Tours to the atomic blue glow?
June 15, 2007 10:13 AM   Subscribe

Where can I go to see Cherenkov radiation -- not some simulation with a blue light in a deep-water bath, but the real thing -- as a tourist?

Some museum, perhaps; or do nuclear power plants give tours?

Or would I really rather not, for health reasons? Is it unsafe? Could seeing it blind me?
posted by Rash to Technology (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I saw Cherenkov effect radiation earlier this year in the fuel storage and residual power dissipation pool at the nuclear power plant I was working at in France. However, it was attached to the reactor building, to which I had access because the reactor was offline for maintenance and refuelling at the time. It's a "hot" zone, and I was actually partially contaminated because of some radioactive dust I brushed onto the elbow of my coveralls while leaning over the railing to get a better look at the radiation.

It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen actually. I think my appreciation was heightened because of my intellectual curiosity as well.

I doubt that even if the nuclear plant gave you a tour that they'd be willing to take you into the same area I went to. I got the feeling it was for employees or sub-contractors only. Lots of regulations for how to get dressed, what to dress in, what to touch and not touch, and dosimetry to protect vital organs and reproductive ability for just a casual member of the public.

Best of luck all the same. To any other readers of this thread, I strongly encourage you to take the opportunity to see Cherenkov effect radiation, if you are lucky enough.
posted by KevCed at 10:19 AM on June 15, 2007

Universities that have nuclear plants for research and power purposes often give tours. I know the Penn State plant does, but you seem to be on the wrong coast for that. Check with one of the schools in your area with a big physics/engineering department, as they are more likely to have a plant.
posted by Loto at 10:44 AM on June 15, 2007

University research reactors are capable of generating visible amounts of Chernenkov radiation. They used to be pretty happy to give tours and show off the blue glow, unless various scare pieces by the press post-9/11 have convinced them it's not worth the trouble.

It won't blind you and I wouldn't worry about the minimal radiation exposure from a small amount of fissioning uranium at the bottom of a deep pool of water. You probably get a bigger dose of radiation on a short jet flight.
posted by Good Brain at 10:44 AM on June 15, 2007

Probably the easiest one to get into would be the University of Missouri-Rolla reactor. You might be able to tour the site as a prospective student, or enroll in undergraduate studies there if you're really serious about it.

The one problem you'll face though, is that, because light is traveling faster than 299,792,458 m/s, and as I'm sure you know, Einstein showed that time would stop at that speed...and reverse at speeds greater than'll have to go yesterday.
posted by sluglicker at 10:47 AM on June 15, 2007

If you're talking about the characteristic "blue glow" Cerenkov radiation then it's actually pretty safe - mostly UV and visible light and none of the really nasty ionising stuff like X-rays and gamma rays.

However, I think that your chances of getting a look-see are pretty slim. The number of situations in which Cerenkov radiation is produced is pretty small and most of them are in what would be deemed hazardous areas.
posted by alby at 10:49 AM on June 15, 2007

The reactor facility is available for use by students, faculty, and outside researchers. Use of the reactor by both college and high school students outside of the university is strongly encouraged. Anyone interested in participating in reactor-related laboratories; science projects and/or research projects should contact the UMR contact the facility manager:webonzer at umr dot edu
posted by sluglicker at 10:58 AM on June 15, 2007

Cerenkov radiation is produced by a lot of devices, including some high energy X ray machines, and simple particle accelerators, such as ring type cyclotrons. It's a little easier to see the characteristic "blue glow" in water tanks, because the the density of the water maximizes the intensity of the effect many times, over air, but you can still see faint blue glow off of air cooled devices, too.

Talk to the radiology or nuclear medicine departments at your local hospital. If you don't need to see a big honkin' storage pool full of blue light, you should definitely be able to see low level Cerenkov radiation with a little help from your local hospital.
posted by paulsc at 11:08 AM on June 15, 2007

I saw Cherenkov radiation at a big research university's nuclear plant. My dosimeter came back normal. I am not blind. You'll be fine, if you do get to see it.
posted by oaf at 11:15 AM on June 15, 2007

I don't know about California, but in Oregon both OSU and Reed have reactor facilities and aren't too shy about giving people tours.

Reed actually offers classes that members of the public (not just enrolled students) can attend and receive a certification in operating the reactor.

Cherenkov radiation is basically safe. There is a slim chance that if by touching the wrong stuff it would be possible to get a little radioactive contamination which is little more than a mild inconvenience.

Find a university with a reactor facility nearby and give them a call.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 11:29 AM on June 15, 2007

I recall reading that dark-adjusted astronauts have seen Cerenkov radiation from cosmic rays passing through the vitreous humors of their eyeballs, if that reassures you.

I've been assuming that the blue glow of nuclear reactors is ions produced by ionizing radiation recombining, but the Wikipedia article does indeed attribute it to Cerenkov radiation.
posted by jamjam at 12:15 PM on June 15, 2007

Damn, I learned something new today. I was all set to laugh at this thread 'cuz for some reason I though Cherenkov radiation was only some theoretical emission from the event horizons of black holes. Where did I get that idea? I feel as if I should probably blame Larry Niven or something.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 12:22 PM on June 15, 2007

According to this web page, UC Irvine has tours of their reactor available (see bottom of page):

I took a tour there nearly 30 years ago while in high school.
posted by ShooBoo at 12:28 PM on June 15, 2007

At the University of Arizona, in '95, anyway, this demo was part of every engineering student tour. One of the most vivid memories of my life, standing over that pool in the dark, followed by that Indiglo-like flash.

As Good Brain mentioned, though, they, like others, have tightened up the visits thanks to ABC (see the 'campus insecurity' link) ... if you're going this route, expect a background check.
posted by bhance at 12:32 PM on June 15, 2007

Also, call the particle astrophysics people at your nearest university. A lot of ground based cosmic ray detection is done using the light emitted by Chereknov radiation when an air shower hits a water tank. Sometimes they have means to demonstrate this visibly for outreach programs and such.

Scintillators will also give a similar, but not quite as dramatic, effect.
posted by Loto at 12:45 PM on June 15, 2007

I've been on a tour of a nuclear power plant where we did see a containment pool as part of a college course, so they could be arranged (at least in 1999.)
posted by andrewraff at 12:45 PM on June 15, 2007

The Nuclear Science Center at Texas A&M touts the blue glow on its public tours page.
posted by dhartung at 1:02 PM on June 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think I saw some on a tour of the umass lowell research reactor -- I don't know if they still give tours (this was part of a high school trip around 10-12 years ago iirc).
posted by advil at 1:02 PM on June 15, 2007

Midnight Creeper, that's Hawking radiation.
posted by solotoro at 1:29 PM on June 15, 2007

Midnight Creeper: You're thinking of Schwarzchild radiation, also called Hawking radiation.
posted by scalefree at 1:32 PM on June 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Texas A&M has a plant and gives tours.
posted by magikker at 1:51 PM on June 15, 2007

Good Brain is exactly right. The water in the pool itself is negligibly radioactive, but the irradiated solids (dust, other particulate matter) suspended in/on that water are not. Now the Cherenkov radiation itself is harmless blue/UV light, but the stuff generating it isn't always as innocent.

I think that a university giving a tour would be pretty diligent about keeping you safe though. My contamination was a result of the dust generated by other activities that go on in that building, not the Cherenkov radiation itself.
posted by KevCed at 2:22 PM on June 15, 2007

I've seen it - in a nuclear reactor in Michigan. We were on a school trip around the southwest corner of the state. I don't remember the name of the plant, but according to the Energy Information Administration, there are three plants in Michigan. Based on their locations, it must have been either the Palisades plant near South Haven or the Donald C. Cook plant near Bridgman.

Regarding the safety, we had to be tested for radiation before and after the tour.
posted by youngergirl44 at 11:39 AM on June 16, 2007

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