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Exploration

Cainozoic palaeochannel-hosted uranium


and current exploration methods, South
Australia

Baohong Hou1, 2, Adrian J Fabris1, 2, John L. Keeling1, 2 and Martin C Fairclough2


1 CRC LEME 2 Geological Survey Branch, PIRSA

Introduction the Beverley deposit was developed Uranium deposit styles


using in situ leach technology. The
Exploration for sedimentary uranium Honeymoon deposit is currently in final Uranium deposits can be classified
deposits in South Australia commenced in stages of feasibility and deposits at into 15 major categories based on their
the late 1960s, with a focus on Cainozoic Goulds Dam and Oban are at an advanced geological setting (Table 1). The term
sediments adjacent to regions of uranium- stage of evaluation. The current high palaeochannel-related uranium deposits
enriched Proterozoic igneous rocks in the level of interest in uranium exploration, probably encompass three of these
Gawler Craton and Curnamona Province targeting Cainozoic sediments in South categories sandstone, surficial and
(Curtis, Brunt and Binks 1990). A rapid Australia, reflects the present high price lignite. Uranium resources in sandstone
increase in uranium exploration followed for uranium, the vast areas of Cainozoic and surficial deposits rank second
the discovery of the Beverley deposit in sediments with high potential to host and sixth, respectively, in economic
1969 (Yates and Randell 1994; McKay uranium, a proactive government policy significance worldwide (Table 1). While
and Miezitis 2001). This resulted in for uranium development, and recent palaeochannel-related uranium deposits
the further discovery of several small success with discovery of new high-grade are regarded as significant in South
but significant resources of uranium in mineralisation at the Four Mile deposits Australia, the bulk of Australias uranium
Cainozoic sediments (Fig. 1). In 1999 near Beverley. resources are contained within deposits of
the categories unconformity-related (e.g.
Pine Creek Orogen, Northern Territory)
and breccia complexes (e.g. Olympic
Dam, South Australia). The Gawler and
Curnamona regions in South Australia
are highly prospective for a range of
uranium deposit styles, in addition to
palaeochannel deposits (e.g. Fabris
2004; Cooper and McGeough, 2006;
Fairclough et al. 2006).

Sandstone deposits
Sandstone uranium deposits defined
as an epigenetic concentration of uranium
minerals (generally uraninite (UO2)
or coffinite (USiO4)), typically hosted
by fine- to coarse-grained sediments
deposited in fluvial, alluvial, lacustrine
or marginal marine environments
constitute about 18% of world uranium
resources (e.g. United States, Niger and
Kazakhstan; Finch and Davis 1985;
McKay and Miezitis 2001).
Based on the shape of the orebody
Uranium prospect and relationship to the depositional
Uranium deposit or structural environment, sandstone
Palaeochannel Neogene uranium deposits can be subdivided into
Inverted channel Tertiary three types (these may be gradational
Palaeochannel Palaeogene into each other): tabular, roll-front and
Palaeochannel Mesozoic
tectoniclithologic (Dahlkamp 1993).
Tabular and roll-front mineralised
Neoproterozoic Palaeozoic
bodies form along the contact of
Basement provinces
sand and intercalated clay horizons
203618_032 and at palaeochannel margins, while
Figure 1 Major palaeochannel and Tertiary coastal barrier deposits in South Australia showing tectoniclithologic deposits may occur in
selected uranium deposits and prospects. sandstones adjacent to a permeable fault

34 MESA Journal 46 September 2007


Palaeochannel-hosted uranium

zone. Precipitation of uranium minerals in by oxidising waters after diagenesis These alteration zones around ore are
most tabular deposits is thought to begin (Finch and Davis 1985). associated with elevated radioactivity.
shortly after sedimentation and burial. Uranium mineralisation results from The main controlling factor on the
Mineral detritus and rock fragments location of uranium ore is the interplay of
the interaction of uranium-rich oxidising
derived from weathered bedrock are sedimentary facies and the proportion of
fluids and reduced lithologies (i.e. at
deposited along with channel sediments. reducing agents (e.g. carbonaceous matter,
redox fronts; Fig. 2). Sediments in close sulfides, hydrocarbons and interbedded
The uranium is leached under oxidising
and slightly acidic conditions and is proximity to the redox boundary typically ferromagnesian-rich basic volcanics).
mobilised in groundwater moving through show yellow to orange colouration
the sediments, with mineralisation resulting from iron oxyhydroxide Surficial deposits
commonly accompanying diagenesis staining on the oxidised side of the redox
Surficial uranium deposits are broadly
of the sediments. In roll-front deposits boundary, changing progressively towards defined as young (Cainozoic), near-
uranium is introduced into the host rocks darker tones within reduced sediments. surface uranium concentrations within
sediments and soils, although they also
Table 1 Types of uranium deposits and their economic significance
occur in peat bogs and karst caverns
Deposit style Economic significance (McKay and Miezitis 2001). Uranium
Australia Worldwide mineralisation is typically carnotite
Breccia complex 1 3 (K(UO2)2(VO4)2.3H2O.) and is commonly
Unconformity-related 2 1 cemented by secondary minerals
including calcite, gypsum, dolomite,
Sandstone 3 2
ferric oxide and halite. Uranium deposits
Surficial 4 6
in calcrete (calcium and magnesium
Metasomatite 5 7 carbonates) are the largest of the surficial
Intrusive 6 5 deposits. These usually form in regions
Quartz-pebble conglomerate 7 4 where deeply weathered, uranium-rich
Metamorphic granites occur in a semi-arid to arid
Volcanic climate (Fig. 3). Examples from Western
Vein Australia occur in valley-fill sediments
Lignite
along Tertiary drainage channels (e.g.
Yeelirrie) and in playa lake sediments
Black shale
(e.g. Lake Maitland). These overlie and
Collapse breccia pipe
are adjacent to Archaean granite and
Phosphorite greenstone basement of the northern
Other Yilgarn Craton that provide a source of
Source: Deposit types from OECD Nuclear Energy Agency and International Atomic Energy Agency (2000). vanadium necessary to form carnotite.
Economic significance from McKay and Miezitis (2001).

South Australian
palaeochannel-hosted
Roll-front uranium model
(idealised section) uranium deposits
Although almost every known
palaeochannel-hosted uranium deposit has
its own distinctive characteristics, roll-
front mineralisation models have proven
to have universal application (Harshman
and Adams 1981). The key criteria
of these models include uranium-rich
source rocks, oxidising groundwater and
a suitably porous and reduced sediment
host. Large areas of the Curnamona
Province and Gawler Craton satisfy these
criteria. Evidence for the successful
combination of these is demonstrated by
numerous uranium prospects associated
with Cainozoic palaeochannels of South
Australia (Fig. 1). Important examples
include deposits at Beverley, Four Mile,
Honeymoon and Goulds Dam within the
Curnamona Province, and at the Warrior
203618_033 and Yarranna prospects of the Gawler
Figure 2 Generalised conceptual model of uranium roll-front deposits, modified from published Craton. All these uranium occurrences
sources (e.g. Devoto 1978). are in Eocene to Miocene sediments and

MESA Journal 46 September 2007 35


Exploration

characterised by high organic content that within the surrounding sediments, for prospective and have to date attracted
is related to widespread colonisation by example, Beverley and Four Mile deposits little attention as an exploration target.
land plants during this time (Alley and are in close proximity to uranium- Palaeochannel-hosted uranium
Lindsay 1995). enriched granites and gneisses of the deposits in South Australia have the
The necessity of a proximal basement Mount Painter Inlier in the northern following characteristics (Hou, Fabris and
source of uranium to form a sandstone- Curnamona Province. Palaeochannels Keeling 2005):
hosted or unconformity-related deposit overlying the Gawler Craton are also Palaeochannels drained deeply
is a point of current debate, with some sourced from uraniferous basement weathered high-uranium source rocks.
research indicating that enrichment rocks, although the more westerly and Mostly occur in Eocene and Miocene
of uranium from leaching of weakly northerly channels also have sediment sediments (a likely result of changing
uraniferous sands within the sedimentary contribution from the Musgrave Province palaeoclimatic conditions during the
environment is sufficient. Nevertheless, where the uranium content in basement Cainozoic with associated weathering
the presence of spatially related uranium- rocks is largely unknown (Fig. 1). Deeply and erosion of granitic/metamorphic
rich granites (such as the Mesoproterozoic weathered basement rocks were incised provenances and subsequent supply
Hiltaba Suite in the Gawler Craton and during PaleoceneEocene times and of oxygenated solutions under arid to
its broad equivalents) is a desirable the sediments in these palaeodrainage semi-arid climatic regimes).
component of the mineral system. Within networks now form several significant Host rocks were deposited, generally,
the Curnamona and Gawler regions, uranium occurrences. The presence of key in fluvial and lacustrine environments
uranium contents of basement rocks are ingredients for uranium deposit formation, in settings including channel, lagoon
in the range 10100 ppm, well above together with identified resources, make and marginal basin.
the crustal average of 2.8 ppm uranium South Australia highly prospective for
Host rocks have good regional
(Table 2). A spatial relationship is palaeochannel-hosted uranium deposits,
groundwater transmissivity.
evident between areas of high uranium particularly sandstone (roll-front)
in basement and uranium mineralisation styles. Surficial deposits are also highly Host-rock sandstones are bounded by
clay units, and are generally buried
by a minimum 80 m thickness of
overlying sediment.
Provenance of sediment was
pH 4.57.0 commonly granitic terranes that are at
least in part uraniferous.
Watertable Fossil carbonised plant matter or
pH 6.07.0
humic matter is commonly present.
pH 7.08.5
Uranium concentrations are controlled
by sedimentary and diagenetic
features, but may be related indirectly
to tectonic structures and basement
composition that potentially modify
203618_034 sedimentation, groundwater flow or
Figure 3 Idealised model of valley-fill calcrete uranium mineralisation: example from the groundwater composition.
Yeelirrie deposits of Western Australia (after Mann and Deutscher 1978). Uranium is precipitated along a redox
boundary at the lateral margins of the
Table 2 Uranium values in igneous and metamorphic rocks in the Curnamona Province and palaeochannel.
Gawler Craton
The mineralising solutions were low-
Rock type Number of Average Median Maximum temperature groundwater.
Region
(unit) samples (ppm) (ppm) (ppm)
The ore minerals are epigenetically
Gneiss Curnamona 489 37 4 2400
derived from long-term weathering
Gawler 559 5 4 100
processes in the Curnamona and
Schist Curnamona 269 487 130 4900 Gawler regions, although diagenetic
Gawler 173 7 6 32 processes also have significance
Migmatite Curnamona 53 70 30 780 in controlling mobilisation and
Volcanic Curnamona 18 11 8 27 deposition.
Gawler 389 8 5 290 Mineralisation takes place in those
Granite Curnamona 592 28 6 327 palaeochannels generally incised in
Gawler 660 10 4 550 low-relief cratonic regions (Gawler and
Hiltaba Suite Gawler 236 6 4 100 Curnamona) with low-angle basinward
Roxby Downs Granite Gawler 20 discharge dips, which allows for
deposit preservation (e.g. Eucla Basin
Olympic Dam ore Gawler 600
and Callabonna Sub-basin).
Note: Averages may be skewed by highly anomalous samples, particularly where the number of analyses is small.
The data is a summary of samples where uranium values were determined and may not be representative of general Neotectonic activity has been
background values. significant in some regions (e.g.

36 MESA Journal 46 September 2007


Palaeochannel-hosted uranium

Beverley) and may have resulted in that is potentially useful for detecting Seismic. Shallow seismic reflection
channelling fluids along faults and/or temperature variations in subsurface and refraction imaging can be used
redistribution of uranium. sediments related to the elevated for investigating subsurface structure
moisture content of the channel. Thermal (particularly in sedimentary terranes) and
Exploration techniques data can therefore be used as a quick therefore have application for delineating
and inexpensive method for mapping palaeochannels. By integrating
Exploration for palaeochannel-hosted
palaeochannels, particularly when used reflection and refraction techniques, it
uranium deposits has traditionally focused
in conjunction with other data sets is possible to determine palaeochannel
on defining palaeochannels and changes
and preferably with some drillhole or depths, variability of materials, and the
in a channels course resulting in a
geological control. morphologies of both shallow and deeper
reduction of channel flow, accumulation
strata (Drummond 2002).
of organic matter (reducing material) and Geophysical methods Ground penetrating radar (GPR). The
build up of medium- to coarse-grained
Magnetic. Palaeochannel magnetic GPR method is useful for delineating
sediments (point bar and overbank
(either positive or negative) anomalies the geometry, structure and thickness of
deposits). Other targets include channel
may be defined if high-resolution surveys channel deposits by providing a high-
confluences that provide an opportunity
are used and if there are sufficient resolution image of subsurface features
for mixing fluids of different oxidation
magnetic minerals in the channels or in the form of a cross-section view. The
potential (Eh). Techniques have been
measurable magnetic contrast between technique is only suitable for shallow
developed to define channel morphology
the channel sediments and bedrock. investigation (up to tens of metres in ideal
even where buried by over 100 m of
Cainozoic palaeochannels are not usually conditions).
exotic cover sediment (e.g. airborne
visible on regional magnetic data, as they
electromagnetic (AEM), remote sensing;
are relatively shallow features, but careful Geochemical methods
Hou and Mauger 2005; Hou, Frakes and
use of detailed surveys may assist in Groundwater geochemistry for uranium
Alley 2001; Hou et al. 2003).
locating channel deposits. in solution usually gives misleading
Remote sensing imagery Gravity. Gravity anomalies in the earths results; however multi-element data from
gravitational field can in some cases be a limited number of boreholes can be used
Digital elevation model (DEM). DEMs
used to define the thickness and extent to distinguish prospective sediments by
are useful to provide indirect associations
of the fluvial sediments, and hence taking into account pH, equilibrium with
related to links between modern and
palaeochannels, due to the contrast in carbonate minerals and carbonaceous
ancient (e.g. Palaeogene) landscapes,
density between the sediments and fresh matter content (Giblin 1987).
although they may not directly show the
bedrock. For example, the density of sand The delineation of palaeochannel-
distribution of palaeochannel landforms.
and clay is ~1.8g/cc and granitic basement hosted uranium by surface geochemical
With increasing resolution, the detail of
is 2.7 g/cc (Berkman 1995). methods is not well established,
interpretation will increase.
Radiometric. Radiometric data is not a particularly for deeply buried deposits. No
Landsat Thematic Mapper (TM).
mapping tool for buried palaeochannels, successful methods have been reported in
Processed Landsat TM satellite imagery
but is effective in linking physical South Australia. Elsewhere, techniques
is useful for regolith-landform mapping,
dispersion of sediment with uranium-rich that have been used with some success
particularly when draped over a DEM
source regions, especially when overlain include gas methods (gas vapour probe
to enhance terrane visualisation (e.g. as (GVP), radon), soil sampling (shallow
on DEM, Landsat, NOAA, airborne
used to map the Tallaringa Palaeodrainage deposits) and CHIM electro-geochemical
magnetic (AM) or AEM images.
system). These maps can be used to methods (Fabris et al. 2006; Luo, Taofa
identify palaeochannels where the Electromagnetic. Electromagnetic
(AEM and transient electromagnetic and Hou 2004; Luo et al. 2006).
palaeochannel influences surface features
(TEM)) methods measure the electrical
and regolith materials (e.g. vegetation
conductivity of the ground both laterally Structural and basement
association, arrangement of playa lakes, geology
alluvial terraces, silicification). and vertically. The data can be processed
to show ground conductivity as a function Basement structure and composition
ASTER and hyperspectral remote of depth and can define channel sediments may be important in controlling channel
sensing. Compared to the Landsat due to their porosity, moisture content morphology and, ultimately, the location
imagery (7 bands), ASTER (Advanced and the conductivity of the groundwater of uranium mineralisation. Holbrook and
Spaceborne Thermal Emission and within them. This technique has been Schumm (1999) showed that an increase
Reflection Radiometer) and hyperspectral used successfully in South Australia for in slope along the course of a channel,
remote sensing contain more spectral palaeochannel identification, for example, commonly related to uplift, would result
bands (14 and >100 bands, respectively) Garford Palaeochannel, palaeochannel in increased sinuosity. The Honeymoon
and can potentially distinguish sediments near the Challenger Gold deposit is located at a pronounced bend
most surficial features related to Mine and on the southern margin of in the host Yarramba Palaeovalley, where
palaeochannels. the Curnamona Province. However, the gravity and magnetic imagery indicate a
NOAA-AVHRR. The detector and technique is problematic for application fault crosscutting the channel. Here, the
orbital configuration of NOAA-AVHRR in parts of the Curnamona Province due channel is more deeply incised into the
(National Oceanic and Atmospheric to thickness of accumulated sediment basement at a point that corresponds to a
Administration - Advanced Very High fill, the presence of thick conductive clay regional-scale redox interface within the
Resolution Radiometer) and ASTER units, perched water and multiple-stacked basement lithologies. The Goulds Dam
night-time satellites provide thermal data meandering channel fill. deposit is also located on a crosscutting

MESA Journal 46 September 2007 37


Exploration

basement fault. Activation of this fault distinguish prospective host units, but also patterns. The widespread cover of
during sedimentation may have caused in the case of gamma and PFN (prompt younger sediment in the Curnamona
the kink in the channel (as evident in fission neutron) tools, can be useful in Province places greater emphasis on
AEM imagery and supported by drilling) estimating the grade of in situ uranium techniques that map the older buried
leading to organic matter build-up and mineralisation. In combination with visual channels. Much of the interpretation for
suitable conditions for precipitation of logging of cuttings, these data provide these covered areas is therefore more
uranium. inputs for sedimentary facies analysis speculative and is based on the integration
and reconstruction of palaeochannel of drillhole samples, interpretation of
Sedimentological analysis architecture to model the orientation remotely sensed data (particularly night-
Sedimentological data and interpretation, and sedimentological constraints on time thermal imagery), geophysical
when combined with other geological and mineralisation. data (particularly AEM and TEM) and
geophysical information, can be used to knowledge of continental sedimentation
provide a general reconstruction of the Palaeochannel mapping and sedimentary history of South
palaeochannel architecture and history Australia.
A preliminary 1:2 million scale map
(Hou and Mauger 2005). Knowledge of
of palaeodrainage and Tertiary coastal
the stratigraphic and geographic evolution
barriers of South Australia was released Discussion and
of the area is necessary to interpret the
by PIRSA in May 2007 and an associated conclusion
regional depositional, environmental
GIS data set DVD and updated map Palaeochannel-hosted uranium models
and palaeographic framework (Hou
released in June (Hou et al. 2007). The are important for exploration as they can
2004). Sequence stratigraphic methods,
map updates Rogers (2000) and provides be used to integrate a wide variety of
supplemented by studies in palaeoclimate,
a context for palaeodrainage systems in potentially significant geological factors
mineralogy, petrology and geochemistry,
the state. As such, it is most useful in the leading to the formation of deposits.
have proved useful in studies on the
conceptual stage of exploration programs. Improved understanding of geological
Gawler Craton (Hou, Frakes and Alley
The thematic map includes time-scaled controls and landscape history can assist
2001).
palaeochannels, palaeocoastal barriers and with target definition and choice of
3D computer modelling strandlines, together with known mineral technique when mapping palaeochannel
occurrences including uranium and heavy distribution. Regional exploration for
Where sufficient data are available, 3D
minerals. When used in combination with sedimentary uranium deposits can be
visualisation models of the palaeovalley
other spatial layers, especially geology based initially on empirical data gained
landform can provide crucial insights into
and geophysics, the essential ingredients from known deposits. Models will
the landscape evolution and controls on
for a particular uranium mineralisation evolve as additional data is gathered
the dynamics of palaeorivers (Fig. 4). The
model can be compared and evaluated in during exploration and from ongoing
palaeochannels interpreted from GIS and
order to identify areas with potential to sedimentological studies. Exploration
geophysical data sets can be viewed as 3D
host uranium. In most cases, additional should begin with the delineation of
plume diagrams, mapped onto surfaces,
techniques will be required to define the palaeodrainage by the examination of
or as slices, such as the palaeochannel
detail of the palaeodrainage. a combination of inexpensive surface
and palaeolandscape with exploded layers
separating variously aged palaeosurfaces For the Gawler Craton and Musgrave and remotely sensed data using GIS
(Hou 2004; Hou, Alley and Gray 2004). Province, subtle palaeodrainage-landform (e.g. available geological mapping,
features apparent from detailed elevation DEMs, airborne radiometric, Landsat
Location, definition and data have been combined with other data TM, NOAA, ASTER, night-time
assessment of mineralisation sets in GIS to identify palaeodrainage thermal images). The model can then be
Many prospective palaeochannels
containing oxidised and reduced sands
with uranium at redox interfaces have
been identified within regions of South
Australia (Fig. 1). Test drilling is required
to check and refine the palaeochannel
interpretation (Hou 2004; Hou et
al. 2003). Drillhole data needs to be
continually updated to refine and improve
the detail of palaeochannel mapping. In Tarcoola
the Gawler Craton spectral logging of
samples using PIMA II (Portable Infrared
Mineral Analyser II) has been useful in
providing a consistent independent means
of identifying palaeosurfaces for input
into 3D palaeochannel models (Hou and
Mauger 2005). Downhole geophysical
logs (e.g. gamma, electric logs, neutron) 203618_035

are not only essential tools for defining Figure 4 Kingoonya Palaeochannel: 3D model of distribution and thickness of Cainozoic
stratigraphic parameters used to sediments using available drillhole data (from Hou 2004).

38 MESA Journal 46 September 2007


Palaeochannel-hosted uranium

progressed using geophysical techniques and remote sensing methods for regolith 2001/21. Department of Primary Industries
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Landscape Environments and Mineral
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9599.
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and evaluated. 2004/22. Department of Primary Industries does remote sensing aid palaeochannel
and Resources South Australia, Adelaide. identification? an example from the
Harris Greenstone Belt, SA. MESA Journal
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MESA Journal 46 September 2007 39