How Did Cameras Filming Nuclear Tests Survive The Blasts?

Despite some new conspiracy claims, nuclear tests were very real and the historical footage is genuine.

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Science Writer

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology.

Science Writer

A photo from July 14, 1962, part of Operation Sunbeam, at the Nevada Test Site. The photo shows observers watching the explosion in the distance.

Observers, some with cameras, watching the July 14, 1962, part of Operation Sunbeam, at the Nevada Test Site. Despite some claims circulating online, nuclear weapons, tests and uses were very much real and cameras were developed to record them. 

Image credit: Federal Government of the United States via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

We live in paranoid times, it seems. Every day there’s a new claim on the Internet that purports to reveal secret truths, evidence of elaborate cover-ups, or general mass conspiracies that have duped us all. The latest one doing the rounds is the belief that historical footage of nuclear weapons tests is in fact fake. Why? Because surely the cameras that filmed such blasts would have been destroyed, right?

A good question leading to bad conclusions 

On the face of it, this is a compelling question. How is it possible for something as delicate as a camera to survive the apocalyptic destruction of a nuclear explosion, especially ones built decades ago?


The origins of this latest exercise in distrust and imagination come from an episode of The Joe Rogan Experience podcast that shows footage recorded in the 1950s of nuclear explosions destroying buildings, houses, and cars. In the commentary, the billionaire investor Marc Andreessen questions the footage’s validity by drawing attention to some peculiar features, not least the camera’s ability to survive the blasts.

The show has had a big impact. The day after it was released, a post on Facebook quoted by Reuters shared the footage and asked “Why aren’t the cameras in these videos of the test nukes blown up with the houses?” The person who posted it then leaps to a sadly predictable conclusion at speeds that would make the explosion blush: “It feels like we have been lied to and psyop’d for decades on this subject”. They add that they also question the reality behind Hiroshima and Nagasaki because people are living there today despite the nuclear fallout.

Another post on Instagram was more direct “Did The United States Fake These Nuclear Test Videos?”

The short answer is no, they did not. How do we know? Well, we have hundreds of sources documenting the US’s nuclear history, including how test explosions were filmed. There are even books on the subject that explore it in detail.


Many of the tests that were recorded took place in the Pacific or in Nevada, far away from citizens who could be injured in the blasts. These films were used as sources of information for scientists investigating the power and nature of nuclear explosions. Some of the footage was also used as tutorials for federal and Congressional leaders who needed to know how these bombs worked.

The camera teams responsible used state-of-the-art technologies (at the time) that would eventually be adopted by Hollywood, including advanced cameras and lenses, as well as new projection techniques.

Much of the archives concerning the recordings of nuclear weapons tests are readily available online. There have been several efforts to declassify them ever since the Cold War ended in 1991.

According to a 2010 New York Times interview with an “atomic cameraman”, there were whole teams of film crews who recorded these tests at the time. The interviewee believed that he and his colleagues were so close to the explosions that the accompanying radiation had likely killed many of them at a young age.


“The people who did this film and camera work on nuclear tests, this is what they did,” Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science and nuclear technology at the Stevens Institute of Technology, told The Associated Press. “These are very well-qualified engineers whose whole deal is taking unusual pictures of things and inventing entire cameras for doing this.”

So how did they do it?

In short, the cameras used to film the tests that have recently fallen under scrutiny were specially designed to withstand the explosions. They were encased in steel and lead and positioned on towers secured in concrete. All this information is available in declassified military documents that you can read yourself.

In 1955, in what is called Operation Teapot, 48 cameras were set up at distances that ranged between 838 to 3,200 meters (2,750 to 10,500 feet) away from ground zero – the site of the explosion. These cameras were all protected. Those directed at the exterior of buildings were put on towers embedded in concrete at heights that helped minimize interference from dust and debris.

For those who are interested, further discussions of how nuclear blasts were recorded and photographed can be found here.


Also, it is important to remember that the footage we do see is only the result of the cameras that did survive. Many cameras were indeed destroyed during their efforts to capture the moments of destruction.

A series of historical clips of nuclear weapons tests destroying cars, buildings and trees.
Historical nuclear weapons tests. Image Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

What about the disappearing car?

Those who saw the conspiracy clips will likely quote the questions raised about the disappearing car. In footage taken of Operation Upshot in 1953, a car can be seen "appearing" behind a house as the explosion hits it. For the cranks, this is evidence that the footage is fake – in reality, it was just footage cut together. The recording without the car was taken as part of a routine film test to check that everything was working correctly. Rather than proving that the footage is fake, the appearing car merely shows that the camera setup and the explosion took place on different days.

The same situation occurred in Operation Teapot where a man and a car are visible by a house before disappearing as the blast hits it. The man was simply there in the test footage. Reuters does an excellent job explaining this.

It is regrettable that such suspicion has fallen on the history of nuclear weapons at a time when we should all be worried about their deadly power. Since the release of Oppenheimer at the cinemas, audiences have been reminded of the threat both atomic and thermonuclear weapons pose to the world at a time when more states are calling for their deployment as a deterrent against Russian aggression. Moreover, the flimsy denial of the reality of these weapons is an insult to the hundreds of thousands of people who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War.


For those who question how people can now live in these cities despite the nuclear explosions, there are easy explanations.

This article is part of our Inconceivable series debunking unscientific stories on the Internet. 

All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.


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