Related to Reliably Unreliable Guns and Stuff Blowing Up, if something is nuclear, and something, anything happens to it, it's Going Critical and gonna blow up like an atomic bomb. 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 (mainly a sphere of conventional explosives being set off in unison around the nuclear mass, compressing it to supercriticality and initiating a nuclear reaction) 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 offnote High precision engineering is required to get everything to come together properly; if things are off by even milliseconds, the yield will be dramatically reduced and it may fizzle entirely. Blunt force will not set off a nuclear weapon either, no matter how hard.
In fact, here's a film produced by the US Air Force back in 1960 showing 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.
If a reactor does melt down or is going to melt down, the hero usually has to manually initiate a SCRAM, an emergency shutdown, sometimes going to elaborate lengths to set the SCRAM up or even having to manually insert the control rods into the reactor one at a time. This is as opposed to real life, where it's typically an automatic safety feature which engages if the reactor shifts outside a certain set of safe operating parameters and where a manual reactor SCRAM is as simple as turning a switch. A switch that usually exists in multiple redundant locations both near and far away from the reactor room, so that you can always reach at least one during an emergency. What's more, even the failsafes have "dead-man" failsafes. Usually, the SCRAM mechanism has to actively prevent the shutdown from happening — for instance, by constantly pushing against a spring, or holding up control rods with an electromagnet. If power to the safety systems is interrupted even for a moment, the mechanism stops resisting and the reactor shuts down.
Similarly, fictional nuclear reactors will melt down or go up in gigantic nuclear explosions at the slightest thing going wrong. A nuclear reactor simply cannot cause a full-scale nuclear explosion: fuel assemblies 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. 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.
Assuming that a reactor SCRAM / shutdown means the absolute end of a casualty. A reactor "shutdown" simply slows down fission events to a subcritical level; the radioactive decay of fission products inside the reactor still produces a significant amount of heat — enough in the case of Three Mile Island (which was SCRAMmed very early in the timeline of the casualty) to damage the core and release radioactive material into the enviornment. The reactors in Fukushima were shut down upon the inital earthquake and still produced enough decay heat days later to cause full meltdown and hydrogen explosions. Even worse, at Chernobyl, the SCRAM signal aggravated the casualty (inside baseball: the control rod followers were made of neutron-transparent graphite, and replaced neutron-absorbing water in the control rod channels, causing a temporary spike in fission events before the even-more-neutron-absorbing boron control rod body was in place, driving the reactor over the edge into prompt criticality).
In fiction, a reactor melting down is always a Chernobyl-level catastrophe regardless of design. Most of the consequences of the Chernobyl meltdown were a direct result of the plant being built without a containment building, a structure that surrounds the reactor itself and is intended to reduce any consequences of a leakage or meltdown. These work rather well: in the third-worst reactor disaster, on Three Mile Island, the containment building duly contained the steam and other bad effects of the meltdown. No pyrotechnics; in fact, the radiation released from Three Mile Island was less than the radiation coming from your computer monitor.
Even in the SL-1 incident in 1961 (the only fatal reactor accident in the United States and another example of terrible control rod design), which lacked a designed containment building, the regular old building contained most of the radioactivity. Even with that, it proved that the core and water coolant vaporizing would prevent the core from melting down.
Chernobyl's core of uranium fuel was surrounded by graphite, making the reactor a giant block of charcoal waiting to ignite into carbon-14 => radioactive CO2 goodness. British nuclear power plants also use graphite as the moderator, except for Sizewell B, but they use carbon dioxide gas as coolant where Soviet reactors used water. It was the combination of graphite moderator and water coolant that made Chernobyl a death trap.
In addition, the conditions for Chernobyl accident were caused by 'scientists' performing experiments during the night shift, when the inexperienced crew, only capable of following directions from a manual, were not aware of, or able to properly react to, the conditions before it was too late to save the reactor. What happened was the operators initiating the test after they screwed up and hastily corrected themselves. The screw-up was safe and unrelated to the experiment, and had they shut down the reactor normally as intended (and written in the manual) nothing would happen. They, however, pressed on (allegedly to have something to report as an achievement at the upcoming May Day celebration - and even then, it was after two of the more senior operators complained that it wasn't safe to proceed, though when they were threatened with losing their cushy jobs they knuckled under). Unfortunately, their previous actions has left the reactor in the unstable and unstudied state, and in the process of the test they removed the last control rods, causing the reactor to heat up. When it got WAY too hot, they tried to fix it by fully inserting all the control rods. The reactor promptly blew up, though it was not actually a nuclear blast, it just threw radioactive junk everywhere.
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.
As a consequence of the above — while it is possible to extract the "weapons grade" plutonium fom a certain types of spent nuclear fuel, it requires not only a very particular variety, but also a fully equipped radiochemical plant: the amount of the right stuff is almost negligible, and you need tons of the spent fuel to extract enough plutonium for one bomb. Did we also mention that the spent nuclear fuel is highly radioactive and will kill you in hours unless a stringent precautions were taken?
And on the subject of Criticality, any time some thing goes wrong in a nuclear facility, terrified screams of "It's Going Critical" will fill the air, or the villain's plan will be to make the reactor go Critical. "Critical" means that the reaction is self sustaining and that the reaction is proceeding at a constant level — in other words, a critical reactor is one that is operating at a steady constant power level. One more time, "Critical" reaction is the normal operating condition of a nuclear reactor. Super-Critical, while not used despite sounding definitely bad, simply means that the reaction is steadily gaining power, or simply, someone getting powered by the reactor turned on a light and so the reactor went temporarily super-critical to increase its energy output for the new drain. Finally, there IS a condition that would (almost) elicit the reactions of a Hollywood type critical reactor. It's called Prompt-Critical, and if a reactor has had this happen,note This is what destroyed the SL-1 reactor in Idaho in 1961. The operators, whilst performing maintenance on the reactor, accidently removed the primary control rod entirely from the core. This immediately resulted in a major power output spike, which overheated the core to the point that steam pressure ejected the control rod and embedded it into the ceiling, taking one of the operators with it. there'd be no running around trying to prevent it or saying it happened; by the time any readings showed this happening, it would already be too late, and either the automatic safety systems would have kicked in and shut down the reactor, or the reactor pile would be an actual pile of slag.
Due to the abovementioned misconception of "critical mass", it's Hollywood-assumed that any minor wrong could send a nuclear reaction to prompt-critical. This is not practically the case, because, as we should more accurately speak of "critical density", most nuclear reactors are designed to stay below that at any time, including loss-of-coolant situations.
Most commercial reactors are cooled and moderated by water; a loss of coolant would risk fuel melting, but the reactor would go subcritical from the loss of coolant. Even if they are moderated by graphite, like Chernobyl of Windscale reactors, the meltdown is the worst thing that ever can happen with them. The most of the damage in Chernobyl and Fukushima was from the destruction of the reactor buildings, that lead to the spread of the "hot" junk around.
This comes from the Hollywood idea of reactors as bombs-in-waiting. When a nuclear bomb "goes critical", it's actually going Prompt-Critical which is why it explodes, thus when a reactor goes critical, it becomes a bomb and explodes.
Assuming the reactor core is inside the cooling tower. Because most people associate "nuclear power plants" with those giant hyperboloid structures as seen on The Simpsons, it's an easy mistake to assume that they are the plant and contain the reactor. In reality, the reactor is typically located in a separate block-shaped building (which ideally serves as a containment), and the towers are just the enormous radiators that contain and manage the cooling water. There are other types of power plants (such as coal plants) that have cooling towers which look just like the ones commonly associated with nuclear plants, whereas there are nuclear plants that don't have cooling towers. Notably, both the wrecked Chernobyl and Fukushima plants don't have them (Chernobyl has an unfinished cooling tower intended for unfinished additional reactors): Chernobyl used cooling ponds instead of towers, and Fukushima was cooled by the whole Pacific Ocean. Since the cooling towers are open on the top, placing the reactor inside would expose it to the open air, which would obviously be a bad idea.
Idea 2: Nuke-grenade! FIRE IN THE HOLE!
On the subject of critical mass, while both low-yield nukes and still-bulky "suitcase" nukes do exist in real life, critical mass means that there is an absolute lower limit on the size, weight, and yield of fission-based nuclear weapons.
Anything other than Uranium and Plutonium suffers from a whole rash of pre-ignition and stability issues, making anything other than the aforementioned two elements completely unusable for a weapon of any sort. It would be theoretically possible to have them cause an explosion in certain ludicrously rare lab experiment scenarios.
Somewhat surprisingly to most people, the reason that uranium and plutonium are useful in nuclear weapons is that they're not that radioactive. The plutonium isotope used in weapons has a half-life of 24,000 years; U-235 has a half-life of 700 million years. The really intense stuff is too unstable to actually build a weapon around.
"Critical mass" is a highly misunderstood term. Whether a sample of fissile material will produce an uncontrolled chain reaction is dependent on (roughly) the ratio of mass to surface area. If the ratio is too low (too much surface area) neutrons escape without causing further fission. If it's above the critical ratio, then of the three neutrons produced by each fission, on average >1 will cause another fission (meaning that the rate of reactions will grow). The oft quoted "critical mass" is the critical mass where a sphere of the material at a given density will go critical on its own. Thus, you can have a solid subcritical chunk of a fissile material of a larger mass than that value, as long as it has a different geometry (e.g. shaped like a rod instead of a sphere)note This has been the cause of several accidents where workers have transferred material from one vessel to another of a different shape. An amount that's safe in one vessel might go critical in another.. It's also possible to detonate a bomb with less than the "critical mass" of material — typically by the use of neutron reflectors.
Typically, the size and duration of the fireball and mushroom cloud will also have no real relation to how powerful the weapon is supposed to be.
Also, a nuclear explosion in a visual medium will often produce a series of vertical lines of smoke. These are copied from nuclear tests, but are not actually anything to do with the explosion; they're trails from rockets fired to give a visible indication of the shockwave.
Even in places with an atmosphere, the visual characteristics of the explosion are highly dependent on the local medium; thus, ones exploded underwater, underground, on the surface, in an airburst relatively near the ground, or in the high atmosphere all have very distinctly different appearances.
In a variant of Space Is Noisy, in a manner also frequently applied to lightning and conventional explosions, even when a nuclear explosion is accurately depicted visually (dazzling flash of light, followed by a rising mushroom cloud and shock waves racing outwards across the ground destroying everything that is not already on fire), frequently it will be heard to produce a deafening roar from the outset, long before the shock wave reaches the camera. Since the shock wave travels somewhat faster than the speed of ordinary sound, the initial flash and subsequent fiery visuals should actually be silent until the wavefront hits, save for the damage caused by the blast's radiation. For any observer sitting far enough away from the explosion to stand a chance of surviving it, this delay should be quite noticeable. Even documentaries have been known to get this wrong (e.g. Space Race).
Idea 3: Fission = Fusion
Since fusion and fission-based technology are both atomic, nuclear fusion is depicted as the same as but more than nuclear fission. Plutonium is usually similarly depicted in relation to uranium.
The existence of fusion-assisted nuclear weaponry is simply not acknowledged. All nuclear weapons, even those in the multimegaton range, run entirely off of fission. Typically, if a "fusion bomb" is talked about, it will imply that the device is extremely futuristic.
Actually, the hydrogen bomb or "H-Bomb" is a fission-ignited fusion reaction, or a "fission-fusion" bomb. Due to the high initiation temperature required for the fusion reaction to take place, this is known as a "thermo-nuclear" rather than a nuclear device. The term thermonuclear, while often applied to all fission weapons, correctly refers only to the fission-fusion or h-bomb type weapon.
The difference between a fission weapon and a fission-fusion weapon is academic at best; immediately after WWII, most new A-bombs were made using "boosted fission" (in which a small fusion reaction is initiated in order to provide more neutrons and more efficient fission), and a "fission-fusion" weapon still derives most of its energy from fission.
And further actually, most fission-fusion weapons use a cladding of uranium-238, which will absorb most of the massive number of 'unused' fusion neutrons and then fission; the bomb is now a 'fission-fusion-fission' bomb. Without that U-238 cladding, the neutrons spray out at high speed, irradiating the near area, and you have what the US called an 'Enhanced Radiation Reduced Blast' weapon — also known as the "Neutron Bomb".
There are two main types of fusion bombs: the American Teller-Ulam type (also known as the "Sakharov's Third Idea"), and the Soviet Sakharov type, also called "the layer cake". The Teller-Ulam bomb consists of a fission starter charge (often called the primary), a lithium deuteride fusion fuel block (often with the additional neutron source) next to it, clad by the U-238 "pusher" or "tamper" (the whole assembly usually dubbed the secondary), and the shaped heavy metal case. When activated, the primary emits a lot of hard X-rays that are reflected from the case to the secondary, ablating the tamper's exterior and causing it to compress, which in turn starts the fusion. Sakharov-type bomb has the starter completely surrounded by the fuel and the U-238 case, and the starter is optimized to emit mostly neutrons. When activated the neutrons are absorbed by the case, which then starts to fission, and the heat and radiation from the exploding case compresses and activates the fuel. It is called "layer cake" because layers of lithium and uranium could be repeated, increasing the device's output.
"All modern warheads use the Teller-Ulam system, as the "Layer cake" design was rather inefficient, but it let the Soviet scientists to create an upgrade of the American design, where the additional fission-fusion stages are added to the device, thus making it of theoretically unlimited power. The most powerful thermonuclear device ever detonated, the "Tsar Bomba", was reportedly a three-stage device employed in a two-an-a-half staged configuration, with the tamper of the tertiary made of lead and not the U-238 to reduce the fallout. With the uranium tamper the bomb's projected output was 101.5 megatons, lead tamper reduced it to just ~50 Mt.
To clarify: The "layer cake" design was abandoned as soon as the Teller-Ulam design had been arrived at (the US, the UK and the USSR all got it at roughly the same time, with a certain amount of help from espionage). Multi-stage devices are made of a cascade of Teller-Ulam stages, one Teller-Ulam stage acting as the primary of a larger Teller-Ulam stage. The cascade can be continued more or less indefinitely, but no more than three stages are required for any militarily useful yield. The Tsar Bomba - which was purely for show, and militarily useless - was a Teller-Ulam cascade.
Fusion power tends to be depicted as operating in exactly the same way as nuclear power; while the reactor set / prop might look futuristic, expect talk of chain reactions and meltdowns in relation to a fusion plant, even though neither term could possibly be applied to any practical nuclear fusion plant. Fusion reactions are not self-sustaining unless they happen inside a star; in fact, the ongoing problem preventing us from achieving a fusion-powered grid is that it currently takes a lot more constant energy influx to cause the reaction to happen than can be gathered by it. Additionally, the fusion reaction itself requires exceedingly delicate conditions, carefully maintained by massive electromagnets and vacuum pumps. As a result, instabilities, fluctuations or otherwise serious problems in a fusion reactor will merely cause the reactor to instantly and mostly harmlessly shut itself down.
Alternately, fusion may be shown as a perfect, clean energy source that generates limitless energy from minuscule amounts of water. Not so in real life. Most proposed fusion reactions generate lots of neutrons, which in turn create radioactivity aplenty. Some possible fusion reactions are aneutronic, mostly or entirely avoiding this problem, but those produce less energy and are technically more challenging to achieve, as if making a viable fusion power plant of any kind weren't hard enough.
While it's true that fusion is not radiation-free, the issue posed by the irradiated material is vastly inferior to fission reactions. Generally only the innards of the reactor become irradiated; given sufficient care, an ideal fusion plant would, from a practical point of view, be "clean". Anyone who stuck their head in the reactor 10 seconds after poweroff would die gruesomely, but nobody outside the plant itself would need to concern themselves with such issues.
It would actually be about the same at the plant itself. The main source of radiation exposure for personnel operating a nuclear reactor is nitrogen-16, which is created when oxygen in water (you still have to cool the thing, and transport energy to your steam turbines somehow) is exposed to neutron flux. Neutrons will also irradiate iron and cobalt atoms in the primary coolant piping, providing the majority of radiation exposure in a shutdown, contaminating the coolant (thus requiring the same control methods needed as in a fission plant), and ensuring that all maintenance tooling and cleaning supplies are low-level nuclear waste (again, same control methods). However, the big difference between fission and fusion in terms of waste is the spent nuclear fuel; the nuclides created by the fusion reaction itself would be short-lived and tame compared to fission products.
Most radioactive materials don't glow at allnote not in visible light, anyway. Swimming pool reactors have a characteristic blue glow that's actually Cherenkov radiation — pretty, but not caused by the radioactivity itself. Some intensely radioactive substances like actinium, cesium-137, and pure radium metal itself (in large enough quantities), actually do glow (technically, self-fluoresce) by their own radioactivity and are generally not healthy to be in the same room with. However, even those are faint enough that you can only see the glow in the dark.
Sufficiently hot masses of critical material, such as the fuel pellets for radioisotope thermal generators, do glow, but not out of radiation - merely out of heat. Also, your average picture of a glowing fuel-pellet typically cheats - most such pictures are taken after covering the pellet with a thermal insulator, concentrating its heat enough for the express purpose of making it glow and taking a pretty picture. You'd only be able to see the glow with an infrared-sensitive imager otherwise.
Most radioactive elements are greyish, not green or blue. The most common (non-metallic) color of nuclear material would be from one of the first steps in uranium refinement; yellowcake.
The "sickly green glow" idea probably came from the greenish color of the old glow-in-the-dark radium dial wristwatches. Even in this case, though, it isn't the radium that's glowing. The hands and face are painted with a mixture of radium and zinc sulfide; the latter phosphoresces when struck by the high-energy charged particles emitted as the former undergoes radioactive decay.
Another source of this idea is probably the "uranium glass", a colored glass very popular in the early 20th century. Its actual color and transparency varies from straw to grass-green, and from slightly dusty to completely opaque, but it invariably glows a solid yellow-green under the UV light.
Anything this insanely radioactive would be decaying so rapidly it wouldn't actually be the same isotope for more than a few minutes. That's what radioactivity means.
It's perfectly possible to walk around in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone without dropping dead in seconds or growing a third arm. In the entire 30-kilometer Zone dangerous radiation is limited to two "hot spots" with a total area of 2000 square meters, and 'dangerous' means 'a picnic in this place might result in some radiation poisoning'. The Zone's become an accidental nature reserve. Not everything is roses, of course: the soil closest to the plant contains high levels of uranium (a heavy metal), and the food chain is still full of easily absorbed caesium-137 and strontium-90 (with a half-life of roughly 30 years, which means that even today about half of it remains after the disaster). So while they're mostly free from human interference, animals in the area have reduced lifespans and a high rate of birth defects.
People live in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, despite the best efforts of a pair of horribly primitive and inefficient strategic nuclear weapons. Weapons that would have left a much larger and more concentrated amount of radioactive fallout than more efficient weapons. This is helped by a benefit of an air burst - if the fireball doesn't touch the surface, fallout is extremely small. If it does touch the surface, though, it's irradiating and vaporizing tons of dirt/water which then go up in smoke... and later come down. Somewhere.
Walking hand in hand with Artistic License - Biology, instant, horrible, in-generation mutations caused by exposure to radiation. Actually, living organisms simply do not work that way. For starters, where radiation is supposed to "alter" (e.g. damage) DNA/RNA, it would have to introduce the same very specific change in billions, per body cell count, of random events hitting that DNA. Then, as a functioning body actually has far more regulating systems active, it should somehow alter all of them in precisely the same manner, so we do not get an old, boring Real Life set of radiation symptoms like body systems fighting in an attempt to fix each other. And not the least, the amount of radiation doing all that should somehow fail at destroying/damaging every other body chemical but DNA (rendering the whole organism inoperable) or simply frying the subject in the process.
See also A Nuclear Error for policy-related gaffes involving atomic weapons. This trope is frequently invoked by writers for the sake of artistic license. A good portion of these have fallen victim to The Coconut Effect.
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Amazingly enough, Mobile Suit Gundam averted this: a nuke is launched in one episode, and is then sliced apart by the eponymous Gundams beam saber. Slicing the nuke does not cause it to explode, but fall to pieces harmlessly. How averted this is is debatable, as Amuro is shown he has to slice the missile apart in a certain way to keep it from exploding. Draw your own conclusions.
Sadly, later series are more inaccurate. Both Stardust Memory and Char's Counterattack also prominently featured nukes... which did not behave much like actual nukes would (most horribly: the Physalis Gundam's nuclear bazooka looks like it fires some sort of beam rather than a projectile).
The GP-02's atomic bazooka doesn't seem to be a conventional nuclear missile launcher, as instead of a missile flying out of the shaft, an intense beam of energy emerges. This suggests that the bazooka is actually a casaba howitzer, a directed energy weapon that utilizes a nuclear-shaped charge to generate a high-energy gamma ray laser and is essentially a hypothetical real-life Wave Motion Gun. However, they still fail in that in order to make a casaba howitzer that small without blowing up the GP-02 in the process, it would have to be made of a material much MUCH stronger than anything currently known to man, and since mobile suits of all makes and models are getting torn apart by simple energy and kinetic weapons, this probably isn't the case.
Gundam SEED has ZAFT remove nukes from the equation of war with the N-Jammer, a device that completely cancels nuclear reactions in its radius... somehow. Then N-Jammer Canceller technology is discovered and they go back to launching nukes. ZAFT's next countermeasure is the Neutron Stampeder, which somehow prematurely detonates the warheads before they're launched.
∀ Gundam also features nuclear warheads of the grenade-like variety, but this is justifiable for a few reasons. One, they're at least 2,000 years old, so even if they weren't designed to be triggered by impact, the control mechanisms simply aren't going to be reliable anymore. Two, everyone treats them like grenades because nukes are a weapon out of very bad ancient history, so it's natural to be terrified of them even before five of them blow up Gavane Gooney.
Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team averts this interestingly. Nuclear weapons are banned by a treaty, however all mobile suits have nuclear reactors. A General in the Federation keeps sending in mobile suits to a mountain stronghold in the hope that it will get damaged just right to trigger a meltdown and take out the base.
In the Bubblegum Crisis, the final episode has a runaway robotic tunnel digging machine, uh, digging a tunnel though an active fusion reactor. The secondary police characters were alternating between ranting against and calmly accepting the imminent vaporizing of Mega-Tokyo. To be fair, it was digging very fast, almost a foot per minute.
Justice League #3 (1987) features the "cooling tower = reactor building" misconception.
As does The Amazing Spider-Man #329: Spider-Man (who has the powers of Captain Universe at this point) fights the Tri-Sentinel, who attacks a nuclear power plant. During their fight, the Tri-Sentinel smacks the cooling tower, to which Spidey comments: "Oh, no! He's cracked a containment tower!"
In Identity Crisis, Firestorm the Nuclear Man, mortally wounded after being impaled through the chest with the Shining Knight's magical sword by the Shadow Thief, detonates like an atomic bomb a short while later. The omniscient narrator, Green Arrow, comments:
"No one there is a physicist. But they still know what happens when you puncture a nuclear reactor."
To which reviewer Greg Morrow of the comic book blog "Howling Curmudgeons" had this to say:
"Well, I am a physicist, and the answer to what happens when you puncture a nuclear reactor is: Pretty much nothing. [...] In no case would you get, as Identity Crisis's narrator seems to think is self-evident, a nuclear explosion. Worst case, you get an explosion of radioactive material (not unlike a 'dirty bomb,') but you're not going to get a Fat Man-type explosion."
Deconstructed in Watchmen. The Big Bad uses this trope to convince an ignorant public that Dr. Manhattan is a walking radioactive cancer-machine.
In The Butter Battle Book, the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo appears to be the size of a thimble, yet has enough destructive potential to send the Yooks racing for the fallout shelters.
The death of Locke in the Archie Comics' Sonic the Hedgehog story "Mobius: 25 Years Later". Let's see, why is Locke dying? Because he contracted cancer. How did he contract cancer? Because of a lifetime of absorbing Master Emerald radiation interacting badly with his altered DNA. Why is his DNA altered, he experimented on himself to give his then-unborn son Chaos-fueled superpowers. See the problem? The same genes that end up killing him through enhanced radiation sickness are now in Knuckles. Oh, and just to add further insult to this, Locke gave Knuckles' egg a big ol' dose of Master Emerald radiation soon after it was laid. How Knuckles didn't hatch into a stillborn tumor baby, while his dad ended up dying from cancer, despite having the same combination of altered genes and radiation, is anyone's guess.
The Metal Men commits a similar mistake to that described for the Green Hornet, below. Magnus's bomb group is about to let go and obliterate his evil robot twin, but when he sees the Metal Man "Plutonium" he orders them to hold fire for fear of setting it off. Evil!Magnus knows this and lampshades it to Platinum seconds before Real!Magnus perceives the situation. Of course in this case it might not be an error because Plutonium was a sentient creature which could choose its moment to explode.
A minor one: in Marvel Comics' The Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos at one point mentions having a "thermal nuclear device," rather than a thermo-nuclear device.
The third, fusion-powered version of Starman for DC comics fought a phasing opponent who used a Cadmium dagger (cadmium being used to dampen nuclear reactions in fission reactors sometimes) in an attempt to neutralize Starman's powers because 'well you're powered by nuclear energy!'. Which got him a 'you're an idiot!' moment from Starman as he rightly points out that his being transformed into a solar-powered being like the sun meant he ran on fusion and not fission reactions.
An isotope being so "vollatile" [sic] that it doesn't have a half-life, but a "quarter-life". The "quarter-life" of a radioactive material would be the time taken for the radioactivity of a material to drop to a quarter of its original value; this would be precisely twice the half-life of a material. Furthermore, volatility has nothing to do with radioactivity.
Said isotope "hit[ting] the quarter-life" causing a meltdown, which makes the room "slowly become vaporize," causing a scientist to be "blowed to smitheroons."
And finally, the isotope "goes off harmless" when plunged into the ocean.
Light and Dark The Adventures of Dark Yagami keeps returning to this one. A nuclear bomb is no more powerful than a small pipe bomb ("the nuclear bom went off like a bom") — the worst of the damage is a scratch in Light's dad's car — but covers the area in "radiactiv" (which fatally irradiates "Yotsuba" but leaves everyone else unharmed). Later, nuclear missiles are used as pens, and later than that, putting "nuclears" in a normal explosion makes it magic, letting it chase our 'hero'.
The Life After Death Trilogy, a post-Spider-Man 2 fanfic starring Doc Ock, deals with two examples of nuclear physics. First is Dr. Octavius's infamous experimental fusion reactor, and more in line with this trope are the four plutonium batteries he uses to power the tentacles. At one point Octavius mentions that he's rigged a failsafe in them that will deliberately overload the batteries in the event of his death as a way to keep the tentacles from falling into anyone else's hands, essentially making a quartet of small nuclear bombs. Vindictive as he might be, this trope does get averted in that Octavius knows full well that nuclear reactor =/= nuclear bomb and the damage his little batteries would inflict is nowhere near the annihilation of half of Washington DC he threatens.
The Legend of Total Drama Island uses a bit of artistic license to provide a plausible(ish) explanation for the detonation of Izzy's firestarter. note The canon counterpart of this scene was merely a sight gag that viewers weren't expected to dwell on, but the fanfic author is fond of explaining things. According to the story's notes, the story accepts as true the exaggerated claim, from a 1961 Popular Science article, that a californium bomb with a 10-ton yield could be the size of a pistol bullet.
Films — Animation
In Animatrix, the scenes that explain how the machine city went to war with humanity has a part that involves humans nuking the shit out of their city. And the narrator says that it doesn't work because the machines "aren't affected by radiation." Ouch. Apparently nukes in The Future have no blastwave, and robots of The Future are immune to heat and the Electro Magnetic Pulse that comes from a nuclear blast. Considering they use EMP as their main weapon against the machines in the movies, it makes even less sense.
'...the machines had little to fear of the bombs' radiation and heat.' The former statement is problematic, the later is very much true. Most of a A-bomb's destruction comes from heat and machines are darned better at surviving that then mere flesh. The radiation? Not really an issue, as thanks to the square law of dissipation it'd only matter if you're close enough to be killed by the blast-wave anyway. "Funfact": armored fighting vehicles still proved surprisingly resilient against both heat and the blast-wave, hence why research focused on increasing the emitted radiation, resulting in the Neutron Bombs. (Which were more or less a failure, as lethality couldn't be significantly improved compared to conventional fission devices).
The Martian nuclear reactors in Pinocchio in Outer Space. They go supercritical and explode like an atom bomb (complete with mushroom cloud) because of sand blowing into their underground complex.
The Iron Giant: "My Nuke Is Going Critical" version. When the nuclear missile fired by the Nautilus hits the Giant in space, it detonates. This is impossible: nuclear weapons are specifically designed to only detonate under specific conditions, such as reaching ground level where the Giant originally was. The missile should have just been destroyed.
Films — Live Action
In Aliens the colony's nuclear fusion reactor has been damaged. This means that it's going to go off like Tsar Bomba in a matter of hours.
However, it's mostly averted in the first movie— when the Nostromo's engines overload, the blast appears as a large circle of light in space, and there is no sound until the shockwave hits the still-too-close escape shuttle.
In the cyberpunk action film Babylon A.D. a radiation-shielded train passes over a bridge built across a massive crater blasted by a nuclear power plant. While a cool scene, apart from the "reactors blow up" fallacy, it also raises the question of the difficulties of building a bridge in such a highly-radioactive area (plus the expense of creating shielded trains) versus just building a detour.
Back to the Future featured a minuscule plutonium powered fission reactor that barely altered the shape of the famous DeLorean time machine, had a 1.21 Gigawatt output (greater than many full-sized nuclear power stations), and expended a fuel rod in an instant. Later it's apparently fitted with a fusion reactor the size of a coffee grinder that runs on household waste.
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 villian 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 that the reactor incident shown toward the beginning of the film is a fairly realistic failure mode for a nuclear reactor from the period. (The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island a few days after the film's release was remarkably similar.)
In a surprising aversion (considering the movie involves angels, demons, psychics and the son of Satan), the director of Constantine had seen old videos of dummy towns in nuclear test footage, and so designed Hell to look like "A continuous nuclear explosion that could never have a shockwave."
In The Core, the good guys suddenly realize they need to up the yield of a nuke by 30% if they want to save the world. How do they accomplish this? By taking a plutonium bar from the Cool Starship's power generator and placing it right next to the bomb. Stacking anything "nuclear" next to a bomb will not improve the bomb's yield.
In The Dark Knight Rises, the Chekhov's Gun is the core of a fusion reactor designed to provide clean energy. It can be (and is) modified by a Russian scientist into a nuclear bomb with some work and direct access to the blueprints, thanks to the fact that the woman who bankrolled and helped design the reactor was working with Bane. The reactor's core will also degrade over a period of time and eventually detonate which Bane has calculated to the second, again, thanks to the schematics he would have access to. While these are not possible with real-life nuclear reactors or theoretical cold fusion reactors, the reactor in the movie is all but outright stated to be a unique design created by Bruce Wayne and his scientists.
Bond and the Big Bad/The Heavy handle the plutonium bar with their bare hands. A rod of Pu that size would weigh at least 50 pounds, which is big enough to be a critical mass. It would be exceptionally hot to the touch, and also would be emitting lots of neutron radiation. To be fair, the villain is both immune to pain and suicidal, so the fact that the rods should be scalding hot and emiiting lethal levels of radiation might actually be excusable. Bond has no such excuse, though.
Only plutonium-238 (half-life 87 years, used for radioisotope thermal generators, producing electricity from decay heat) does that. Plutonium-239 (the bomb-type) has a half-life of 24100 years and Pu-240's half-life is still over 6000. And if by some improbable chance the Big Bad wanted some long-lasting plutonium, there's Pu-244, with a half-life of 80 million years.
The reactor of the movie's 1967-vintage nuclear sub had fuel assemblies (that plutonium rod) which could be manually inserted and removed. That's not how a Russian sub reactor is designed (though it is closer to certain heavy water power reactors.) To refuel the sub, they first need to shut down the reactor for 90 days so the fuel is not too hot from a radioactive and thermal standpoint. Then they cut open part of the sub's outside hull to remove the fuel assemblies. Big job, needed once every 5 to 10 years. The bullet stuck in the Big Bad's brain would have killed him by then and the audience would be quite bored.
Tomorrow Never Dies averts this in the end. A nuclear missile is going to be fired at Bejing in less than a minute. Since James Bond doesn't have enough time to delicately disarm, he just attaches some explosives to the tail end of the missile so when the missile ignites to lift off, the flames detonate the explosives, safely blowing the missile to hell. However, the movie does play the trope straight at the beginning, when the top brass is talking about some Soviet nuclear torpedoes detonating or spreading plutonium from their missile strike. Likely because of the poor science, these lines are skipped in television broadcasts and just jumps to the action.
In K19: The Widowmaker, after the K-19's reactor suffer a coolant leak, the reactor officer, which just graduated from the academy, explains that the pressure will continue to build up until it reaches critical, at which point he explains he has no idea what's gonna happen but speculates that a nuclear explosion would happen with the melt down and "cook off" the nuclear warheads they're carrying.
Not only he should know what happens in this case, but he also should know that what's he describes is just plain impossible.
In Pacific Rim, the Gipsy Danger's nuclear reactor is repurposed as a nuclear bomb to destroy the portal, complete with huge explosion. Usually, that can't happen. It's all but stated, however, that the reactor was deliberately tuned to be used for a nuclear self-destruct, since setting it off can be done fairly easily from the cockpit.
The power source for a Robot has absolutely no relationship to whether it's analog or digital. Raleigh connects the two for no reason.
However, with the later model nuclear Jaegers, it's likely that the electronic systems would be hardened against radiation.
Gipsy Danger's "nuclear reactor" is not a nuclear reactor but something referred to as a "Nuclear Vortex Turbine" that has all the functionality of a fission rocket hooked up to a turbine and generator. As we all know a rocket is just a slowed down and directed explosion, so it not to much of a stretch for it to be suddenly less controlled. This would also explain numerous other functions of the chest piece such as a deceleration rocket or a short range wave motion gun.
In an aversion of the trope, in The Peacemaker Nicole Kidman successfully stops an atomic explosion by distorting a piece of the explosive jacket surrounding the plutonium core, resulting in a small (if a bit dirty) conventional explosion because it wasn't shaped properly. This is exactly right.
At the beginning of the movie, a train carrying nuclear weapons explodes when it hits another train head on. The heroes point out that shouldn't happen, as modern warheads have numerous safeties. As one character puts it: "You can fire a pistol right at the warhead and it wouldn't go off." In fact, the bad guys rigged a nuke still on the train to blow.
The movie also correctly illustrates that most thermonuclear weapons consist of a primary fission charge and a secondary fusion fuel package. The Big Bad removes the latter to make the weapon light enough to carry. (Though the elements are significantly larger and heavier in real life.)
The Spider-Man 2 features a extremely silly depiction of fusion power so Doc Ock's tentacles take control of his body (they're to manipulate the fusions!). Highlights include Doc Ock saying there's only 25 pounds of tritium in the world, a deeply ridiculous open-sided reactor, and dropping an object established to be a miniature sunnote You can tell it's a miniature sun because it has a miniature photosphere with miniature sunspots, and the occasional miniature prominence or flare into a river where it, um, goes out harmlessly. Because fusion plasma does that.
The typical fusion reactor has the plasma in a vacuum to prevent heat loss and to keep the assembly from being vaporized. Ock's design doesn't, which would have killed everybody in the room, even if it had been functioning perfectly. The tentacles would have been melted, if not vaporized, on contact with the plasma.
Prior to being quenched by the river, the miniature sun is shown acting as a tremendously powerful magnet, pulling in girders of the building it is contained in and instantly consuming them in its plasma. However, iron requires rather than produces energy by fusion. In contrast, water, being composed of light elements, is more likely to fuel a fusion process, and since it was solid as it entered the miniature sun, it would have cooled the system and reduced the fusion reaction rate. So something that would have instantly snuffed out the miniature sun is depicted as making it more powerful, while something that would have made it more powerful makes it fizzle.
Quenching in the river is also ridiculous - as anyone who has passed a nuclear cooling tower knows that quenching that kind of fire should have caused a tremendous amount of dangerously hot steam. The energy can't just "go away".
To say nothing of the questionable ethics of testing out an unproven powerful power source in a building in the downtown area of one of the most populated cities on Earth.
In Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Superman drops Nuclear Man into the cooling tower of a nuclear power plant... and he somehow ends up inside the reactor (which should be located in a different building). Which somehow ends up destroying Nuclear Man.
In The Swarm, a horde of killer bees gets into a nuclear power plant. This somehow causes the plant to go critical and go up in a gigantic explosion (within seconds!). Without killing the bees.
Terror from the Year 5000 has an archeologist use carbon-14 dating to determine that a metal statue came from the future. And when he and another guy hold a Geiger counter over the statue, they are shocked to learn that it's incredibly radioactive. Seeing as carbon-14 is a radioactive isotope, you'd think they would have noticed this earlier...
Also you can't use C14 dating on non organic substances (sometimes works on pottery because straw was used to reinforce unfired pots). C14 is built up in living organisms then decays after the organism dies, so assuming the statue was organic its age would be dated from its creation regardless of time travel. Uranium dating would have avoided all these problems.
Another surprising aversion in the comedy/action flick 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.
It should be noted that about a minute before the bomb detonates, law enforcement officers told people not to look in its direction, and the pilots of the Harriers landed their planes and shut down the engines, while Schwarzenegger holds his hand over his eye so he could not see the blast in his peripheral vision.
Discussed and averted in Under Siege when Steven Seagal's character is preparing to fire on the sub with the stolen warheads. Jordan Tate asks, "Won't the bombs detonate?"; he tells her: "It doesn't work that way; they will just sink".
The Wolverine: Yashida stares directly into the flash of an atomic bomb and suffers no ill-effects. He should have been blinded on the spot, which would have made it a lot harder to run for the well. His survival of the following explosion and radiation is somewhat more plausible, due to distance and detonation factors (an air-burst detonation leaves relatively little fallout), but still rather unlikely given he waited until the blast had practically caught up to them.
Parodied in Young Einstein, when Einstein attempts to add bubbles to beer by splitting the beer atom... with a chisel. Eventually he succeeds, and an exterior shot lets us watch his shack explode.
He goes on to top this by stopping a runaway nuclear reaction by hooking up an electric guitar to the reactor and playing it at insanely high decibels to bleed off the energy. "IT'S ALL RIGHT MARY! ... THEY'RE ONLY ELECTRONS!"
Use of stock footage from nuclear tests is very common in B-movies; these will typically include vertical smoke lines, even when the weapon is supposed to be a battlefield deployment.
For those who don't know, those smoke lines are from rockets that were launched during nuclear tests to measure the path of the shock front.
The movie Testament featured a "harmless flash." If you are close enough to see the flash in such a way, you're likely being burned up in it. Nuclear flashes are not just harmless pretty or scary light - they are intense heat. That said, the scarier thing about Testament is the implication that it wasn't close at all (e.g. no damage, no immediate fires)... and still was that bright.
Stop, Drop and Roll educational films told the same story. When you see the flash, jump to the curb and hide your face. Then when it's clear you can get up and walk away. No searing heat, no pressure wave, no radiation, no post-apocalyptic zombie world.
When the proper action would have been to dive for the nearest shade or least flammable thing in sight. See above.
In G.I. Joe: Retaliation all the nukes in the world are fired but all were aborted (exploded) short of their intended targets ignores the fact that they just essentially detonated thousands of dirty bombs in the upper atmophere all over the earth. All that undetonated fissile material (It doesn't get destroyed or become unradioactive in a non-nuclear explosion), will be spread out and drift down to earth, polluting the planet.
Then again this is part of Cobra's evil plan so its probably understandable in that the people behind it don't really care as it is a Win-Win Ending.
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.
Also in the first book, one of the first things The Race does when they arrive on Earth is to set off a number of nuclear detonations in the atmosphere, so that the EMPs produced will short out Earth electronics. They do not produce mushroom clouds when they go off.
Roald Dahl's 1948 novel Sometime Never: A Fable for Supermen is the first science-fiction to involve several nuclear bombs. But it averts this, being surprisingly accurate and graphic. It has two third-shot accounts by witnesses of nuclear blasts. By the way, every named protagonist is killed by the same nuke.
In his earlier novel (but not the film) The Hunt for Red October, a Soviet submarine racing to intercept the Red October suffers a catastrophic reactor accident. In a realistic aversion, the reactor core doesn't explode, but simply melts through the reactor vessel and the ship's hull, causing it to sink.
Lester Del Rey' s 1956 novel Nerves features a nuclear reactor where nuclear isotope production is discussed in terms that sound considerably more like chemistry than nuclear physics: they talk about isotopes "reacting" with each other in such a way as to neutralize both of them, for example.
Hans Dominik's novel Atomgewicht 500 ("Atomic Weight 500") similarly presents the creation of a super-heavy isotope that unlike the rather less stable intermediate material it's ultimately derived from is pretty much inert in and of itself but will conveniently start to give off energy if brought into contact with water as relatively easy if you only have the know-how and an excellent lab. In its defense, the story was written in 1935.
Averted in Heinlein's short story "The Long Watch". The protagonist prevents a nuclear attack on the Earth by military forces on the Moon by taking the bombs (which are Little Boy style "gun barrel" devices, rather than the Fat Man type of "implosion device" more often featured in fiction) apart and smashing their plutonium cores with a hammer. In the process, he exposes himself to enough radiation to reduce his lifespan to a matter of hours...., which is again realistic (although the absence of radiation sickness is not).
It isn't very realistic, though. Gun-type design is in fact completely unworkable for plutonium bombs, because the fissile Pu-239 isotope is always contaminated by an even more fissile and extremely hard to get rid of Pu-240 isotope, which would initiate a chain reaction long before the two cores are sufficiently joined, thus making the bomb to fizzle. To avoid this either the cores should be joined at the speeds in the kilometers per second range, or Pu-240 completely removed from them, both variants technically impossible. That's actually why all plutonium devices in use are implosion-type. His death is another debatable point. Plutonium is active enough for sufficiently large balls of it to glow red hot from their own heat, but it's alpha-active, that is, it emits the high-energy Helium ions that could be stopped by the sheet of paper (or the human skin). One can hold a small plutonium pellet in the bare hands without any harm. On the other hand plutonium is poisonous, and inhaling its dust amounts to injection yourself with thousands of alpha-emitters, and it's readily flammable to boot. Smashing plutonium cores by a hammer would probably release enough dust for it to be lethal. Only Pu-238 has as short enough half-life to be noticeably hot, and it's produced through a different route than Pu-239.
Heinlein sets up a blatant type 1 error in "Blowups Happen," a story where power is generated at a nuclear plant where tons of plutonium are kept just below critical mass. Any failure is going to be catastrophic, and the operators know it. The author gets a pass, though, because he wrote this in 1940, two years before anyone (Enrico Fermi, for that matter) had built a nuclear reactor.
Averted in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. The Loonies' defense against nuclear missiles are mining lasers rigged to work as (relatively) long range point defense weapons. Gunners are trained to burn out the missile's electronics, at which point the hydrogen-tipped missile becomes nothing more than a hunk of falling metal. Also in the novel, the protagonists fight back at Earth by throwing rocks at them; an early example of mass drivers. The explosions caused by the rocks smashing into the Earth cause some to declare that the Loonies are dropping nuclear bombs. Even a few members of the Lunar government are confused, stating that it certainly looked like a nuclear bomb went off. Mannie, the protagonist, explains that they did the cosmic equivalent of striking a flint to create sparks. And, as stated in the description for this trope, any sufficiently large explosion is going to result in a mushroom cloud.
Number 4 is subverted in Ian Fleming's James Bond novel Moonraker; the nuclear explosion is passed off as a conventional one to cover up Drax's plot. The radiation had blown north.
Lampshaded in Alan Dean Foster's Spellsinger novel Paths of the Perambulator, where Jon-Tom creates a miniature mushroom cloud using magic and then muses that nothing is impossible in a magical world.
Spoofed in David Langford and John Grant's parody disaster novel Earthdoom. Two men lost on the London Underground are, for different reasons, both carrying quantities of radioactive material. When one of them is discovered and forced to stand at the end of his Tube train by a conductor, he - being a newspaper science correspondent - delivers an angry lecture about how this stuff can't just explode at the drop of hat, and if this train were to run into a brick wall right now, nothing would happen unless there was a sufficient amount of material on the other side in just the right position... At that point the train runs into a brick wall. Guess who's standing on the other side.
In the Foundation series, the first two stories feature nuclear stations which blow up due to bad repairs.. or just some idiot messing with the controls. This was written in the early Forties. Later editions changed it to radiation leaks.
Spectacularly averted and/or subverted in Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves when a radio-chemist discovers a radioactive element that cannot possibly exist under the known laws of physics - it turns out to be from another universe where the laws of physics are sufficiently different that it can exist there!
Fridge Logic: It existed in our universe, when the chemist discovered it.
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.
Averted in the HaloExpanded Universe. In one of the books, the Spartans actually use nuclear bombs for shields, as they're bulletproof, because that gives them a stronger explosion.
In another one, the Spartan Blue Team laughs at the Covenant's lack of understanding of nuclear weapons, as they watch a pack of Brutes wrestle the bombs into Styrofoam containers.
If so much as a single tiny dent or ding reached the bomb's fuel, it would "fizzle" on detonation...
Halo: Ghosts of Onyx actually had the Spartans fire grenades into an elevator with the UNSC's "older" nuclear warheads, since they're "basically paperweights" without the arming codes. They're bemused by how their alien foes treat the warheads with kid gloves.
Averted in The Atrocity Archives. A nuclear bomb is set and primed to blow an alternate reality to hell, but a member of the team realizes that's the last thing they want, as the bomb's energy will give the monster inhabiting the universe enough power to come through to ours. So, he manages to defuse the bomb by popping the caps without triggering the plutonium.
In A Swiftly Tilting Planet, one of the sequels to A Wrinkle in Time, the following exchange takes place when talking about nuclear war.
Gaudior: "You know some of the possibilities if your planet is blown up."
Charles Wallace: "It just might throw off the balance of things, so that the sun would burst into a supernova."
In the Time series, stars are living beings that have been known to commit suicide or take self-sacrificial actions, and that parts of a living being can be independently sentient. It's not unreasonable, given the bizzare nature of reality in the series, to assume the loss of the only celestial body in the local area that is capable of supporting matter-life would unduly affect Sól.
In John Ringo's Legacy of the Aldenata series, specifically in novel Hell's Faire, there is a new nuclear-like weapon. It is described as having its primary radioactive isotope scattered in the area of effect, carbon-13, as having a very fast half-life. The trouble is, carbon-13 has no half-life at all, because it is a stable isotope. (Carbon-14, on the other hand, is radioactive, if only very slightly; its half-life is on the order of five thousand years. Such a long half-life implies a very low decay rate, and consequently a complete unsuitability for use in any kind of 'dirty bomb' application.)
In Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, frequent reference is made to nuclear weapons with yields in the microton range. One microton is just one gram, or approximately three one-hundredths of an ounce — or, in other words, since we're talking about yields in terms of TNT-equivalent, barely a firecracker's worth of bang, and that's if we're being generous. Now, in theory, it would be possible to produce a nuclear explosion out of such a tiny mass of fissile material, by increasing its density enough to drive it supercritical — trouble is, there's no point; The Forever War is set in the future, and today we know how to make chemical-explosive rounds which produce quite a bit more than a firecracker's worth of bang.
H. G. Wells's novel The World Set Free (1914) features what may be the first ever appearance of atomic explosives anywhere, but considering that it was written at the tail-end of the Victorian Era, the physics are quite dodgy. Extrapolating from the idea of radioactive decay as something with a tremendous amount of energy releasing it over a long period of time, Wells' nukes work by somehow speeding up this process. Instead of releasing all of its nuclear energy in an instantaneous, massive explosion, the bomb speeds up radioactive decay to the point where you have a huge fireball that hangs around for several days before dying down.
Joked about in the Vorkosigan Saga by a mention of neutron hand grenades, which should only be used by people with VERY strong throwing arms. They never actually appear on page, probably because nobody's figured out how to set one off without being caught in the blast radius.
Tribulation Force, one of the Left Behind books, heralds the arrival of the Second Horseman of the Apocalypse with two 100 megaton bombs being dropped on London and New York- correction, on Heathrow and JFK, as if such precise targeting would make the slightest difference to anyone with a bomb that would instantly annihilate everything within 100 km. 100 Mt is twice the yield of the Tsar Bomba, the largest nuke ever tested, which was subsequently deemed even by the standards of Soviet Superscience to be wildly impractical. Regardless of this, it's treated by the narrative (insomuch as it dwells on the consequences at all) as if the explosions had been smaller by an order of magnitude or four.
In the pilot miniseries of the new , there is a mushroom cloud, implied to be a large nuclear strike, less than one mile from where Boomer and Helo are fixing the Raptor. The two are not only alive, but also suffering no ill effects, nor is there any visible damage to the landscape near the mushroom cloud.
The show gets points for avoiding number 2.2, depicting detonations as bright flashes or pulses of light.
Helo also has to take radiation meds while on Caprica.
CSI: Miami: The episode "Dead Woman Walking" takes numerous liberties. The only thing they get right is the use of real-life spectrometry tools instead of a Magical Computer, and an aversion of Sickly Green Glow with a character even pointing out that "it's not like [the radioactive material] glows or anything". But the rest is cringe-worthy.
The "radiation is lava" trope is taken literally with an iodine-131-contaminated corpse burning up from radiation exposure.
Dangerous amounts of radioactive materials are shown kept in plastic syringes - that offer no protection - without any shielding in a simple fridge, which is a screaming example of No OSHA Compliance.
The decay product of I-131 is stated to be another isotope of iodine. That is wrong, since it turns to xenon (β− decay to Xe-131).
After just 2 days the lethally radiotoxic juice is somehow entirely non-radioactive. In real life, the half-life for I-131 is approximately 8 days. So if the juice only two days earlier was so "hot" it could kill, then it would still make radiation meters screech a mere quarter half-life later.
Following from the point above, they use chemical means to investigate the juice and get it doubly wrong because not only does I-131 not turn to regular iodine, but xenon... and since that is a noble gas it cannot be detected in the manner shown.
A person who is fatally poisoned by radioactive materials is allowed to roam free in public. That doesn't happen, ever. Even people treated with medical doses of I-131 are kept in the hospital ward until their "glow" fades, and the staff are made to wear lead aprons around them to keep the exposure to a minimum.
The Green Hornet: In the 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. This is physically impossible.
Lois and Clark: There's an episode of where Lex Luthor has built a nuclear power plant and claims that not being able to shut down the reactor once it began its start up sequence was a 'safety feature'. Also, apparently nuclear radiation is enough to destroy the kryptonite traces in Superman's blood but not enough to kill him. This is despite the kryptonite making him weaker than a human.
This show got it mostly right. On Lost, the 'gun-type' plutonium fusion core of a hydrogen fission bomb was removed from a 1950-era hydrogen bomb by an Iraqi military officer with electronics experience, using the notes of a physicist, both from 2004.
They averted Going Critical by specifically having it rigged to explode on impact, with the implication that it would not normally. That failed until it was banged on repeatedly, leading to the implication there was just some rigged switch that had failed to hit the ground correctly.
The guy carrying it, at one point was threatened with a gun, and he points out he's carrying a nuclear device and you shouldn't shoot him...but he was probably just using the trope to keep from getting shot.
It was, however, somewhat lighter and smaller than it should have been. Hydrogen bombs of the 1950s weighed a good 15,000 pounds. If you could get the trigger out and turn it into a backpack bomb, the trigger alone for a H-bomb required at least 60 kg of pure U-235 to create the fission explosion required to set off the bomb, even before you look at the surrounding 1950s-era mechanics used to set off the explosion. Also, people tended to call it a "hydrogen bomb" even when they're talking about the trigger that was removed.
The biggest problem with Lost was that they were talking about the core of the bomb. The core produces the fusion reaction, which is triggered by the fission reaction happening around it, which is triggered by an external layer of high explosives. There's a reason that people make big nuclear bombs that have to be dropped from planes instead of just little remote-control-size assemblies.
NCIS: Los Angeles: One two-parter involving Soviet sleeper agents armed with nuclear weapons made the fission/fusion mistake by describing the weapons used as gun-type fusion bombs. The gun design consists of a small piece of uranium fired at large piece to create the critical mass necessary for a runaway fission reaction, which the show described correctly. However, Eric calls it a fusion bomb, which (short version) uses a fission device to compress a core of heavy hydrogen to induce fusion.
In the episode "Relevance", Agent Shaw comes across terrorists assembling a dirty bomb with "half a pound of cesium" (presumably Cs-137) in a glass ampoule. After incapacitating the terrorists, she picks up the ampoule with her bare hands and puts it in an unshielded plastic box to carry along with her. Both of those would be exceedingly stupid things to do, and would have her showing acute symptoms of radiation exposure after the mission.
A later episode, In Extremis, gets pretty much everything it presents about radiation and radioactivity wrong.
Finch's radiation detector is plastered with radioactivity trefoils. This would be like having flammability warning symbols on a gas detector, or high voltage stickers on a multimeter.
Finch detects "alpha particle emissions" while just holding his probe up into the air. Nevermind that he wouldn't be able to distinguish alpha radiation from any other kind of ionizing radiation - alpha particles have a range in air of only centimeters, so if he was detecting them that way, it would mean that the alpha emitter was in the air and he was breathing in airborne contamination. Ouch.
Upon being told that it's alpha radiation, Reese immediately concludes that "it's polonium", instead of the other hundreds of possible alternatives.
Ingesting polonium means that radiation poisoning sets in immediately, and is invariably fatal within 24 hours. In real life, the first symptoms (read: nausea) wouldn't set in for many hours, and death would take weeks. Furthermore, if you knew early on that you had ingested polonium, there's a good chance that chelation treatment could save your life.
The Phantom Creeps: This 1939 serial posits that a radiation poisoning antidote can be made by mixing in the original radioactive substance, a radioactivity measuring device can measure the radioactivity of an object several rooms away assuming the whole area isn't irradiated, and if the mad scientist ever completes his doomsday weapon it will be more powerful than dynamite.
Space: 1999: Nuclear waste stored on the Moon undergoes a chain reaction and detonates. The explosion is strong enough to throw the whole Moon out of the solar system, at a sizeable fraction of light speed.
Star Trek: The Next Generation: In one episode: Data crash lands on a planet with a pre-industrial society and develops android amnesia, so he doesn't know the metal in the box he's carrying is dangerous, or even what the word "RADIOACTIVE" printed on it means. Thinking it harmless and grateful to the local village for helping him while he suffers his memory loss, he sells the plain-looking, gray pieces of metal to their merchants, who then sell it as jewelry, and people all over the village begin getting sick with radiation poisoning. With no memory of how such things work but with his capability to learn intact, Data spends the rest of the episode investigating the sickness and learning that the nondescript metal actually gives off dangerous, invisible energy. The realism takes a drop near the end when he cures the town with a liquid medicine akin to Rad Away in Fallout.
House: In the episode "House vs. God", the team investigates the sudden shrinkage of a woman's tumor. Foreman hypothesizes that it's radiation exposure, stating that "there's about a dozen appliances in every home that give off radiation" and Chase checks out her home with a radiation detector. It crackles merrily around every electrical device, and Chase complains about it to House:
Chase: "Do you have any idea how many electrical devices give off radiation?"
House: "All of them."
The idea of random radiation exposure suddenly shrinking a tumor without causing any other symptoms is ridiculous.
While it's true that everything electrical gives off radiation, it's radio frequency EM radiation and not ionizing radiation, which is the kind a Geiger counter picks up (or would have any chance of affecting a cancer). The only electrical devices in a home that produce any ionizing radiation are smoke detectors (which contain a tiny amount of mostly alpha-emitting americium-241) and CRT displays (that produce soft Bremsstrahlung x-rays from electrons hitting the phosphor). Even assuming they were defective and even with the probe jammed up right next to one of those two, Chase would have a hard time hearing anything above background.
The plot of the Intelligence episode "The Grey Hat", involving the use of a computer worm to set off a meltdown at a nuclear power plant, would require Failsafe Failure of every single safety system in the plant. Including manually lowering the control rods to shut the reactor down.
Ultravox, "Dancing With Tears In My Eyes". The lyrics are about The End of the World as We Know It in general, but the video instead involves a town being destroyed by a nuclear power plant meltdown, apparently instantly vaporizing the residents while leaving other objects intact. "REACTOR CORE OVERHEAT, EXPLOSION IMMINENT", etc.
The Thunderbirds episode "The Mighty Atom": a nuclear reactor goes critical and explodes, rather than overheating and melting down.
The Gamma WorldTabletop RPG adventure "The Legion of Gold". If damaged, a fusion reactor will detonate like an H-bomb.
Averted in Paranoia's "The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues". An old (pre-Whoops) nuclear reactor will eventually melt down, not explode. Lots of other stuff in Paranoia explodes just fine, though, not infrequently in nuclear fashion. They even have nuclear hand grenades, with a blast radius way bigger than the range you can throw them.
Steve Jackson's Munchkin started life as a card game, but has also had a set of Core books printed exporting things from the card game into a Dungeons & Dragons setting. One of these is the Plutonium Dragon, which halves in size every 15,000 years (leading to... interesting questions regarding breeding, as it gets smaller, not larger, as it ages) and has a special rule called Meltdown. If you kill it, then, depending on its age, it might possibly obliterate everything within a 5-mile radius.
BattleTech mostly averts these, but flirts with 1 and 3 a little. To wit: BattleMechs and many other vehicles are powered by fusion engines. By the core game rules, damaging those enough will simply cause them to shut down, disabling the unit. So far, so good. However, because some BattleTech fiction, notably novels by Michael Stackpole, featured breached 'Mech reactors spontaneously and dramatically exploding every so often (in fact, "Stackpoling" became fan-speak for exploding reactors). An optional rule allowing for this to happen if desired also exists based strictly on the Rule of Cool (its lack of realism is explicitly noted).
A fluff piece in the Tech Manual source book explains away the BattleMech reactor explosions as the effects of air hitting the inside of a very hot reactor vessel combined with ammunition and other volatile components detonating as well. Another in-universe fusion reactor explosion is also shown to be the result of a roof collapse dropping tons of snow upon the reactors liquid sodium cooling system. The narrator noted the reactor was almost an innocent bystander.
In the backstory, they had much, much bigger nukes. With which they sterilized a planet. Once they realized they could actually, y'know, do that, even the Confederates weren't big enough idiots to keep 'em around. The "nukes" in-game would likely just be big friggin' conventional bombs, called nukes because it sounds badass. (Low damage is more a matter of game balance.)
Fallout 3 has a Fat Man weapon and atomic cars (fusion-powered cars!) that both go up in cute little radioactive mushroom clouds about the size of an artillery blast when they explode. Another notable example is the Enclave Oil Rig's nuclear reactor in Fallout 2, which detonates in a massive nuclear explosion after the player causes a meltdown.
It is worth mentioning, however, that man-portable weapons capable of firing nuclear projectiles were produced and a nuclear car was at least considered and designed (Ford Nucleon). Fallout also shows the the world as the people in Atomic Age seen it complete with deliberate use of Science Marches On.
Fallout 1 has The Glow, a permanently radioactive area due to a reactor getting hit by a missile. The game and its sequel also have some extremely powerful chems - Radaway siphons away radiation in your body harmlessly (although it's implied that the process is complex and unpleasant, rather like performing an improvised dialysis) while Rad-X bolsters your natural resistance in an improbable and unexplained way. Take two and you can walk around in The Glow with no harm at all!
Even worse, the entrance path to Vault 87 in Fallout 3, which supposedly took a direct hit from a bomb, still has astronomical levels of radiation 200 years after the war. Specifically, 3,000 rads per second, which is near-instant death for the player. The Rad Resistance perk and Advanced Radiation Suit decrease this to about 400 rads/sec, which means you still need to pop ten Rad-Aways every couple seconds if you decide to explore the zone.
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.
Naturally, the guards will go all Rambo in that very room if Snake is discovered. They're wearing NBC suits, and Snake isn't (though in the remake, they use airfoil rounds).
In some games in the series, nuclear reactors could be built in your cities for extra production, but they had a small chance to spontaneously explode (in Civ 4, with the full impact of a thermonuclear missile!). In Civ 5, either realism or the fact that hardly anyone used them because of the risk led to this feature being quietly removed.
In Ratchet & Clank, every explosive is nuclear, and produces a mushroom cloud, even though the blasts are about the size of a fairly weak firecracker. Rule of Funny and/or Rule of Cool are definitely in effect here.
SimCity games almost avoided this trope — if your nuclear plant melts down, the surrounding buildings are left undamaged (except for a small risk of fire), but fallout is scattered around the surrounding area, rendering it uninhabitable. In retrospect, they probably should have put a containment dome over those reactors or something. Sim City 4 plays it dead straight though: an exploding nuclear plant creates a huge blue mushroom cloud, a massive crater and a big shockwave that can flatten half your city.
One of the Soviet missions in Command & Conquer: Red Alert takes place in a nuclear power plant that the Allies have sabotaged. Your technicians must activate the cooling systems on the reactor before the core melts down. However, if you fail, the game shows a video of an exploding atomic bomb, which is not the same thing at all.
In Red Alert: The Aftermath and Red Alert 2 the Demolition Truck produces a nuclear explosion when destroyed. While they may have designed it to do this you think they would wait to arm it until they got it away from their own base. In Red Alert 2 destroying the Soviet nuclear reactor causes a large explosion. The Command & Conquer: Generals series includes the Chinese, with nuclear superweapons, a smaller war-head siege weapon, and a forest of nuclear power plants that can be (you guessed it) set off in a chain reaction of tiny atomic explosions. If the players purchase the nuclear tank upgrade to make their tanks move faster their tanks will explode if destroyed.
Honorable mention: in Red Alert 3, the Soviet Superreactor will cause a massive explosion when destroyed, which can destroy most units if they're too close - despite nukes canonically not having been invented yet. (What do the plants run on? "Chemicals.")
In the Chinese campaign in Generals the GLA use a Chinese nuclear missile as a stand still bomb.
In a few games in the series (notably the first Red Alert), nuclear missiles could barely destroy a tent when dropped right on it. Later games (and the original Command & Conquer) had much more powerful nukes (Nod's nuke in Command And Conquer 3 can punch a pretty good hole in a base).
Speaking of C&C3, it features a Nod mission where the player must steal several nuclear warheads with a pretty pathetic force guarding them. If the player attacks the trucks the warheads detonate into a mushroom cloud.
For the first Red Alert, its somewhat true - however that is only for multiplayer, where a nuclear weapon hit the square targeted, then two squares out in a ring around the target. In short, some units standing next to a nuclear explosion could take no damage at all. In Singleplayer, if a nuke is fired, it does not only cause the white flash, but vaporize everything in the blast radius. Tiberian Dawn was similar, in that a missile launched from the Temple would obliterate anything.
The Apocalypse tank in Red Alert 2 can be upgraded with experience to fire nuclear ammunition, causing small mushroom clouds about the size of a tank but not necessarily killing anything in the vicinity. Infantry are notorious for surviving direct hits from tank shells. This is about as realistic as Tesla bombs dropped from the veteran Kirov airship that produce an electrical explosion. Oh wait, this is Red Alert we are talkinga about here, the universe where reality takes a backseat to coolness.
Maniac Mansion may end badly with the nuclear reactor in the mansion's basement melting down — which causes a mushroom cloud explosion obliterating everything in a five mile radius.
Averted somewhat in Mega Lo Mania (Tyrants: Fight Through Time) a nuke will destroy a sector unless you have nuclear defence turrets to shoot it down, the sector then becomes uninhabitable.
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.
"Fallout" is used as a substitute for walls in the Chernobyl stage of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
The Metroid Prime games feature Phazon, a Phlebotinum substance so ridiculously radioactive that it can kill someone wearing a sealed, armoured spacesuit in less than a minute. It's apparently also stable. Erm...
It's apparently also organic, biological and sentient making it's "radiation" more like some kind of unique bioenergy field people can siphon off.
Crysis features several variants of battlefield nuclear weapon; all produce the "columns of smoke" effect that would only normally be seen in a nuclear test.
Touhou: Utsuho gets a lot of traditional nuclear reactor and meltdown imagery and symbolism despite only having power over fusion and not fission. Also, the radiation issues are completely ignored in gameplay.
She has power over both fusion and fission. She has two unique shoes on each foot — the right one is a rock called the Foot of Fusion, while the left is just a black shoe with a model of an atom floating around it called the Foot of Fission. Her Arm Cannon, called Third Leg, controls both (it's mostly All In The Manual). She just uses fusion more often. Also her power is based on solar fusion, not deuterium-tritium fusion; heavy hydrogen has neutrons to give off during fusion, while solar fusion uses protium hydrogen which has no neutrons.
In Earth 2150, the United Civilized States forces use nuclear reactors to power their bases. When a reactor is destroyed, it blows up like a nuclear missile, wiping out half of the UCS base. At the beginning of the game, the Eurasians destroyed the nuclear stock plie of UCS on Alaska, and the explosion from it was so powerful that it knocked Earth off its orbit, and slowly send it to the sun.
Averted and played straight in Heavy Weapon. Attacking the atomic bombs that the Atomic Bomber drop will result in the bomb being destroyed (and not exploding), saving your ass from an otherwise-unavoidableOne-Hit Kill. However, there is a huge lack of radiation poisoning should any nuke be used.
At the end of The Simpsons Hit & Run, you get to cart around nuclear waste. While the barrels will 'explode if you ram something hard enough... you don't get damaged (well, any more than normal). Yet somehow it's supposed to bring down alien technology.
In F/A-18 Hornet, the B-57 tac-nuke is said to have a 20-kiloton yield, the same as the Hiroshima bomb, but only has a blast radius of 2,500 feet, less than half of that of Little Boy. Another gross error occurs in the mission "Neighbors" from the F/A-18 Korea expansion pack, where dropping a conventional bomb on a launch silo triggers the nuclear warhead.
Dynasty Warriors: Gundam 3, or all things, actually manages to get a few facts right: the ∀ Gundam has a union SP attack where it pulls a nuclear charge out of its chest and pitches it at the ground in front of it, creating a bright flash, a shockwave, and a sharp drop in the health bar of anything caught in the blast (Friendly Fireproof notwithstanding). If an opposing Ace Pilot blocks the charge in flight... it squibs and drops to the ground harmlessly, like real-world nukes will if they aren't exposed to the G-forces of a complete flight path.
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.
The Minecraft mod Industrial Craft 2 has nukes and nuclear reactors. The explosion from a nuclear reactor is actually bigger than that of a nuke. Also, due to interaction with vanilla Minecraft's poisoning mechanics, you can cure radiation poisoning by drinking milk.
System Shock features an anti-radiation hypo that is stated to "accelerate the half-life breakdown" of radioactive elements in the body. This would most likely simply increase the activity of the sample, so the exposure time would decrease, but the damage done to the body would increase as well.
In Worm, Khonsu, the fourth Endbringer uses a field of accelerated time to set off nuclear weapons.
In the Futurama episode "Godfellas", the microscopic Shrimpkins make working microscopic H-bombs, complete with tiny mushroom clouds (in space, no less).
An episode of Captain Planet — the one with the equally hilarious stand-in for Hitler — when a nuclear weapon detonates with a mushroom cloud in space.
Then there's the Treehouse of Horror episode where a nuclear bomb hits Springfield and turns everyone who wasn't killed (or protected by lead based paint) into mutants instantly.
That's because the bomb is French and the print on it clearly reads "Le bombe neutron" (not even proper French), and everybody knows that a Neutron Bomb does no physical damage at all.
In another Treehouse of Horror episode, Homer blows up the power plant by simply pressing a button- implying that the plant has a self-destruct mechanism.
And on at least two occasions, Homer has actually eaten radioactive material (the aforementioned waste as a punishment from Mr. Burns and the plutonium he attempted to use as fertilizer in "E-I-E-I-(annoyed grunt)")...and survived, with no ill effects.
In the second episode of Code Lyoko, XANA's plot of the week is to cause a nuclear power plant to explode with a surge of electricity. Most power grids are, well, wired as a grid, meaning it's impossible to cause a precision surge of electricity as the episode implies. The nuclear reactor itself is just a heat source for a heat engine, so even if the wires didn't melt, the actual result would be that the turbines at the plant would be trashed and the reactor would go through a precautionary auto-SCRAM.
Beast Wars introduces an interesting property of the Transformers' energy source Energon, mainly that the radiation its raw form releases shorts out Transformers at high levels, but is completely harmless to organic life at any level.
Possibly Justified in that living organisms and machines have slightly different properties. It may have even been a defect of the Transformer's designs themselves, one later corrected in anyone affected by the Quantum Surge.
The second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series manages to get nuclear explosives right. One of the turtles manages to keep the nuclear part of an implosion bomb from activating... but the conventional explosion still goes off, to little more than a decent blast — it's actually explained that this will not result in a full-scale nuclear detonation. It's not specifically identified as an implosion bomb, but that's the type this could actually happen with.
Odd subversion of the "All mushroom clouds are caused by nuclear blasts" idea with the old Disney short Dragon Around with Donald Duck and Chip 'N' Dale. In the end Donald tries to blow up the stump with dynamite but instead he is blown sky high several times over in subsequent mushroom cloud blasts.
In the 1996 Gargoyles episode "Walkabout", the nano-robotics Matrix gets loose as the Avalon Travellers show up. When Dr. Reynard mentions that they (Gargoyles and humans) have to stop the ever-expanding Matrix before it reaches the nuclear reactor, she points to... the cooling towers. Then the Matrix is talked into stopping before it gets its slimy tendrils into the reactor by... engulfing the cooling towers. At this point, it had covered/absorbed every bit of the research complex except the towers. Yep.
A long-standing Conspiracy Theory about the Port Chicago explosion hinged on the fact that several contributors to the Manhattan Project toured the scene of the disaster to gauge some of the effects of a nuclear weapon. One technician's notes about a subsequent test even read, "Ball of fire mushroom out at 18,000 ft in typical Port Chicago fashion". From this reference to the fact that the Port Chicago explosion produced a mushroom cloud, and that most of the casualties were black, someone deduced that the US military had tested a prototype atomic bomb on its own troops to see how effective it would be against the enemy. One sincerely hopes it goes without saying that this was utter nonsense; apart from anything else, there might well have been a few top brass who regarded a couple of hundred black stevedores as expendable, but the ships and the munitions being loaded onto them for transport to the Pacific most certainly weren't.