(This is part of an idea to split Artistic License – Nuclear Physics
and A Nuclear Error
. This is not part of any project to split the atom.)
In fiction, if something is nuclear, and something, anything
happens to it, it's gonna explode and make
a big mushroom cloud
. It doesn't matter if it's designed not to do that, it doesn't matter if it's not fissile enough to be used for an atomic bomb, it doesn't matter if it hasn't got enough material for critical mass, it's gonna blow.
In Real Life
, a nuclear weapon requires precise conditions to achieve a full-scale explosion, while fictional nukes act like spheres filled with mega-nitroglycerin
. Shooting or even blowing up a real-life nuclear weapon with conventional explosives is likely to disable
the warhead, not set it off.
A core for a nuclear weapon needs a near-spherical shape for any kind of runaway chain reaction, and depending on size and material may also need a neutron reflector. By contrast, fuel assemblies in nuclear reactors are arranged into long, thin columns separated by cladding; the large surface area causes a significant percentage of the available fission neutrons to dissipate into the moderator rather than causing further fission events, preventing a critical mass from forming.
Despite the common trope of villains (less commonly: the hero) stealing nuclear reactor fuel rods to build weapons out of, in real life, reactor fuel and weapons material are not interchangeable. The former simply does not have the enrichment levels and purity needed for the latter. And while plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons is in fact recycled as fuel, it's never shoved into a reactor as-is - it's blended with natural or depleted uranium until only a few percent of the original weapons-grade plutonium remains in the mix. In short: reactor fuel just doesn't have what it takes to go boom.
Related to Reliably Unreliable Guns
and Stuff Blowing Up
Anime and Manga
Film - Animated
- Justified in the Gundam franchise, the mobile suits use fictional nuclear fusion reactors called Minovsky Drives that can go critical due to damage. This is in fact exploited by a General Ripper who sends wave after wave of grunts into a boobytrapped compound in hopes of triggering a nuclear explosion, as actual nuclear weapons were banned by a treaty.
Film - Live Action
- In The Iron Giant, when the nuclear missile fired by the Nautilus hits the Giant in space, it detonates rather than just being destroyed.
- Pinocchio in Outer Space. While Pinocchio is on Mars, sand blowing into an underground complex causes the Martian nuclear reactors to malfunction and explode like nuclear bombs.
- Aliens. After the fusion power plant in the colony complex is damaged by the second drop ship smashing into it, it eventually detonates like a 40 megaton hydrogen bomb with a blast radius of thirty kilometers.
- In Joe Dirt the titular character holds a group of people hostage by threatening to hit the "atom bomb" (actually a septic tank with biohazard sticker slapped on) on his back with a ball-peen hammer.
- In K19: The Widowmaker, it's claimed that, if not controlled, the submarine's reactor meltdown will set off their supply of nuclear warheads.
- The Green Hornet episode "Invasion from Outer Space". An unarmed H bomb (without an installed detonator) inside a truck can supposedly be set off by a detonator attached to the outside of the truck.
- In the Gamma World adventure "The Legion of Gold", a damaged fusion reactor will detonate like an H-bomb.
- In Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, damaging a nuclear powered vehicle causes a large explosion with a mushroom cloud.
- In Half-Life: Opposing Force, you find a nuclear missile transported on a truck at a certain point. If you blow up a grenade next to it, or even whack it with your wrench, it will start exploding and finally blow up in some seconds, killing you no matter how far away you run.
- The Simpsons: In the episode "Homer Goes to College," Homer manages to cause a nuclear meltdown in a simulation which doesn't even have any fissionable materials attached.
- An aversion in the "Mother Russia" arc of The Punisher: Frank has no qualms about an extended firefight in a nuclear missile silo, since very little short of another nuke will set them off. Later he puts himself, the girl he's rescuing, and the Special Forces guy he's been saddled with inside a missile, launches it, and they bail out via parachute with no fear of the missile detonating.
- A film produced by the US Air Force back in 1960 showed nuclear weapons being purposely dropped out of planes, set on fire, and otherwise subjected to movie-of-the-week hijinks to demonstrate that rough treatment of nuclear weapons does not result in said weapons detonating.
- Averted in True Lies. Marine Harriers attack a trio of nuke-carrying trucks. One of them asks for confirmation that the missiles won't set off the nukes, and Schwarzenegger's character assures them that they won't. His expression to his partner after he says this, however, indicates he isn't as sure of this as he sounds. Since he is telling them to go ahead, he probably is aware that even if it is possible, it's extremely unlikely, and a chance well worth taking, weighed against the potential harm of the trucks getting away.
- Averted in John Woo's Broken Arrow. After the (deliberately engineered) crash of a Stealth bomber carrying nuclear missiles, it is correctly stated that the warheads cannot be detonated by burning jet fuel. Later the villain tells his team not to shoot at the warheads. He knows that they will not detonate, but is worried that the arming system will be damaged.
- Averted in the Steven Seagal movie Under Siege. U.S.S. Missouri's big guns are about to fire at a submarine carrying stolen nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
Jordan Tate: If the sub blows, won't the nukes go?
Casey Ryback: No. They won't detonate. Just sink with the sub.
- Averted in Rally Round the Flag, Boys! by Max Shulman, where the Army's spokesman explains that if, by a Million-to-One Chance, a Nike missile were to take off by itself, it would not explode on contact. When at the end of the story, a Nike is accidentally launched, it does not explode, but the impact makes a big hole in a certain valuable piece of shoreline property.
- Averted in the first of Harry Turtledove's World War novels, when the Germans use the the 80-cm Dora railway artillery to destroy two alien ships, one of which holds the Race's nukes. The nukes' detonators go off, but no nuclear explosions occur, as the bombs are deformed by the ship exploding. However, the explosion does spread radioactive material over a large area.
- Averted and lampshaded in Murray Leinster's novella Second Landing. The protagonist needs to disarm a nuclear bomb extremely quickly, and does so by shooting it with a bazooka. The bazooka blast renders the bomb unworkable, but does not detonate it, since that requires proper sequential detonation of the shaped charges surrounding the nuclear material.
- In The Sum of All Fears a nuke is lost when an Israeli plane is shot down, without going off, allowing Muslim extremists to find it and build their own bomb years later.
- In Nimitz Class by Patrick Robinson, a Nimitz-class carrier suddenly goes up in a nuclear fireball. While the popular theory is that one of their nuclear weapons cooked off, Washington knows it was attacked because nukes don't cook off like that.
- Averted/justified in Metal Gear Solid. When Snake reaches the room where the dismantled nuclear warheads are stored, he can't shoot for fear of damaging the nukes -- not because it might cause them to blow up, but because they might breach the radioisotope containers.
- Very nicely averted in Hammer and Sickle when, in the next to last mission, the main character says something like "When we find the nuke, just shoot it, or throw grenades at it." When the other characters complain that it's going to blow, he tells them getting a nuke to go off is a very difficult process, and that it's very unlikely that the bad guys ship it around armed and ready to go off. You get a nice dose of radiation poisoning that quite quickly drains your hit points though.
- The Supreme Commander series averts this trope. Nuclear missiles will explode and deal plenty of damage, but can be shot down safely with interceptor missiles.
- Averted in the Lonesome Road DLC for Fallout: New Vegas. You're given a special pistol used to detonate nuclear warheads. Instead of making a nuclear explosion, they make a huge conventional one that contaminates the blast zone with fallout.
- In The Simpsons episode "Sideshow Bob's Last Gleaming," Sideshow Bob gets hold of a fifty year old nuke and detonates it while holding Bart and Lisa hostage. We see the smoke rise in a mushroom cloud... before the camera pulls back to reveal the cloud is maybe six inches tall, barely enough to set off a smoke detector.
: [reading from the bomb casing]
"Best before November 1959.
" Dammit, Bob. There were plenty of brand new bombs, but you had to go for that retro 50s charm.