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In The Avengers, the Council contacted Nick Fury and supposedly, they want to nuke Manhattan. Nick didn't agree so they contacted a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative to nuke Manhattan.

When they found out that an unauthorized jet was trying to fly, Nick grabbed a rocket launcher and fired it at the jet, which was a decoy and the real jet was able to escape.

However, why would he do that? If that was the real plane carrying a nuke enough to level Manhattan, wouldn't the nuke explode and destroy the base along with them if he fired a rocket launcher at it?

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    Just to give you an idea how hard it is to detonate a nuclear bomb, you need an explosion of an atomic bomb to trigger explosion of a hydrogen bomb. – Sedat Kapanoglu May 17 at 19:39
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    I don't believe the first plane was intended as a decoy. I think there were simply two pilots following the orders of the Council. Fury got the first one but didn't expect a second. – aleppke May 17 at 20:31
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    @Dúthomhas: If the nukes were uranium based, it would make for a terrible dirty bomb. The half-life is so long that you'd need literally tons of it to produce an appreciable risk factor. Distributing the contents of a plutonium based nuke would be a lot dirtier, but if Nick knew it was uranium based, blowing it up is about as dirty as getting a couple unnecessary x-rays; a couple more people on the helicarrier might get cancer in old age, but that's a lot better than a few million blowing up. – ShadowRanger May 18 at 4:11
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    @ShadowRanger: You should note that "a couple of unnecessary X-rays", which are in reality alpha radiation is not the concern with exploding an uranium device. In fact, not only can you carry uranium around in your pocket quite safely without protection, you can even use it as radiation shield (that's actually being done). Alpha radiators are perfectly harmless. Alpha radiators inside your body (such as after inhaling uranium dust) are a very different story. They're about as bad as it can get. That's notwithstanding the significant toxicity of uranium. – Damon May 19 at 9:53
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    Are you really asking why Nick Fury did not hesitate facing the choice between a few hundred military personnel (in the extremely unlikely event the bomb would do damage to the carrier) and a few million civilians? Especially given that the heroes are perfectly willing to risk their lives with far greater risk and far lower stakes many, many times over? – Luaan May 20 at 7:24
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If that was the real plane carrying a nuke enough to level Manhattan, wouldn't the nuke explode and destroy the base along with them if he fired a rocket launcher at it?

No.

Detonating a modern nuclear device is, in fact, incredibly difficult and merely shooting down the aircraft carrying it would not be sufficient.

In fact, several aircraft carrying older nuclear devices have either crashed or otherwise been lost without the device on board detonating.

It's likely that the crash might cause a release of nuclear material but detonation is practically impossible.

In 1966...

...another B-52 carrying four hydrogen bombs crashed near the Spanish town of Palomares on Spain’s southeast coast after colliding with a refueling tanker. One of the four bombs was recovered virtually intact, according to The Washington Post, but two others released plutonium when their explosive triggers detonated. A fourth bomb fell into the sea, prompting a search that involved thousands of uniformed personnel, millions of dollars and 20 ships that ranged from submarines to minesweepers.

The fourth bomb was eventually recovered, but radiation released by the damaged weapons required a U.S.-led effort to decontaminate 640 acres of topsoil in the farmland around Palomares, Tad Sczulc reported in the Times. Military personnel initially wore face masks and gloves as they removed the soil, according to Sczulc’s account, and more than 1,600 tons of contaminated soil were sealed in steel drums and shipped to the U.S. for disposal.

Washington Post

1964

In 1964, a B-52 carrying two unarmed atomic bombs crashed in western Maryland. In 1961, two nuclear-laden B-52s went down — one near Yuba City, Calif., and another north of Goldsboro, N.C. The bombs survived both crashes without detonating

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    @I.Am only if the specific detonation criteria are met. This could happen but you must consider that these weapons are designed to be difficult to set off, to minimise the risk of them being set off accidentally. There is no "they would 100% not go off" but that isn't the point of the scene. – user5603 May 17 at 15:38
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    Nuclear devices require a "super critical mass" in order to detonate in a nuclear fission (fusion devices require a fission starter). This is done either by shooting a uranium slug into a uranium sphere (the slug is stored such that it must be armed and dropped before it was even aimed at the sphere) or by compressing a uranium sphere through the use of precisely timed explosive pressure waves (any deviation from the precise timing results in the sphere being obliterated instead of initiating fission). The latter is more common. In short, Nick's RPG blast would disarm the nuke if hit. – Kevin Fee May 17 at 16:05
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    While I largely agree, it's important not to be complacent about crashes with A-bombs. In the Goldsboro crash at least two of the bombs nearly went off. (In one bomb, three of the four safety devices failed). But that was because the firing circuit was almost activated by relatively light damage to the bomb. Blowing one up at altitude is a good way to stop that happening, sure. It also exposes the lie of various supercomputers used to "keep our bomb stockpile safe". An old, rotted bomb won't go off for your reasons. What these guys are doing is keeping their bomb-stockpile dangerous. – Dannie May 17 at 17:20
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    "Detonating a nuclear device is, in fact, incredibly difficult" - well, no, that depends on which nuclear device. – Rand al'Thor May 17 at 19:16
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    @Dannie, "three out of four safety devices failed" is one of those true but misleading facts that keeps getting thrown around. Yes, three out of four arming mechanisms were activated, but the purpose of those mechanisms is to keep the bomb from detonating while still in the aircraft, or during ground handling. When the bomb left the airplane, it's not surprising that those three activated. The purpose of the fourth safety mechanism, the "safe/arm" switch, is to keep the bomb from going off when the crew doesn't want it to. That one was still set to "safe" when the bomb left the aircraft. – Mark May 17 at 22:30
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Just because the bomb has been dropped doesn't mean the mechanism to detonate/criteria required for detonation has been met. There are several real life incidents where a nuclear bomb has been dropped and didn't detonate - either because it was dropped and the mechanism failed or because the plane carrying the bomb crashed.

Now that we have that out of the way, the rest of the answer to your question is really simple: The World Security Council had just launched a nuclear weapon targeted at a civilian population. Nick Fury was doing what he thought needed to be done to get the situation back under control. It would have been a non-issue for him if the nuke had gone off in the skies above New York and destroyed the helicarrier - this is for the greater good in comparison to nuking Manhattan.

  • I see. So he's someone willing to sacrifice his life and all of SHIELD's operatives? – I. Am May 17 at 15:32
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    SHEILD operatives are not civilians - they signed up for the mission. Yes - Nick Fury is willing to sacrifice a helicarrier of SHIELD agents to save Manhattan from a nuke and he's willing to make that choice without a moments delay. – user5603 May 17 at 15:33
  • I like this answer, because while yes in reality a nuke wouldn't go off, but in film logic a nuke would go off when shot. (Though I am not sure of thats what was implied in the Avengers Movie, or the MCU in general) – Lichtbringer May 17 at 17:42
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    Black Widow summarized this kind of decision quite well in Age of Ultron: "Everybody up here vs everyone down there? There's no math there". – aleppke May 17 at 20:28
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    One issue here: if a nuke goes off in the skies above New York, that's actually how you would go about nuking Manhattan if that were your actual goal. Nukes are typically detonated hundreds to thousands of feet in the air (called an 'air burst.') The Hiroshima bomb was detonated around 2,000 ft up, for example. You would have to be many miles up for an air burst not to result in nuking the city below. Basically, if the air is dense enough to fly and you detonate a nuke, you have nuked everything beneath you. The effect wouldn't be as bad from 20,000-30,000 ft as 2,000, but still quite bad. – reirab May 17 at 20:48
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Hitting a nuke with another explosive would cause it to fizzle.

Nuclear bombs have different "levels" of detonation. It's not an all-or-nothing thing where the bomb either does not react at all, or explodes in an all-out violent nuclear explosion. If a bomb is subject to extreme external pressure, for example by falling into the ocean or getting hit with another bomb, it is likely to "fizzle". This is caused by the chemical explosives going off, but not with the precise timing required to initiate complete nuclear fission. It results in a very weak nuclear blast with a minuscule yield.

A rocket launcher does not destroy a plane right away.

There's another important point to make. A rocket launcher does not obliterate an airplane when it detonates. It explodes and throws shrapnel everywhere, severing hydraulic lines and damaging the aircraft structurally. The plane would not be turned to smoke and instead would continue flying for a short time before crashing in a ball of fire. It's even possible for it to continue to fly for hours. Furthermore, guided missiles do not always hit their targets, and when they do, they do not always cause sufficient damage to bring them down. During that time when the plane is uncontrollable but before it hits the ground, someone could arm and detonate the nuclear device.

  • Did you take into account that movies operate with a different set of physical properties? Like how a few pistol shots cause a car to explode as if it'd been packed with dynamite? With that in mind, it seem very plausible that even a gracing hit would detonate the nuclear bomb. Disclaimer: I'm joking – Gertsen May 20 at 6:51
  • @Gertsen Actually, even in movies, nukes are often shown to be handled rather haphazardly with little concern for an unplanned nuclear explosion. When people are scolded for that handling, it's about the conventional explosives going off, not the nuke - still quite enough to kill everyone in the room, mind. – Luaan May 20 at 7:21

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