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November 14, 2017

Estimates of Potential Uranium in the Southern High Plains Could Equal Just Under One Year of U.S. Needs.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates a mean of 40 million pounds of in-place uranium oxide remaining as potential undiscovered resources in the Southern High Plains region of Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma.

The uranium occurs in a type of rock formation called “calcrete,” which has been well-documented in noted uranium-producing countries like Australia and Namibia. The calcrete formations described in this assessment are the first uranium-bearing calcrete deposits reported in the United States.

Image shows a rock outcropping surrounded by desert vegation
A calcrete outcropping near Sulfur Springs Draw in Texas. This deposit dates to the Pliocene and Pleistocene, and hosts uranium-vanadate minerals.(Credit: Susan Hall, USGS. Public domain.)

The United States is the world’s largest consumer of uranium used in nuclear power plants, which provide approximately 19 percent of the Nation’s electricity. Substantial uranium resources are identified in the United States, yet only 11 percent of uranium purchased by civilian nuclear power reactors during 2016 was obtained from domestic sources.

“Planning for long-term sustainable nuclear power in the United States requires evaluation of both identified and potential undiscovered resources,” said Tom Crafford, program coordinator for the USGS Mineral Resources Program. “That’s where USGS science comes in. Identifying and understanding our domestic mineral wealth is a vital part of ensuring the security of our supply chain for these resources.”

Image shows a map of a uranium assessment in the Southern High Plains
The areas covered in this uranium assessment.(Public domain.)

The assessment focuses on a region known as the Southern High Plains, which stretch from eastern New Mexico across North Texas to western Oklahoma. The assessment area is divided into a northern and southern portion, with the southern portion estimated to contain 80 percent of the undiscovered resources. For comparison, the two known deposits, Buzzard Draw and Sulfur Springs Draw, both located in Texas, contain a combined total of 2.7 million pounds of uranium oxide.

“Texas is well-known for its energy potential, from petroleum to wind to uranium,” said Walter Guidroz, program coordinator of the USGS Energy Resources Program. “In fact, in 2015, we released another assessment of uranium in South Texas, where we estimated a mean of about 5 years of U.S. uranium needs.”

Image shows a detail shot of finchite
Intergrown Finchite and Carnotite (yellowish minerals) with Celestine (white/clear mineral). (Image courtesy of Travis Olds, University of Notre Dame)

The current assessment of the Southern High Plains yielded another surprise—a new uranium mineral species. Discovered near Sulphur Springs Draw in Texas, the new mineral was named finchite, after long-time USGS uranium scientist Warren Finch (1924—2014).

“This assessment was especially exciting for us, as not only did we get to discover a new species of mineral, but we also had the opportunity to honor a friend and celebrated colleague,” said USGS scientist Susan Hall, lead author of the assessment. “Dr. Finch’s long service and contributions to uranium science now live on through this new mineral, which itself has the potential to contribute to the Nation’s energy mix.”

Image shows a landscape view of the Southern High Plains
The Southern High Plains of New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. USGS conducted a uranium assessment in this region in 2015.(Public domain.)

Finchite is a unique combination of strontium, uranium, vanadium, and water, and is a potential source of mineable uranium ore. Today, it is part of the Southern High Plains, a region that has drawn little attention for uranium resource potential. That may change, given the qualities of the uranium deposits.

“The calcrete uranium deposits within this region have the advantage of shallow depth and soft host rock,” said USGS scientist Brad Van Gosen, co-author of the assessment. “These qualities work well for open-pit mining, assuming uranium prices and other factors are favorable.”

Image shows a man examine rock layers
USGS scientist Bradley Van Gosen examines rock layers for the newly discovered mineral finchite near Lamesa, Texas. Van Gosen was the first to recognize the existence of the new mineral, which was named for long-time USGS uranium geologist Warren Finch. Read more about our uranium research here. (Credit: Susan Hall, USGS. Public domain.)

The assessment can be accessed here. Other USGS research regarding uranium potential can be found here. Stay up to date with USGS energy science by subscribing to our Newsletter or following us on Twitter.