Nothing offers more drama than the ticking countdown to a devastating bomb, and the bigger the bomb, the bigger the thrills. That's why nuclear weapons often show up in cinema as the ultimate threat to our heroes—and humanity.
You wouldn't expect the movies to depict nuclear weapons with perfect realism, but some blockbusters do a much better job than others. Here’s a guide that separates the good from the useless when it comes to fictional treatments of nukes.
At the end of The Avengers, some brutally pragmatic big brother types have ordered an F-35 warplane pilot to launch a nuclear-tipped missile at New York City to halt an alien invasion. Iron Man, knowing there’s a less pyrrhic victory at hand, races to stop it.
To give the filmmakers credit, people tend to forget the F-35 is rated to carry nuclear weapons. But the warplane shown in the film is an F-35B operated by the U.S. Marine Corps, seen in a jumpjet configuration. In reality only the F-35A, the Air Force variant, carries nukes. Forgivable, but there’s more nitpicking to come.
The F-35A is equipped to carry the B-61 nuclear gravity bomb, but that’s not what's in the movie. As the name implies, gravity bombs drop and are guided by fins. The Avengers shows a nuclear cruise missile and the Pentagon’s mainstay in that department is the AGM-86. The problem is that this bomb doesn’t fit on an F-35. It's so large that only the huge B-52 Stratofortress bomber can carry these weapons.
Maybe we’re seeing something new. The U.S. military is designing the Long Range Standoff Weapon, which will carry a nuke and load into an F-35. The LSRO would work here, but the filmmakers make an unfortunate error.
A close look at Iron Man’s helmet display identifies the missile as a “AGM-154 Joint Stand Off Weapon.” However, the JSOW doesn’t carry a nuclear warhead. Against ships and armored vehicles, it’s a good precision weapon, but for bringing mass destruction against inter-dimensional invaders, it sucks.
Also, Iron Man’s high-speed grapple with this weapon wouldn't happen like it does on screen. The AGM-154 is a glide bomb, not a cruise missile. These weapons have wings but no engines, and what Iron Man chases, grabs, and grapples with in the film has a tongue of flame roaring behind it. But maybe the special effects designers had the experimental Extended Range version in mind. Raytheon did strap on an engine to the glide bomb and tested this JSOW-ER in 2008. The Navy took renewed interest in the program in 2017. Perhaps S.H.E.I.L.D could have adopted the concept as well?
Even accepting this long-shot loophole, the scene still doesn't work. The extended-range JSOW cruises at subsonic speeds rather than racing toward targets like an air-to-air missile. Here’s what the looks like. It's a cool design, but not anything that’s too fast for Iron Man to handle.
Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
You don’t need a degree in physics to see that this scene is a stinker. Indiana Jones is trapped in a test site in Nevada in 1957, as the U.S. government is involved in the Operation Plumbbob nuclear tests. Indy jumps inside a refrigerator, and before the blast goes off, the camera lingers on a sign on it that says “lead lined.” After the big kaboom, the famed archeologist emerges unscathed despite having been in the blast zone.
Let's rewind to the start. The nuke is mounted on a tower, so that narrows down which test in could be in 1957. One called “Smoky” fits the bill, since it was detonated atop a 700-foot tower. The tower in the movie looks correct, but the cartoonish bomb (with fins and all) is not. It sort of looks like Fat Man on the Enola Gay.
Here’s what the Smoky nuke test stand looked like before and during immolation:
The 44-kiloton blast of this test would be incredible. A wave of air pressure packing 20 pounds per square inch would knock over concrete buildings across a full square mile or so, killing nearly all in its path. Past this ring of violence, a three-square-mile area would suffer through 5 pounds per square inch of overpressure. That’s enough to knock over most houses and produce 160 mph winds.
Jones seems to be only a couple miles away from the blast. When a man hiding in a fridge is swept by this overpressure wave, he’ll certainly be battered to death inside a tumbling, irradiated oven. What would be left might look more like a rustic stew than a dashing hero ready to walk away and admire the mushroom cloud.
But what of the lead lining? Some undergraduates in Britain crunched some numbers for the . The results weren't good for Indy: “We conclude that it is unlikely Indiana would have remained unharmed from the gamma radiation as the minimum thickness of lead needed is 4.58cm, which is likely to be greater than the thickness of the lead-lining within the fridge,” the authors write.
Even if Jones escaped the radiation by jettisoning far enough away in a protected cocoon, he steps out of it at the end of the scene. Would he have gotten cancer later? What you don't see in the movie scene are pigs, which would have been further from the blast than Indy was, placed there to measure the lethal after-effects of radiation.
A study in the 1980s concluded that the soldiers who were close to these test blasts suffered from elevated cases of leukemia. But in 2016 the National Institutes of Health study found that the threat may not be as grave as previously assumed. “Leukemia risk, initially reported to be significantly increased among participants, remained elevated, but this risk diminished over time,” the authors wrote.
They said to rule out that other factors, like high rates of smoking in that soldier demographic, could be responsible for the leukemia spike. So maybe Indy could shrug this off, too.
The Sum of All Fears
The 2002 film The Sum of All Fears, which tried out Ben Affleck in the role of Jack Ryan, features a nuclear terror attack on the Super Bowl. While Tom Clancy's novel took great pains to discuss the mechanics and far-reaching dangers of such a device (minus some details that made it less of an instruction manual), the movie utterly fails to show the high stakes involved. Released in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the filmmakers’ sensitivities robbed them of the opportunity to show what even a smallish nuke can do when used on a soft target like a stadium.
The nuke special effects are okay, but the blast is represented by a distant CGI mushroom cloud and some gale force winds. And then—nothing, No firestorm of any size. No talk of fallout, refugees, triage stations at hospitals, or even ground zero imagery of the stadium’s remains. To have Ben Affleck driving around a totally calm city that has just been nuked is a disservice to the horrors of nuclear terrorism.
The plot revolves around the idea that the U.S. would figure Russia was to blame for the explosion. Of course, CIA analyst Jack Ryan is the only one who can prevent a wider nuclear exchange with Russia.
However, there’s something the movie doesn't acknowlede—what nuke experts call "material unaccounted for." Criminals could have stolen nuclear warheads or bribed officials to sell them off. So if a smuggled nuclear bomb detonates inside the U.S., even if the design belongs to Russia, the doubt over who set it off would remain. It’d be murky enough, anyway, to prevent an immediate retaliatory attack.
A smuggled nuclear weapon is, naturally, harder to attribute than a rocket launch. Chemical and forensic analysis can pinpoint where materials inside device, including the nuclear material, came from. Here’s a recent . Accept Jack Ryan as the collective effort of the U.S. intelligence and energy community, and the plot makes a little more sense.
The movie does raise the question of how the U.S. should respond to a limited or even one-off nuclear attack, a pressing question now that the Pentagon is seeking smaller nuclear weapons. Does a 15-kiloton attack warrant a 20-megaton response? Does having smaller-yield weapons reduce the chance someone else attacks first, or increase the change that nukes would be used first? Too bad Sum of All Fears did so little to prime the public for such debates.
This action movie features a USAF pilot trying to steal several nuclear weapons during a test flight. The bombs are B83s, which exist, and are carried by a stealth B-3 bomber, which does not. Like a real B-2 Spirit, the fictional warplane has two pilots, which makes sense when it comes to long-range missions. It also sets up a nicely matched good guy/bad guy rivalry.
Pilots can program nuclear bombs like the B83 from the cockpit. They can dial in the strength of the blast, the GPS coordinates of the explosion, and the altitude of the blast while on the fly. (PopMech witnessed such a feat during a B2 training flight). The B-2 also has a rotary bomb bay, which look enough like the one in the movie that it earns some cred for trying.
The enemy of all movie villains (and heroes) who want to program nuclear bombs when they are not supposed to is the Permissive Action Link. Before these were just combination locks, but modern PALs are encrypted codes.
Another protection that busts most movie and TV show schemes is the presence of the “specific arming signal.” This is some sort of electronic prompt—crucially, from outside the weapon—telling it to explode.
Another hard-to-beat protection is the Environmental Sensing Device. A nuclear bomb knows it’s not supposed to explode unless it’s falling through the air. That means sensors that read temperatures, air pressure, and acceleration must be satisfied before the weapon detonates. That’s something that even someone with PAL codes can’t fake.
The movie also features an underground nuclear blast in a mine. The special effects have some specific hallmarks: A circular cave-in, a jet of expelled gas from the mineshaft, and a rolling shockwave. The action movie does a fairly good job as a deeply .
The rolling earth special effect is reminiscent of the kind of pressure ridges that have been observed at underground tests. The jet of expelled gas at the mine’s entrance would be mostly dust and steam and represent a containment failure that Christian Slater’s character later says didn’t happen. (They must be upwind from the mine.)
But the movie utterly fails when the underground explosion causes an electromagnetic pulse. The ground would block the EMP. Also, the villain protects his electronic equipment simply by turning it off. Without shielding, even a device that is switched off will be crisped by the power surging through it.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
A submarine launches a nuclear missile at Seattle, and the Mission Impossible team must stop it. Which is absurd–nuclear missiles don’t have “off” switches. Once the missile is in the air, the bad guys have already won. That’s one argument for nuclear-armed bombers—they can be recalled if the world comes back from the brink.
So the movie is already on the path for a fat F. But let’s examine the scene to see if they get any A for effort points.
A submerged submarine launches the missile. They do not have the surface to shoot, so that’s on point. The missile looks a lot like a R-29, which can carry a single or multiple warheads. The moviegoers watch a stage separation, and indeed, the R-29 is a two-stage ballistic missile.
But during the flight, the warheads separate and fall to the earth, unpowered, toward their targets. That’s the definition of a ballistic missile, one with “a high, arching trajectory, that is initially powered and guided but falls under gravity onto its target.” But when the final descent happens, the movie shows a reentry vehicle with a powerful, flaring engine.
So now we've caught them screwing up even more. Luckily the R-29’s Russian manufacturer has a useful description of the system on their website that seems to offer .
“The post-boost vehicle includes an instrument-assembly module, a guidance system and a propulsion system,” the site says. Yes, a propulsion system. After the missile’s boost phase ends, warheads separate to head toward their targets as normal. But these “post boost vehicles” have a four-chamber liquid-propellant rocket engines for better accuracy.
Could this be what Ghost Protocol is portraying? No. Even with engines, the idea is to travel fast and drop the warheads from the post boost vehicle from a lower altitude. No ballistic missile uses an engine in the final moments of warhead delivery. If it did, it would be called a cruise missile. Or, even more modern, these kinds of complex flight profiles are hallmarks of hypersonic vehicles that take off like ballistic missiles but can steer to adopt non-traditional, arcing ballistic profiles.
Let’s be honest, Ghost Protocol wasn’t going there. The hardware flubs and the terrible message that an ICBM launch can be recalled makes them worthy of that D+.
The Strain (TV show)
A schlocky, high-concept television show is not a place to expect any veracity when it comes to, well, anything. But the FX series The Strain features some flashes of evident research into nuclear hardware, along with some lapses.
Nuclear weapons play into the vampire mastermind’s plot to enslave humanity. The central plan: set off a couple nukes and enjoy the “nuclear winter” that follows. Smoke from raging fires could reach the troposphere and, over weeks, forms a blanket that blocks sunlight and drops the temperature.
The seriousness of this effect depends on how many nukes go off and where. The show makes it clear that a handful of cities had been struck. Cities are good targets if you want to cause a nuclear winter: The more stuff that burns, the more particles rise into the air.
Climatologist Alan Robock in 2010 applied some of the models that analyze the influence of pollution to predict the post-nuclear environment. “The climatic effects of the smoke from burning cities and industrial areas would last for several years, much longer than we previously thought,” .
The paper also contains a line that the vampire Master didn't considered: Big nuke blasts will block sunlight but the temperature extremes also cause a lot of nitric oxides to enter the atmosphere. “There would be massive ozone depletion, allowing enhanced ultraviolet radiation,” the paper says.
Well, the Strogoi monsters are vulnerable to UV. Just as you can get sunburned on a cloudy day without realizing it, the vampires would be bathed with UV radiation even though the day was not as bright. The UV rays are not visible to the naked eye, but there would be more of them because the ozone layer would take a beating. Maybe not the best vampire plan after all.
In Season 4, a squad of vampire hunters raid an ICBM silo to obtain a warhead that they want to use during a decapitation strike against the vampire master. (See the discussion in Broken Arrow for reasons why this wouldn’t work.)
The ICBM launch site’s design is satisfyingly accurate, from the shape of the silo cap to the small, triangular antenna dedicated to receiving launch commands from doomsday airplanes. Missile silos these days have fences, a post 9/11 enhancement, but the one on the show does not. But still, give The Strain gets solid points for detail.
There’s a spirited discussion in the final season about changing the strength of the warhead, tailoring it to prevent unneeded casualties while ensuring that the Master vampire is caught up in the blast. To do this requires what is known as a “variable yield” warhead. The U.S. has these, but they are only carried on a nuclear cruise missile and a gravity bomb. Warhead designers tailor the size of a nuke blast by using gasses that increase neutrons present in the initial reaction or by adding an optional, secondary thermonuclear charge.
ICBMs do not carry variable yield warheads, and that’s the kind of warhead they pluck from a silo in The Strain. But maybe the show is just accidentally ahead of its time. The 2019 defense budget calls for the creation of new nuclear weapons, including variable yield ICBM warheads.
Oddly, the final setting of the nuke in The Strain is 15 kilotons, which the protagonists say is enough to take out a skyscraper but spare the city. That’s the same yield as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and 150,000 of its people.
Battlestar Galactica (2004 TV show)
Humans and robots locked in mortal combat, lobbing nuclear warheads at each other like ships of the line exchanging cannonballs. But do nuclear missiles
In space there’s no air, so all that pounds-per-square-inch overpressure damage is not going to happen. Never mind extreme heat damage, either, since there is no longer any air for the blast wave to heat.
But the third threat, radiation, is a real. “In the absence of the atmosphere, nuclear radiation will suffer no physical attenuation and the only degradation in intensity will arise from reduction with distance,” the paper says. “As a result the range of significant dosages will be many times greater than is the case at sea level.”
Doing this sets the condition of any engagement in favor of the Cylons by restricting the movement of the Galactica and threatening hard-to-replace fighter pilots.
Ominously, considering the show’s man-versus-machine plotline, the report highlights a Cylon advantage. “It does seem clear, however, that manned space combat vehicles, unless heavy shielding is feasible, will be considerably more vulnerable to nuclear defense weapons than their unmanned counterparts.”
The real impact of this on spaceship battles is not addressed in Battlestar Galactica. A smart Cylon commander wouldn’t bother aiming a nuclear missile directly at the spaceship. Simply detonate the nukes in a pattern around the ship, bathing the battlefield with deadly radiation. The weakest part of the spaceships are the delicate organisms that are inside them.