ByMark Newton, writer at
Movie Pilot Associate Editor. Email: [email protected]
Mark Newton

Nuclear weapons: they are, understandably, the most feared things humans have ever endeavored to create, and maybe it's because of this that they've now become a staple of movies and Hollywood.

Nukes provide an easy piece of narrative shorthand for cinematic storytellers. Firstly, their massive destructive potential means they automatically increase the stakes for our intrepid hero, while they can also quickly be used to usher in a post-apocalyptic world. Secondly, their indiscriminate nature and apparent ease of use make them an ideal weapon for a heartless and wholly evil villain -- perfect for movies.

Of course, in reality, things are much more complex, and the portrayal of nuclear weapons in films is often quite far off the mark -- for one thing, you'll probably not be able to survive a nuclear explosion by jumping into a lead-lined fridge.

With this in mind, let's take a look at some of the things movies get right and wrong about nuclear weapons.

Can a Single Nuclear Weapon Wipe Out an Entire City?

First, let's start with a caveat. Nuclear weapons are massively destructive, that much is clear. They are also, arguably, a threat to our entire civilization. However, that doesn't mean nukes are generally as potent as portrayed in some modern films and video games.

For example, nuclear thriller The Sum of All Fears shows a relatively small nuclear device wiping out most of Baltimore and delivering enough force to flip over vehicles on the outskirts of the city. If we accept this device was smuggled into the city on a cargo container, we can assume it is of a relatively small yield (the news reports claim it was less than the Hiroshima bomb, which has a yield of 15 kilotons).

Watch the nuclear explosion scene from The Sum of All Fears below:

Although a major disaster, a weapon of his magnitude would not create the sheer destruction seen in The Sum of All Fears. In fact, as the NukeMap2 image shows below, the vast majority of Baltimore would have been undamaged (although the nuclear radiation blown by the wind would necessitate widespread evacuation).

Orange circle = extent of thermal radiation (burns). Estimated 12,430 fatalities
Orange circle = extent of thermal radiation (burns). Estimated 12,430 fatalities

Furthermore, as explains, the shockwave wouldn't have been sudden, but would have been preceded by a massive flash of intense light that would have scorched everything. Then depending on the distance, the shockwave would hit several seconds later.

The reason for his sometimes massive over-exaggeration has several facets. Firstly, there is the experience of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs which seemed to flatten those cities out of existence. However, these were a rather special set of circumstances. Both of these cities, like many in Japan at the time, mostly consisted of traditional wood and paper houses - which were easily destroyed. In reality, the few reinforced concrete buildings in Nagasaki and Hiroshima often survived, sometimes saving those inside. In fact, the mass fire bombing of Tokyo was overall more destructive than the atomic bombings.

Hiroshima after the dropping of the a-bomb.
Hiroshima after the dropping of the a-bomb.

Secondly, it is also often hard to gauge the scale of a nuclear explosion. Almost all the footage we have of nuclear and atomic explosions comes from various tests. These were usually conducted in a desert, on an island atoll or on water -- meaning there are few features by which to scale the size of the real explosion. Take for example this newly released video of the Operation Teapot nuclear tests.

Thirdly, it is, of course, simply more dramatic to show a massive explosion which has more major consequences.

That is not to say there are no nuclear and hydrogen weapons which could wipe out an entire city. For example, the Russian Tsar Bomba -- a 50 megaton device -- could destroy almost entire counties, although its sheer size makes it strategically and tactically impractical. Generally, most modern nuclear weapons are a fraction of this yield. For comparative reasons, the radius of the Tsar Bomba on Baltimore is shown below -- a bit bigger, isn't it?

Orange circle = extent of thermal radiation (burns). Estimated 1,390,160 fatalities
Orange circle = extent of thermal radiation (burns). Estimated 1,390,160 fatalities

However, most modern ICBMs feature MIRV systems (Multiple Independently Targetted Re-Entry Vehicles) which contain up to a dozen smaller warheads. These individual weapons, if launched against the same city, could theoretically wipe it out.

Peacekeeper MIRV tests
Peacekeeper MIRV tests

Does the President Have a Big Red Button That Launches the Nukes?

Of course, few believe the President actually does have a big red button as sometimes depicted in popular culture, although he is technically able to order a nuclear strike at any moment. Generally, the President is always accompanied by an aide carrying what is known as the 'nuclear football' -- a briefcase which contains all the attack and retaliatory strike options. Using an unknown communications device in the 'football,' the President can theoretically order a strike from any location. Bill Gulley, the former director of the White House Military Office, outlined the contents of the 'football' in his book, Breaking Cover:

There are four things in the Football. The Black Book containing the retaliatory options, a book listing classified site locations, a manila folder with eight or ten pages stapled together giving a description of procedures for the Emergency Alert System, and a three-by-five inch card with authentication codes. The Black Book was about 9 by 12 inches and had 75 loose-leaf pages printed in black and red. The book with classified site locations was about the same size as the Black Book, and was black. It contained information on sites around the country where the president could be taken in an emergency.

However, although the President (as commander-in-chief) is the only person capable of ordering a strike, his order must be countersigned under the two-man system. This means the order must also be verified by the Secretary of Defense -- if he refuses, the President has the power to relieve him of his duties and ask the Deputy Secretary of Defense. If he also refuses, the line of succession would continue down a list of potential Acting Secretaries of Defense.

In reality, however, if the Secretary of Defense disagreed with the strike (and was supported by others) he could invoke section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment which would declare the President incapacitated and remove him from his position. Despite this, it is ultimately down to the operatives at ICBM silos, on strategic bombers or on submarines to accept the order. Generally, all they are required to do is confirm the source of the order, although some experts claim they should also have the responsibility to decide if the overall order is 'sane.'

The White House also uses a 'designated survivor' system in the event all the top leaders gather in one space, for example at the State of the Union address. This 'survivor' is one member of the United States Cabinet who must remain physically distant from the President for a period in case the country's top leaders are all killed in some catastrophic event. This 'designated survivor' will then become Acting President and have the authority to launch the missiles.

Can Nuclear Weapons Destroy the World?

Films and video games have also shown us that nuclear weapons could theoretically usher in a new dark age as they wipe out, or greatly reduce, the population on Earth and make areas uninhabitable. But is this true?

Well, although we've found out that individually nuclear weapons are not as powerful as we've seen in films and video games, many argue they still have the ability to end life on Earth as we know it.

You see, most strategic nuclear weapon attack plans (that we now of) feature the use of large amounts of weapons fired at the same time. For example, the US's Massive Retaliation plans generally meant knocking the enemy out with one massive strike. Later plans, such as Kennedy's Flexible Response, changed up the strategy somewhat, but still essentially ended in a massive exchange of nuclear weapons. The introduction of Anti-Ballistic Systems -- designed to shoot down ICBMs -- also necessitated launching more missiles to overwhelm these systems and guarantee effective hits.

Watch the world end in the Terminator 3 clip below:

Alan Robock and Owen Brian Toon are the two academics perhaps most closely associated with these concerns. Their initial papers in the 1980s started the conversation on 'Nuclear Winter' and arguably helped to reduce nuclear stockpiles in this decade. More recently, they have suggested a limited nuclear exchange between even second rate nuclear powers could essentially end the world.

In their simulations, 100 Hiroshima sized bombs were dropped on major cities in India and Pakistan during a nuclear war. Utilizing calculations of urban density, burnable material and wind patterns, they concluded that the resulting smoke would blanket the Earth in 49 days, with the resulting food shortages and chaos killing over 1 billion of Earth's inhabitants. The smoke resulting from the fires would float above the troposphere, where there is no rain or precipitation. The tiny soot particles would hang in the atmosphere and quickly spread across the globe, blocking out the sun, crippling agriculture and causing wintery conditions. These particles would naturally begin to descend to the surface over time, however, the heat of the sun hitting them would also cause them to rise again daily, delaying their descent. Ultimately, the sun could be blocked out for up to a decade.

The only way to avoid this, according to Robock and Toon, is to create a 'nuclear weapon free world' -- certainly no easy task.


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