Atherosclerosis is a progressive inflammatory condition caused by an unstable lesion, called thin-cap fibro atheromata (TCFA) that underlies coronary artery disease (CAD)-one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Therefore, early clinical diagnosis and effective risk stratification is important for CAD management as well as preventing progression to catastrophic events. However, early detection could be difficult due to their small size, motion, obscuring 18F-FDG uptake by adjacent myocardium, and complex morphological/biological features. To overcome these limitations, we developed a catheter-based Circumferential-Intravascular-Radioluminescence-Photoacoustic-Imaging (CIRPI) system that can detect vulnerable plaques in coronary arteries and characterizes them with respect to pathology and biology. Our CIRPI system combined two imaging modalities: Circumferential Radioluminescence Imaging (CRI) and PhotoAcoustic Tomography (PAT) within a novel optical probe. The probe's CaF2:Eu based scintillating imaging window provides a 360° view of human (n = 7) and murine carotid (n = 10) arterial plaques by converting β-particles into visible photons during 18F-FDG decay. A 60× and 63× higher radioluminescent signals were detected from the human and murine plaque inflammations, respectively, compared to the control. The system's photoacoustic imaging provided a comprehensive analysis of the plaque compositions and its morphologic information. These results were further verified with IVIS-200, immunohistochemical analysis, and autoradiography.