Blue Topaz Arouses NRC Interest

Many jewelers are yanking blue topaz from their shelves after the Jewelers Vigilance Committee warned them the stones they are selling may not be in compliance with Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations.

JVC said in a statement that, while the topazes pose no apparent health risk, they were not tested in NRC-licensed facilities, an action required by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. It said retailers may want to consider “alternatives, including but not limited to removing the product from their selling inventory stock.”

NRC public affairs officer David McIntyre said there was growing concern that some gems are no longer within the NRC’s new regulatory framework. “Generally these stones are not a health risk,” he said. “We just want to make sure there are safeguards in place when dealing with irradiated materials.”

At present there are no NRC-licensed facilities for testing blue topaz, which comes mostly from overseas. While it has been reported that topazes from certain localities in Nigeria and China have remained radioactive long after the normal cooling-down period—and some could potentially need 10 years to cool before falling under the limits set by NRC—the levels of radiation in those stones are said to be low enough not to pose a significant health risk.

“We’re really not in an enforcement mode here, we’re really in an information-gathering mode,” said McIntyre, adding that he hasn’t asked anyone to stop selling blue topaz. “Your readers don’t have to worry about NRC agents in blue windbreakers with big yellow NRC letters on the back coming into their stores.”

The NRC met with JVC and other industry leaders at the end of July. McIntyre said the meeting had three purposes: “First, we want to reestablish arrangements whereby somebody would apply for an exempt distribution license to be a clearinghouse for all gems coming into the country and … make sure that these gems are within the regulatory limits.

“Second, we need to be re-assured some way that the stones that are already in distribution do not pose any health and safety issue, especially if it’s true that there are gems that … still have some residual radiation.”

Third is an upcoming regulation for accelerator-irradiated materials. “There’s a new deadline, which is a totally different regulatory issue altogether, that just happens to wrap the gemstone industry inside,” McIntyre noted.

Prior to now, NRC has not regulated accelerator-produced radioactive material. But the Energy Policy Act gave NRC authority over accelerator-produced radioactive material (mostly medical isotopes), and NRC recently finalized its new regulatory framework.