Bombs Away on YouTube


For the first time, thousands of films showing U.S. atmospheric nuclear weapons tests are freely, publicly available in an online archive. (New York Times)

What impact did atmospheric nuclear tests have on the scientists who watched them in person?

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit, including today’s simple MapMaker Interactive map.

Discussion Ideas

Illustration by Fastfission, courtesy Wikimedia. Public domain
  • The brainiacs at Lawrence Livermore have declassified films of U.S. atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. What are atmospheric nuclear weapons tests? What other types of nuclear weapons tests are there? Take a look at the diagram above for some help.
    • Nuclear weapons testing involves detonating a nuclear weapon to determine its yield and scope. There are four major types of nuclear weapons testing, determined entirely by geography—where the test takes place.
      • Atmospheric testing (1) describes nuclear detonations that take place in the atmosphere, the thin layer of gases surrounding Earth. Devices detonated in atmospheric tests are dropped from planes or balloons, or detonated from near ground level in isolated areas. Atmospheric tests result in those iconic mushroom clouds of radioactive debris.
      • Underground testing (2) describes tests conducted well beneath the surface of the Earth. Underground testing usually results in seismic activity, which can be identified on the other side of the world. Read more about that here.
      • Exoatmospheric testing (3) describes nuclear devices detonated above Earth’s breathable atmosphere, usually in the ionosphere. Rockets deliver these devices, whose explosion can sometimes result in an auroral display.
      • Underwater testing (4) describes nuclear devices detonated in the ocean. Detonated devices are moored to an abandoned ship. Underwater tests conducted close to the surface can result in mushroom clouds of water, steam and marine debris.


  • In the introductory video above, the nuclear weapons physicist from Livermore says, “We don’t have any experimental data for modern weapons in the atmosphere; the only data that we have are these old tests.” Why isn’t there any experimental data for modern nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere?
    • Atmospheric nuclear testing was outlawed by the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty. This treaty prohibited all test detonations of nuclear weapons except those conducted underground.
    • The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1996) goes even further and bans all nuclear explosions.
      • Nuclear weapons tests were targeted due to health concerns about radioactive fallout. Fallout from atmospheric tests includes earthen material and debris, while fallout from underwater tests includes steam and minerals.






New York Times: U.S. Nuclear Weapons Tests Come to YouTube

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