This is the tendency in fiction for exposure to nuclear radiation or other hazards (including Green Rocks) to result in a character gaining super-powers when an unpleasant death by radiation poisoning or a slow, agonizing demise by cancer would be a more likely outcome.
Don't try to tell that to anybody on the inside of the fourth wall, though.
Unsurprisingly, this trope seems to have been at its peak in the atom-crazed 1950s when anything "atomic" was seen as cutting-edge, but is now falling out of favor as the common person's changed perception of the negative effects of radiation make it increasingly less believable as a source for superhero mutation. A few superhero characters whose backstory involved gaining powers though irradiation have since been re-written into genetic engineering being responsible to capitalize on a new area of scientific ignorance for viewers.
Godzilla movies aside, this is not a particularly common trope in Japan as, due to World War II, the Japanese are much better acquainted with the effects that atomic radiation has on human physiology than most. In fact, the Japanese Kaiju genre (which includes Godzilla) was known for highlighting the negative effects of radiation, rather than the positive effects we often saw in American fiction of that era.
See also Phlebotinum du Jour (for more unlikely things that promote superpowers) and Deus Ex Nukina (for more things that nuclear power can arbitrarily solve).
A Super Trope to Nuclear Nasty, which specifically talks about monsters created by radiation. Frequently this trope needs Radiation Immune Mutants as a Required Secondary Power. The predecessors to this trope are Lightning Can Do Anything and Chemistry Can Do Anything; before the discovery of nuclear power, electricity and chemicals were the go-to source for magical do-anything phlebotinum.
Not to be confused with Deus Ex Nukina or Atomic Hate. This trope is why you should neverNuke 'em.
Named for an obscure '80s alternative music hit, oxymoronic as it may seem to use "obscure" and "hit" in the same sentence.
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Anime & Manga
Many of Osamu Tezuka's early sci-fi manga had radiation doing strange things:
Metropolis featured a radioactive metal called Omotanium that could cause animals to grow to giant sizes, create artificial sunspots and helped create a superpowered Artificial Human.
Nextworld features various bizarre mutants created by nuclear testing including the superintelligent Fumoon who may or may not have been created from humans. Oddly enough, nobody ever got cancer or radiation sickness.
Astro Boy handled this a bit better. The hero still got his powers from atomic energy, but that's because he was a nuclear powered robot. One Astroboy story, "The Coral Reef Adventure", involves nuclear testing in the Pacific & features animals & people who are hideously deformed & dying due to radiation.
Also, in one episode of Kimba the White Lion, there's a grasshopper mutated by radiation. Guess what happens? Well, here's a hint: The episode is called "The Gigantic Grasshopper."
Ode To Kirihito, on the other hand, is almost realistic about this. Irradiated water causes gradual, painful, and horrible death. Less probably, it makes people look like they're part-dog.
In JoJo's Bizarre Adventure it is eventually revealed that the apparently mystical Stands were somehow created by an ancient artifact created from a radioactive meteorite.
In Patalliro, Patalliro tries to hatch a "super duck" by irradiating a duck egg, but what hatches is just a rather large duck.
A chapter of Black Jack features an aversion with an artist who is slowly dying of radiation poisoning.
She-Hulk: Apparently deadly radiation can turn you into a 6'7" green supermodel who can bench a train. She-Hulk didn't directly get her powers from radiation but rather a blood transfusion from Bruce Banner, her cousin...
And they're only the most famous. The Hulk comics have seen a whole horde of people mutated by gamma radiation over the years.
Most of the Leader's schemes revolve around trying to mutate humanity with gamma radiation, most recently in Fall of The Hulks.
There's also Red Hulk, who even absorbs radiation. Combining gamma radiation and cosmic power will let you do that, apparently.
The reason Bruce and other Gamma mutates received superpowers instead of radiation sickness from Gamma radiation is because of a genetic trigger that one person possessed long ago. Bruce, his relatives, and a few others are all descendants of the original carrier. The guy who discovered said trigger found a way to copy it and used it to become a Gamma mutate too.
Spider-Man acquired his powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider.
Many of Spidey's classic foes gained their powers from some type of radiation accident as well, but special mention goes to Doctor Octopus. Not only was the good doctor an actual atomic scientist who would later use this knowledge in several of his evil schemes, but in one retelling of his origin, Spider-Man/Doctor Octopus: Year One, he considers himself and Spider-Man to be twins of their "mother", nuclear power. Ock generally seems to take this trope's title literally.
In X-Men, the exact cause of mutant powers are rarely discussed. In the 60's however, Professor X explained his powers as the result of his parents working on the first atom bomb. The Beast's powers have been explained as the result of his father being exposed to radiation, while Sunfire was born in Hiroshima on the day when they dropped the atom bomb. (Even the comic book series as a whole, back in the 1960s, used to bear the subtitle "children of the atom.") All of these explanations have later been either Ret Conned or completely ignored.
A more recent explanation is that the detonation of the atomic bombs merely triggered an explosion in mutant birth rates.
Averted Post-Crisis in Superman (albeit played straight elsewhere in The DCU.) The chronic health problems that plague Lex Luthor in both his comic book and cartoon series appearances are a result of exposure to the Kryptonite Ring he wore for quite some time. While it certainly hurts Superman very quickly, having it around you for years will have the same effect any kind of radiation will.
Played straight by Superman villain Neutron, and Supergirl villain Reactron, both of whom have the ability to control and project nuclear radiation.
Deconstructed in the origin of the Cyborg Superman. In a pastiche of the Fantastic Four, a space shuttle crew is exposed to cosmic radiation but suffer vastly detrimental effects. Two are killed immediately and resurrected in painful or dangerous forms, eventually leading them to suicide, and one is nearly drawn into an alternate dimension. The fourth member of the crew, Hank Henshaw, suffers an accelerated radiation poisoning which rots away his body. However, Henshaw's mind quickly returns to life with technopathic abilities.
And rampaging sociopathy.
Also lampshaded in the Marvel Universe, when Rick Jones exposed himself to gamma rays to try to develop Hulk-like powers and got cancer instead. He got better, though.
The Marvel ComicsElseworldMini SeriesRuins subverts this repeatedly. In its vision of a darker, bleaker Marvel universe, it imagines the "realistic" effects that the numerous radiation-fueled Freak Lab Accidents that gave many of their comic book superheroes their powers (gamma radiation bursts, "cosmic" rays, irradiated spider-bites, etc) could have — specifically, painful disfigurements and horrible deaths. However, the series often leaves in the other unrealistic elements; for instance, the Hulk becomes a mass of tumors, but still violates Conservation of Mass in doing so.
When Matt Murdock got toxic waste spilled on him, he gained superpowers but also got blinded.
Lampshaded in one of the comics; when the empowering accident is discussed, a character points out, "You know what would happen to me if I got hit in the face with a radioactive isotope? I would get leukemia and die."
This and many other Marvel origins are given a kind-of explanation in the Earth X miniseries, in that certain people have the ability to gain superpowers. What those powers are is determined by how they get them, but because of this innate "spark", they do indeed gain abilities from things that would kill people without it.
This is roughly the same rationalization behind the "metagene" in The DCU.
In the mainstream continuity, radiation-based origins have been explained as genetic experiments by the Celestials that were triggered by radiation.
Knuckles the Echidna in the Archie ComicsSonic the Hedgehog comic books, had his egg irradiated with Chaos Energy from the Master Emerald by his father Locke (himself self-subjected to radiation and genetic testing), granting him powers and abilities far beyond even his own lineage had as the crystal's guardian. Likewise, his ancestor Dimitri, aka Enerjak, became a near-god from excess radiation siphoned off of the Master Emerald. In fact, if a character doesn't have a natural affinity for powering up with the Chaos Emeralds (like Sonic or Shadow), any Chaos-imbued powers they gain are usually a result of this trope.
The Flash has a minor recurring adversary named Fallout, a former blue-collar worker who was hired to do work on a nuclear power plant, fell into the reactor, and emerged with translucent green skin and radioactive powers that caused him to inadvertently kill his wife and son. After Flash apprehended him he agreed to act as a living power source for the prison in which he was incarcerated as penance.
In fact, Jay Garrick, the Golden Age Flash, gained his powers when he accidentally inhaled fumes of heavy water, a rare non-radiation based version of I Love Nuclear Power.
The Golden AgeAtom from the Justice Society of America was originally just a short guy who worked out a lot, but when he came out of retirement in The Silver Age of Comic Books he had super-strength because the writer who brought him back didn't read the history. It was later Retconned that he absorbed energy from a nuclear-powered supervillain, which somehow allowed him to survive an atomic bomb blast, after which he gained his powers.
Chen Lu was turned into the Radioactive Man in a Chinese attempt to create a human weapon. Pity they didn't check if he had plans for world domination first...
Hilariously parodied in a Dilbert strip sequence, in which Dilbert decides to make himself a superhero costume and stand outside the local nuclear plant, in the hope that an accident will occur and give him superpowers. When he gets there, he finds a dozen other guys, all in various designs of spandex, who apparently all had the same idea.
Johnny Alpha in Strontium Dog gained the ability to read minds, see through solid objects, and emit alpha rays from his eyes following strontium-90 fallout during a nuclear war. However, most other mutants in the series are merely disfigured.
Taken to its uttermost extreme in Captain Atom - the titular character, rather than merely being irradiated, was actually vaporized by being at ground zero of a thermonuclear explosion. His mind or soul was somehow able to form a new body for itself, one with superpowers. In the Post-Crisis remake of the character, the writers explained this as an effect of the extra-dimensional substance in which he was encased at the time of the blast.
DC Comics' other nuclear man, Firestorm, also counts, since his origin involves terrorists leaving Ronnie Raymond and Martin Stein to die when they blow up the latter's nuclear plant. The explosion ends up fusing them into a superpowered being instead. Later averted when Stein is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor as a result of being one half of the nuclear man midway through the second series.
Also true of his Distaff Counterpart Firehawk, his Russian foe-turned-ally Pozhar, and several of his recurring villains.
The New 52 reboot embraces this, turning "the Firestorm Protocols" into an extended nuclear arms race metaphor.
Alpha One of The Mighty was once a normal sailor who had ended up floating in irritated waters for hours after testing an atom bomb. It took place in 1952.
Quantum and Woody got their powers after they were accidentally bombarded with quantum energy.
Genocide Jones in Sleeper had a job at a "weird government research plant" that features a pair of iconic nuclear cooling towers. Being a loner, he took his lunch in an isolated area of the plant, prominently marked with radiation warnings. He somehow doesn't notice he's getting bigger and stronger.
Legion of Super-Heroes: Reoccurring enemy Radiation Roy has this marked in his name. His ability to emit paralyzing radiation was paid for with an inheritance he gained so he could specifically join the Legion. Roy was rejected due to the fact that his uncontrolled powers could harm the other Legionnaires, though a later retcon states he was also rejected because Saturn Girl's mental profile revealed he had a number of psychotic tendencies. Saturn Girl was supposedly so disturbed by what she saw in Roy's mind she couldn't sleep for two nights. As he got older, it became clear Roy's powers were having an effect on his body when he came back bald. When Geoff Johns brought the original Legion's continuity back, Roy had to wear a full-body containment suit because his powers were causing him to grow giant tumors and his teeth were falling out. Though for some reason he had hair again.
In X-Men: First Class, Sebastian Shaw believes that mutants are the "Children of the Atom" and believes all mutants are immune to radiation because of this. This is why he plans to turn the Cold War nuclear, beliving that the radiation will wipe humanity out but spare mutants.
In Perry Rhodan, the first Mutant Corps consisted almost solely of individuals endowed with various Psychic Powers due to their parents' exposure to radiation — including, though not limited to, the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In Gone, people can die from radioactivity (and some of them nearly do), but it's also a potential cause for the superpowers that some of the kids have. It's also what the local monster feeds on. Justified, because Gone takes place in an Alternate Universe where the laws of science have been rewritten.
In the Confederation Handbook, mutations from cosmic radiation are said to be the cause of Pilgrim powers, though not in the short term as often depicted by this trope, taking multiple generations.
Subverted in Stargate Atlantis season three, where a couple characters die from a machine that exposes them to radioactivity that causes exploding tumors. Yeah, we thought it was rather improbable too.
Penn & Teller: Bullshit!! did an episode praising nuclear power, declaring it much safer, cheaper, and more reliable than other forms of energy such as oil and coal.
Averted in Farscape where Crichton builds a wormhole-controlling device with a nuclear power source. His ally turned enemy steals it and in the ensuing chase, the radiation shield protecting the power source is knocked open, meaning Crichton has to make a split-second jump towards the device to render it safe. He fails, absorbs a lethal dose of radiation and succumbs to his illness by the end of the episode.
Viciously averted in GURPS where too much radiation will cause all sorts of horrible things to happen to you even if you successfully make a save against the effect. In fact radiation damage causes a build up of genetic damage that is incurable without special powers or advanced technology. However, "weird radiation" can result in powers.
Promethean: The Created has the Zeka, named after the Russian gulag prisoners who worked the uranium mines. They're the result of several demiurges who exposed corpses to nuclear power, triggering the Azoth to reanimate them. They may have the worst luck of any Promethean - they're living fallout, doomed to exist only in radiation-filled hellholes. And if they pull off the Great Work and become human? They have an excellent chance of dying from radiation poisoning thanks to their innate radioactive contamination. No wonder so many of them turn to The Dark Side.
In Deadlands: Hell on Earth, being exposed to supernaturally-charged radiation could potentially give useful mutations (like an extra mouth that consumes the life essence of all that die near you), or it could give you a horrible deformity (like an extra mouth that never SHUTS up), or it could just kill you. Then, there are the rad-priests called Doomsayers, who prove that, if you love radiation enough, it just might return the favor.
Some superheroes (and villains) in Champions received their powers from nuclear radiation or being descended from people exposed to radiation.
This may or may not be the cause of the mutation of every last citizen of Alpha Complex in Paranoia.
One possible Origin in Super Munchkin involves stubbing one's toe on a "super ultra radioactive block of stuff". In the base game, the Plutonium Dragon is one of the highest level monsters.
In Werewolf: The Apocalypse, servants of the Wyrm revere radiation. Nuclear explosions are sacred to Furmas, the elemental Wyrm of Balefire. The balefire burning in Black Spiral Dancer caverns is radioactive, producing mutations in some of the werewolves who reside therein.
One of the Black Spiral Dancers' holiest caerns is a nuclear testing site in Alamagordo, New Mexico, where a colossal Thunderwyrm named Grammaw nests underground. The original nuclear blast blinded one of the Trinity Hive's elders, and hive members who guard Grammaw are hairless and pale due to the effects of residual radiation.
The area for ten kilometers around Chernobyl, meanwhile, is a spawning ground for Wyrm-servants. The radiation is bad enough that even some of the non-Black Spiral Dancer werewolves are born deformed and infertile (a condition that, in the rest of the world, is only caused by two werewolves mating).
City of Heroes explicitly uses this; by taking a mission to save the local nuclear reactor from villains, you mutate and get to re-organize your powers.
And inverted with the Radiation powersets, which use green radiation to weaken and harm enemies and buff allies (likely based on a bit of Rule of Cool in regards to real world radiotherapy). The signature character Positron is well-known for his radiation powers, and (until recently) having to wear a containment suit of Powered Armor all the time so he doesn't blow up.
The Fallout series, oddly enough, does not run on this trope the way BioShock runs on genetic engineering, despite being an RPG set in a world stuck in the culture of the 1950s, "atom craze" and all. For the most part it's a mixed bag. Bugs and rats have become giant and cows have gained an extra head, and then there are ghouls, people who were scorched and sterilized by the atomic blasts but are now able to live for centuries immune to radiation. And let's not forget those atomic cars. On the flip side of the coin, exposing yourself directly to radiation just gives you radiation poisoning (though this is relatively easy to treat), and some ghouls gained their longevity at the cost of their humanity.
In Fallout 3 as a side effect of having to become irradiated for a survival guide research mission, the player character can develop a mutation that causes his crippled limbs to fix themselves if he is irradiated. Though it's half due to the therapy, which involved "Twisting your DNA like a kitten with a ball of yarn!" Cars also got miniaturized nuclear reactors as engines just before the end of the world. The series also features creatures such as Super Mutants and Deathclaws that were created by scientific experiments rather than radiation exposure.
In Fallout: New Vegas, there are two perks that make you stronger the more radiation you absorb, Rad child and Atomic!. You still get radiation sickness status effects but gain a healing factor, speed boost and fast action point recovery.
One extremely notable example of this trope is Nuka-Cola, a soda that was bottled full of radioactive materials before the war. Nuka-Cola is one the games most iconic items, its been in all released titles so far and many quests have been involved or even centered on it. Its has been stated numerous times through out the series that Nuka-Cola includes radioactive isotopes in its ingredients for the taste, as well as a glowing effect in some variants.
Team Fortress 2 invokes this trope (parodiously, as always) with the 'Bonk!' energy drink for the Scout. As the advertisement tells us, "Bonk! is fulla radiation, which as we all know is pretty great for giving people super powers."
The Zebesian Space Pirates in Metroid Prime use Phazon, a radioactive substance, to create elite troops. If the player reads the Pirate Data entries from your scan visor, it is learned that some of those exposed to Phazon radiation go insane and attack their allies.
Metroid Prime: Hunters features the Battlehammer, a weapon with a miniature nuclear reactor. This is the Cyborg Space Pirate, Weavil's, weapon of choice. He has one on his arm and one on his crotch.
Human biotics (people able to manipulate dark energy, granting them telekinesis and other fun powers) in Mass Effect are stated in the in-game Encyclopedia Exposita to result from intrauterine exposure to "element zero," the game's particular flavor of Applied Phlebotinum. Any given element zero exposure is several orders of magnitude more likely to result in terminal brain cancer or other fatal congenital defects, so pregnant women aren't exactly lining up outside the eezo refineries.
The Hierarchy in Universe at War love radiological weapons. This may be because radiation heals purebred hierarchs, and they get to use the dead and dying indigenous population as zombies.
The TEC in Sins of a Solar Empire never leave home without a truckload of nukes for siege purposes. The Marza dreadnought can also be upgraded to re-purpose one for ship-to-ship warfare. Their superweapon, the Novalith Cannon, fires a massive, high-yield nuclear bomb at their hapless enemies' planets. One shot reduces the planets' population by 90%, and makes the rest die of radiation poisoning, two completely sterilizes the planet and makes it unusable for 5 minutes in real-time, which works out to several weeks game-time.
The UEF in Supreme Commander. They have two types of nuclear reactor, and one of their experimental weapons fires mini-nukes. Their Hero Unit can be armed with a backpack missile silo which can build one each nuke and counter-missile.
Touhou has Utsuho Reiuji, a hell raven with the power of manipulation of nuclear fusion, a control rod that doubles as an Arm Cannon that would make Samus Aran jealous, a concrete boot on one foot and "electrons" orbiting the other.
She also plays this trope literally—in one of the fighting game spinoffs, she's surprised to learn there are people beyond the barrier who don't like nuclear power.
Also, the kappa and a couple of mountain goddesses seem to have a strange love for this new power.
It was those goddesses who allowed Utsuho to gain that power in the first place as part of their plan to gather faith by advancing the technology of Gensokyo.
Many factions throughout the Command & Conquer series employ nuclear power to one degree or another. The power plants in the first Tiberium game are implied to be nuclear, along with Nod getting a nuclear missile as their superweapon; the Soviets use nuclear reactors and nuclear missiles in the Red Alert series; and the Chinese are big on nuclear energy and weapons in Generals. One particular Chinese general in Zero Hour, Shi Tao, likes nukes, and gets nuclear tanks as standard. The americans also employ Fusion reactors, though they're generally not as powerful as Chinese reactors.
Played with in Final Fantasy XII. Mist is magical energy that is as prevalent in the game's world as background radiation is in reality. However, in some areas of the game, mist is concentrated enough to interfere with airships and mutate wildlife. One of the ways to get this effect is to use nethicite as a weapon.
The Roguelike, Elona has Etherwind, which starts blowing every 3 months, and unless you find shelter, induces horrible mutations. As opposed to normal mutations, which can be good or bad.
Late in Starcraft II Heart Of The Swarm, during a bonus mission to upgrade the Ultralisk, Mengsk orders his men to drop an experimental nuclear weapon over a group of Ultralisks. The Ultralisks start suffering radiation poisoning, but Abathur, thinking quickly, alters the genetic sequences of the Ultralisks to allow them to assimilate the radioactive particles and use them to change further. The result? The Ultralisks turn into Torrasques, beasts capable of resurrecting themselves when killed. Nice job there, Mengsk!
Metro 2033 has giant, highly aggressive mutant rats, bats, moles and other animals created by nuclear war, and the race of psychic mutants known as the Dark Ones who may or may not be human. It's implied the Dark Ones, at least, are actually the result of genetic engineering by the military, though.
The final mission of Saints Row: The Third DLC "The Trouble with Clones" has the Boss temporarily gain superpowers after Jimmy gives them irradiated Saints Flow.
Parodied in The Non-Adventures of Wonderella, where Wonderella uses radiation to accelerate fermentation of some beer that she's brewing...radiation from her cell phone. This naturally creates a beer monster, and then things get weird.
As if they weren't already weird.
Also parodied in one of the Sluggy Freelance stick-figure fillers where Torg is bitten by a radioactive animal and gains the superpower to lose his teeth and hair. Fortunately, aliens are nearby to cure him and give him real superpowers.
In The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, "crazy space radiation" seems to do a lot of, well, crazy things, like grant superintelligence to dinosaurs and create "NASAGHASTS", malevolent astronaut ghosts. It's not surprising, considering how the comic is influenced by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and other '80s nostalgia full of this trope.
Antimatter particles and radioactive rays are legitimate powers in Chaos Fighters. They are considered Non-Elemental in its magic system, though.
Defied in Alice and Bob. "For the last fucking time, nuclear power does not give you superpowers."
At Villain Source (Your Online Source For Everything Evil) you can buy a jarful of a dozen irradiated insects whose serum (well, poison actually) will give you superpowers! It then admits that the chances of this actually happening is 1 in 100,000,000,000. But that's why they give you 12 insects!
Uncyclopedia's People's Nuclear Program article, affectionately referred to as "the 'What Can We Put A Nuclear Reactor Into Today?' program"; a USSR project that resulted in a super-powered assault rifle, sword, child, and toaster.
Freeman's Mind also defies this, with Freeman pointing out that the chances of gaining a beneficial mutation from being exposed to radiation were astronomical, and even if you did get one, you'd still have radiation poisoning.
Listen to the theme-song for the old Spider-Man animated series: "Is he strong? Listen, bud, he's got radioactive blood!" ...in real life, people with radioactive blood aren't particularly strong.
Played a bit more logically in Batman Beyond: The radiation that turned Derek Powers, the Big Bad, into the super-powered Blight was actually therapy for a dose of his own experimental nerve gas. Somehow, their combined effects turned him into a glowing green skeleton, possessing explicitly radiation-based superpowers and weaknesses, with a half-life of one season.
Used in Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, as a G RatedFantastic Drug. Mira gets addicted to phasing through nuclear cores, which ups her power and speed to somewhere in the range of Superman and Flash. Though I suppose this could also be a subversion, as she suffers radiation withdrawal, complete with unkempt hair, dark circles under her eyes, and general creepiness.
The Toxic Crusaders became super-powerful (as well as hideously deformed) when they were exposed to radioactive waste in five separate unlikely accidents.
Parodied in the Earthworm Jim cartoon for one episode where Jim, attempting to get superpowers to replace the weak super suit copy he was stuck with, used comic book methods. His efforts include getting trapped in a nuclear reactor, which gives him a glow-in-the-dark rash, and being bitten by a radioactive flea, which causes him to gain out-of-control leaping powers and grow flea legs from his head.
Played straight and parodied in the Family Guy episode "Family Guy Viewer Mail #1". The Griffins are exposed to radioactive waste, and each gain separate powers (Stewie got telekinesis, Brian got superspeed, Chris got pyrokinesis, Peter got shapeshifting, Lois got super strength, and Meg could...extend and retract her fingernails). They proceed to wreak havoc in Quahog, and in an attempt to gain superpowers to stop them, Mayor Adam West rolls around in radioactive waste:
Doctor: Mayor West, you have lymphoma.
Adam West: Oh my.
Doctor: Probably from rolling around in that toxic waste. What in God's name were you trying to prove?
Adam West: I was trying to gain super powers.
Doctor: Well that's just silly.
Adam West: Silly, yes... idiotic... yes.
Likewise the Aqua Teen Hunger Force episode "Super Hero", where Master Shake exposes himself to toxic waste that, instead of giving him super powers, causes him to slowly melt.
Another episode featured a nuclear powered grill that through the magic of radiation was able to bring piles of snot to life (and melt the polar ice caps). Well it was sort of a dream, but it took up the entire episode and given the setting...
Two recurring villains of The Mask: The Animated Series got powers this way. First, they were two stupid teenagers that decided to get superpowers. They go to the nuclear power plant, get radioactive - and realize they forgot to bring a bug to bite them just before passing out by poisoning. As the ambulance is taking them away, an accident causes one to crash into a putty shop (turning him into the shapeshifting Putty Thing) and another into an aquarium (turning him into the harmless Fish Guy). Fish Guy didn't get anything good out of the deal either; even as a fish he still couldn't swim.
Parodied in The Fairly OddParents. The Crimson Chin's origin story has him bitten on the chin by a radioactive celebrity.
Danny Phantom used this trope a little lightly. The hero was radiated by ecto energy that altered his genetic structure.
The Simpsons has their own Radioactive Man, and arguably the most popular of the two.
In the episode where the family became farmers, Homer iradiates the crops with plutonium borrowed from the nuclear plant in the hope that they grow bigger, like in the movies. Instead, he ends up with normal-sized tomatoes, only they have combined with tobacco to form "tomacco".
Used to explain how Mike Scioscia can show up in the Moneyball parody despite getting radiation poisoning in the softball episode nearly twenty years previously. Apparently, "It gave me super managing powers. I also demagnetize credit cards."
SpongeBob SquarePants has The Atomic Flounder, a retired villain originally for a one-off gag. He later appeared in a Show Within a Show episode during his prime. His first appearance followed the more common use of the trope, with atomic breath, however the second also brought some Body Horror into the mix.
Averted in one of the New Teen Titans shorts, showing a blooper reel from an in-universe PSA where the Titans have to say the line "No matter what people tell you, gamma rays will not give you superpowers."
Gaia loves to subvert that trope: Chernobyl has become a wildlife haven. On the other hand, the (perception of the) level of radiation released in the mind of the public is very different than the reality and the animals aren't necessarily going to worry about the level of radiation anyway. It was only after the first few weeks after the disaster that wildlife began to thrive in Chernobyl, after the radiation levels dropped. After that, the radiation was still dangerous for humans, but not for animals- most animals have much shorter lifespans (about ten years or so), and thus do not have enough time for the radiation they've absorbed to turn into cancer. That's not to say that there weren't mutations in the animals (see That Other Wiki's article for an example image; beware of Body Horror), it just simply was not as widespread as fiction or popular perception would have us believe. You still can't eat any animals there.
Not a case of Truth in Television. A 10 Sv (1,000 REM) dose of ionizing radiation has a lethality of 100% within 7 days. Death caused by severe diarrhea and intestinal bleeding, due to radiation destroying the quickly-multiplying cells of the intestinal wall, by the way. One of the worst ways to die. And if you manage to survive that, you'd still die a few weeks later from leukemia.
For a few decades after its discovery, radiation was marketed as some kind of cure-all drug. For those too lazy to click, consider the specific case of Eben Byers, who drank three bottles of radioactive water a day to stay healthy. The Wall Street Journal ran an article after his death titled "The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off".
Many radioactive quack cures include:
Radithor◊, mineral water mixed with radium. (The same stuff that Eben Byers drank.)
The Revigator, a ceramic crock for irradiating water. Though it too had rather low radiation levels, the water would often be contaminated by lead.
The pedoscope, a gimmicky device once found in shoe stores that would x-ray your feet to find the perfect fit. Featured once on the show Pawn Stars, disassembling it found that the x-ray tube inside gave off ten times more radiation then conventional x-ray machines.
There was the Ford Nucleon, a car designed with a mini nuclear reactor at the back of the car. Instead of electric motor propulsion, the nuclear reactor would heat water to steam, providing propulsion through steam pressure. Other nuclear-powered concept cars from the 1950s were the Studebaker Packard Astral, the French Simca Fulgur, and the Arbel Symetric. None of these nuclear powered cars were ever built (the Arbel Symetric was an actual electric car production model in the 1950s, but its nuclear powered "Genestatom" generator was never produced), because nuclear-powered cars were (and are still) deemed too dangerous.
Worth noting, a steam powered car was not a new idea (many of the early high performance cars were steam-powered, due to limitations in early internal combustion engines). Their biggest drawback was the weight of the boiler, feedwater system, and radiators necessary for the steam engine's operation.
For a while in the 50s, one of the perks of moving to Las Vegas was the possibility of getting your family and friends together and watch an atom bomb test from the comforts of your backyard (The Nevada Proving Grounds was just 100 km northwest of the city). In fact, the DOD encouraged this, going as far as to publicize detonation dates in the paper and giving out dosimeters to the residents of the surrounding towns to study fallout levels. One of the early tourism slogans for Las Vegas was "the up and 'atom' city." The government was sued in 1982 by cancer patients of Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico (all of which have seen a suspicious increase in cancer incidence) for a rather large chunk of cash.
In the late 50s and early 60s, there was a belief among certain scientists that the sudden appearance of a number of children of high intelligence was caused by the recent appearance of Strontium-90 from nuclear testing, which led to a fringe belief that humanity was undergoing an evolutionary leap. This may well have been the inspiration for the X-Men.
Possibility of radiation causing superpowers in traditional sense is outright impossibility. However there is a possibility of a beneficial mutation. A very, very, very^100 small possibility. In order for beneficial mutation to occur a very specific set of genes must be altered otherwise you get cancer or nothing at all. Because of that using radiation to alter human genes is not very effective (or humane) that however doesn't apply to plants or simpler organisms. For example Dr. Tomoko Abe is using synchrotron to introduce random mutations in plant cells resulting in new strains with desirable traits  including salt resistant rice, which is understandably beneficial to food production. Of course instead of alpha, beta or gamma radiation they use heavy atomic ions but it's still a mutation generator.