Glowing Radioactive Materials

These Radioactive Materials Really Do Glow

Most radioactive materials do not glow. However, there are some that do glow, like what you see in movies.

Glowing Radioactive Plutonium

Plutonium is highly pyrophoric.
Plutonium is highly pyrophoric. This plutonium sample is glowing because it is spontaneously burning as it comes into contact with air. Haschke, Allen, Morales (2000). "Surface and Corrosion Chemistry of Plutonium". Los Alamos Science.

 Plutonium is warm to the touch and also pyrophoric. Basically what this means is that is smolders or burns as it oxidizes in air.

Glowing Radium Dial

This is a glowing radium painted dial from the 1950s.
This is a glowing radium painted dial from the 1950s. Arma95, Creative Commons License

Radium mixed with copper-doped zinc sulfide produces a paint that will glow in the dark. The radiation from the decaying radium excited electrons in the doped zinc sulfide to a higher energy level. When the electrons returned to the lower energy level, a visible photon was emitted.

Glowing Radioactive Radon Gas

This is not radon, but radon looks like this.\
This is not radon, but radon looks like this. Radon glows red in a gas discharge tube, though it is not used in tubes because of its radioactivity. This is xenon in a gas discharge tube, with the colors changed to show what radon would look like. Jurii, Creative Commons License

This is a simulation of what radon gas might look like. Radon gas normally is colorless. As it is cooled toward its solid state it begins to glow with a bright phosphorescence. The phosphorescence starts out yellow and deepens to red as the temperature approaches that of liquid air.

Glowing Cherenkov Radiation

This is a photo of the Advanced Test Reactor glowing with Cherenkov radiation.
This is a photo of the Advanced Test Reactor glowing with Cherenkov radiation. Idaho National Labs/DOE

Nuclear reactors display a characteristic blue glow because of Cherenkov radiation, which is a type of electromagnetic radiation that is emitted when a charged particle moves through a dielectric medium faster than the phase velocity of light. The molecules of the medium are polarized, emitting radiation as they return to their ground state.

Glowing Radioactive Actinium

Actinium is a radioactive silvery metal.
Actinium is a radioactive silvery metal. Justin Urgitis

Actinium is a radioactive element that glows pale blue in the dark.

Glowing Radioactive Uranium Glass

Uranium glass fluoresces brightly under a black or ultraviolet light.
Have you ever wondered whether radioactive materials really do glow in the dark? This is a photo of uranium glass, which is a glass to which uranium was added as a colorant. Uranium glass fluoresces bright green under a black or ultraviolet light. Z Vesoulis, Creative Commons License

Glowing Tritium

The night sights on some guns and other weapons use tritium-based paint.
Self Luminescent Tritium Night Sights The night sights on some guns and other weapons use radioactive tritium-based paint. The electrons emitted as the tritium decays interact with the phospor paint, producing a bright greenish light. Wiki Phantoms