tests, which they plug into computer-modeled explosion scenarios to assess the United States’ newer nuclear arsenal. The films themselves have spent decades in storage, and, until recently, some were turning to powder, slowly becoming unwatchable. When a Livermore physicist noticed that the data produced by the computer models did not match measurements taken from the test footage, he dug out the films, and a restoration effort began. The physicist is now working with a film preservation expert and two nuclear historians to make the films accessible for updated analysis.

Livermore’s goals in publically releasing the footage are less obvious. The aftereffects of these tests have long been a part of our lives—according to the CDC, small amounts of radioactive materials can be found in the bodies of anyone living in the United States since 1951. But the physical fact of living in a world where nuclear weapons have been used does nothing to prepare a person for the real possibility that nuclear weapons might be used again. Nuclear war is now discussed as a thinkable or even inevitable option by those with the power to start one. Meanwhile, the most recognizable portrayals of nuclear war remain grounded in the moral and aesthetic universe of the Cold War, a frame of reference that can seem retro and, at times, cartoonish. How does watching these videos inform a non-scientist who is attempting to imagine their fate in relation to nuclear cataclysm?

It is not clear that the test footage provides much insight. Watching these films today is not a particularly jarring experience. Many are very beautiful. Many only vaguely resemble explosions. They leave you with the impression that each bomb and its effects are totally contained, in the frame and in time. If they summon fear at all, it is faraway, at once historic and speculative.

Since the videos were posted on March 13, they have collectively been viewed more than 5 million times. Slowly, people marvel at them, make their own associations, choose favorites, and claim the uncertain privilege of having a personal reaction to a nuclear explosion. In the absence of a popular discourse that adequately acknowledges the present-day dangers of nuclear war, Robert Oppenheimer’s quote from the Bhagavad Gita upon witnessing the Trinity test—“I am become death, destroyer of worlds”—remains a template for U.S. reactions to the bomb: a kind of spiritualized solemnity that does nothing more than marvel at its own strength. Allegedly, Oppenheimer intended the quote from the perspective of the bomb, which makes the gesture more ambiguous and might introduce the possibility of humility. But that is profoundly dangerous in its own way. By giving the bomb divine agency, Oppenheimer narrates himself into a more livable position. He is merely watching a war that must, by its own momentum, take place; he is a sacrifice to a nuclear force of nature that would have materialized with or without him.

The creation of Livermore’s nuclear test footage archive allows viewers to follow suit. As a public record, the films tend more than anything to normalize and extend the politics of the Cold War. Making this footage available to anyone is one way of reviving and reinventing the crumbling visual vocabulary of mutually assured destruction, of reinvigorating the logic of relations between nuclear states.