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The Military Science

Movies of Cold War Bomb Tests Hold Nuclear Secrets (wired.com) 61

An anonymous reader writes: Nuclear weapons specialists are limited in their research today. Prudence and international treaties prevent them from setting off any nuclear weapons, so they have to run tests through other means and interpret the results. But this wasn't always the case. In the '50s and '60s, the U.S. government performed a huge number of nuclear weapons tests, and filmed most of them. As happened with a lot of film from that time, most laid untouched in storage facilities until people generally forgot about them. But physicist Greg Spriggs recently realized they could be a trove of useful information, so he started tracking them down, eventually locating thousands of them. His team has started scanning and analyzing them. They've finished about 3,000 so far, with more than half yet to go. "Now, of course, scientists have computer programs that can analyze every single pixel in a frame over hundreds of frames. What might have taken days by hand takes only minutes. With computer analysis, Spriggs is pinpointing more precise yields. Computer models then use yield to estimate the damage from a bomb in different situations."
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Movies of Cold War Bomb Tests Hold Nuclear Secrets

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    "Shall we play a game?"

  • Secrets (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Dan East ( 318230 ) on Monday December 07, 2015 @10:33AM (#51072919) Homepage Journal

    The "secrets" they speak of are higher accuracy measurements of the yield of the weapons. It is done by tracking the speed and size of the shockwave captured in the films, which was originally done by hand. There was up to 20% variation in the results of the measurements made by hand. They are now using computer software to perform the optical per-frame analysis of the shockwaves, and the result is more accurate measurements of the weapons' yield.

    • Re:Secrets (Score:4, Interesting)

      by KGIII ( 973947 ) <uninvolved@outlook.com> on Monday December 07, 2015 @10:46AM (#51072995) Journal

      It's okay, I must be out of touch. I could have sworn the treaties signed still allowed for underground testing. I seem to recall Dan Rather (quite specifically though I suppose it might have been the News Hour on PBS) talking about it on the nightly news? Have we ratified any treaties since?

      Hmm... Unless I am not reading something properly, Wikipedia agrees with me.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

      I don't think we're strictly prohibited from testing nuclear weapons in and of itself but I do seem to recall that we've only agreed to end atmospheric and above-ground tests. While we're not prohibited, I don't think (from my limited memory and quick scanning), it would be socially unacceptable behavior. Of course, Starfish Prime might indicate that we're not always worried about being polite or responsible. At least I think that's the project name where we decided setting off nukes in space was a brilliant idea.

      • Re:Secrets (Score:5, Funny)

        by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Monday December 07, 2015 @10:52AM (#51073053) Journal

        Hmm... Unless I am not reading something properly, Wikipedia agrees with me.

        No, it does not agree with you. Don't believe me? Give me five minutes and then check wikipedia.

      • Underground tests are not conducive to estimating the yield precisely. The atmospheric tests and the movies made of the explosion and the speed and size of the shock fronts are more useful. And that kind of testing is banned.
      • Re:Secrets (Score:5, Informative)

        by hey! ( 33014 ) on Monday December 07, 2015 @11:03AM (#51073123) Homepage Journal

        The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1996, but won't come into force until 44 specific nations with nuclear technology capabilities have ratified the treaty. At present there are eight nations on the list who have not ratified the treaty, including the United States. The US, however, is a signatory to the treaty, and has not conducted a nuclear test since 1992.

        So the US abides by the CTBT as a matter of policy, even though the treaty is not in force, and the Obama administration has in the past indicated that it wants to ratify the treaty, although that won't happen with this Senate.

        The reason it's smart policy to promote the adoption of the CTBT is that it would discourage nuclear proliferation, and we don't need to perform testing. We already have enough data from half a century of active testing to ensure our bombs go boom.

        • >> the Obama administration has in the past indicated that it wants to ratify the treaty, although that won't happen with this Senate.

          I call BS. Obama had the votes to do what he wanted in the Senate early in his term, and he didn't bother to ratify it.

          • the Obama administration has in the past indicated that it wants to ratify the treaty, although that won't happen with this Senate.
            I call BS. Obama had the votes to do what he wanted in the Senate early in his term, and he didn't bother to ratify it.

            Ratification takes 2/3s of the Senate.
            * Did he have about a third of the Republicans onboard?
            * Was it important enough to get this ratified NOW that he should spend some of his political favors, rather than waiting for the Senate to move on its

            • Following the 2008 Senate elections, the Democrats had 57 seats, the Republicans 41. There were 2 independents. That means at most he would have had to convince 3 Republicans. If he got the 2 independents, he would've only needed 1.
              • You fail at math. 2/3 of 100, rounded up, is 67, not 60.

                The last time any party had a 2/3 super-majority in the US senate was in 1965-67 (the Democrats.)

                • You fail at math. 2/3 of 100, rounded up, is 67, not 60.

                  The last time any party had a 2/3 super-majority in the US senate was in 1965-67 (the Democrats.)

                  Not to mention that the Republicans were the same dicks back in 2008 they are now, so they wouldn't even had gotten one of them to agree with anything.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        it would be socially unacceptable behavior.

        It would also tell our adversaries what our weapons were capable of. They have high-performance computers and seismographs and other interesting toys too. Why help them analyze our bombs? It's not like they're going to share what they learned with us :)

        What they don't have is our ancient celluloid, which we can use to put our supercomputers at work to understand how our old designs actually worked, with an eye to improving the accuracy of our current models o

    • Re:Secrets (Score:5, Informative)

      by Dins ( 2538550 ) on Monday December 07, 2015 @11:01AM (#51073113)

      It is done by tracking the speed and size of the shockwave captured in the films, which was originally done by hand. There was up to 20% variation in the results of the measurements made by hand. They are now using computer software to perform the optical per-frame analysis of the shockwaves, and the result is more accurate measurements of the weapons' yield.

      Fun fact: The vertical smoke trails present in many nuclear test films are there so they can "see" the shockwave on film as it propogates and affects the smoke trails. Right before detonation a row of rockets are launched vertically to create the smoke trails. I only mention it as for the longest time I wondered what these weird lines were from, and thought they might be some weird effect of the bomb or something. So I looked it up and learned the above.

    • Re:Secrets (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Richard_at_work ( 517087 ) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [ecirpdrahcir]> on Monday December 07, 2015 @11:03AM (#51073125)

      I wonder what the actual output of Castle Bravo was in the end then, if there was such a variation in original estimates and bearing in mind that Castle Bravo was massively in excess of its prediction.

  • Clickbait title (Score:4, Insightful)

    by NotInHere ( 3654617 ) on Monday December 07, 2015 @10:35AM (#51072939)

    Its not what you think, there are no actual national secrets that have to be kept disclosed, all researchers can access all material.

    The title is clickbait and taken from the press article.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Admittedly, the secrets are not the "classified" type but the "no one knew that" type.

  • I believe the US rejected the comprehensive treaty: the president signed it in 1996 but the Senate rejected it in 1999. Therefore, rejected?

    http://www.history.com/topics/... [history.com]

    • by tnk1 ( 899206 ) on Monday December 07, 2015 @11:02AM (#51073117)

      Yes, it isn't law. It doesn't prevent us from more or less complying with it unilaterally, it's just that we aren't binding ourselves to it. That gives everyone else a lot less peace of mind about it, but the US often has its own reasons for basically following the gist of treaties it doesn't ratify, so it usually works out. Usually.

    • by wjcofkc ( 964165 )
      There was the test ban treaty of 1963, and the comprehensive test ban treaty of 1996. On August 5, 1963, representatives of the United States, Soviet Union and Great Britain signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons in outer space, underwater or in the atmosphere. Of note, this does not include underground testing. But that is still very limiting. France and China were asked to sign the treaty, but refused.

      In 1996, the United Nations General Assembly adopte
  • These were movies made by the engineers on actual nuclear explosions.
  • If you want to calculate nuclear yields, I suggest picking up a copy of Samuel Glasstone's The Effects of Nuclear Weapons [amazon.com] (that's an Amazon link, but there are a fair number of used copies floating around). I have the revised 1962 edition.

    Be sure to pick up a copy that still has the yield computer wheel in the back of the book.

    Also, this web page [nuclearsecrecy.com] lets you map nuclear bursts using Google maps, and seems to be heavily based on Glasstone.

  • by PPH ( 736903 ) on Monday December 07, 2015 @11:50AM (#51073463)

    Now maybe we can properly calculate the trajectory of that manhole cover [wikipedia.org]

  • This article reminds me of a couple of sayings. One is that that close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades and thermonuclear weapons. The other is probably an urban myth. The idea was that, at one point in the Cold War, the US military was given a list of targets to be able to "destroy" and another list of targets to be able to "neutralize." Military Intelligence had to interpret these words in the context of nuclear war so they decided that "neutralize" meant to reduce the target to rubble with
  • Apple Inc. Eula: "..You also agree that you will not use these products for any purposes prohibited by United States law, including, without limitation, the development, design, manufacture or production of nuclear, missiles, or chemical or biological weapons."

    However I am ok with this. These nuclear explosions should be classified as art nowadays. Just do the dirty math with Linux and everyone should be happy.

  • Back in the late 1980s or maybe early 1990s (I was a kid at the time), OMSI (https://www.omsi.edu/) had a film that showed a large number of nuclear tests in the Pacific ocean. It was about an hour long and most of it was silent. It was primarily all in black and white. It lacked any sort of narration. It was just bomb after bomb after bomb after bomb...

    It would be great to see it again now that I am older and able to appreciate it more.

Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. - Paul Tillich, German theologian and historian

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