Buried History: Underground Nuclear Weapons Tests

mushroom cloud

When you think of nuclear explosions, you probably think of the iconic mushroom cloud. But in the 1950s and 1960s, underground nuclear tests were just as common. The tests were performed underground to prevent nuclear fallout from contaminating the atmosphere. And while they didn’t invoke any memorable mushroom clouds, the underground tests did produce some stunning effects on the surrounding areas.

Unbelievably, government tests were once carried out to determine if nuclear weapons could be used as earth-moving devices. Imagine using the most powerful, dangerous weapon on Earth to simply landscape an area. Such tests would never be approved today, thanks to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The incredible power of the nuclear weapon vaporizes rock in the immediate vicinity. The earth further away from the test site is crushed, cracked, and otherwise mangled. The tests caused seismic activity equal to a major earthquake. Underground nuclear tests usually caused gigantic craters to form at test sites, and if they were too close to the surface they caused huge expulsions of rock and debris along with radioactive materials. In these amazing vintage videos, you can see the shockwaves extending out from the central test sites as the weapons go off.

The last underground nuclear test in the US was conducted in 1992. While the long-term geological effects, if any, of the tests aren’t yet known, many of the resulting craters can still be seen at former nuclear test sites. Although the videos are entertaining to watch, the massive, terrifying power of these weapons is sobering.

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See more in Vintage Videos or under Vintage & Retro. December, 2009.