Story: Radioactive minerals

Page 3. Uranium prospecting, 1956 onwards

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Following Frederick Cassin and Charles Jacobsen’s find, prospectors began to search for the rock called Hawks Crag Breccia. In May 1956 prospectors employed by Buller Uranium, a subsidiary of the Nelson company Lime and Marble, reported three finds of radioactive boulders and outcrops in the lower Buller Gorge. Uranium Valley, a Westport company, found uranium at the Fox River mouth and in the Paparoa Ranges inland from Punakaiki.

Government support

Over the next four years the New Zealand government granted more than £35,000 to the West Coast search for uranium. Buller Uranium used their grants to cut tracks in the steep Buller Gorge bush, make clearings for helicopter airdrops, and set up and supply four prospecting camps. Prospectors expanded their search, tramping through the rainforest with geological hammers, slashers, compasses and Geiger counters. Uranium Valley built huts at two locations in the Paparoa Ranges, carrying supplies by helicopter, packhorse and on the backs of the prospectors to bases at Bullock Creek and Pororari.

United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority

A confidential agreement between the Crown, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and Buller Uranium was signed on 11 March 1959. The UKAEA was to investigate the Buller Gorge uranium deposits, and would have first right of refusal over any uranium found in New Zealand. High above the north side of the Buller Gorge, the UKAEA set up a camp with bunkhouse, drilling equipment and a rock crusher. Between September 1959 and March 1960, 10 short adits, or tunnels, were drilled by jackhammer. Chemical analysis, however, revealed that concentrations of uranium oxide were too low to support underground mining operations. In August 1960, after spending £17,775 on uranium prospecting on the West Coast, the UKAEA terminated their agreement.

Renewed interest – and decline

When the New Zealand Electricity Department’s 1964 Power Plan suggested that a nuclear power station would be needed in the 1970s – using uranium fuel worth about $10 million a year – Lime and Marble Ltd resumed their push to prove the West Coast’s uranium deposits. Others were interested too. In 1967 Australian company CRA Exploration spent over A$37,000 exploring the West Coast, including conducting a helicopter scintillometer survey to measure radiation intensity, but found no new uranium prospects.

Over the next decade, several companies undertook exploration programmes (some subsidised by the government), but the results were disappointing. The grade of mineral-bearing rocks was very low, and no new areas of radioactivity were found. By 1980 uranium was no longer considered important for New Zealand. A substantial natural gas field had been discovered offshore from Taranaki, and nuclear power stations had been deleted from the New Zealand power plan in favour of gas turbines.

In 2005 ownership of New Zealand’s uranium resources remained with the Crown, and under a 1996 minerals programme issued through the Crown Minerals Act 1991, prospecting, exploration and mining of uranium minerals is no longer permitted.

How to cite this page:

Rebecca Priestley, 'Radioactive minerals - Uranium prospecting, 1956 onwards', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/radioactive-minerals/page-3 (accessed 18 November 2018)

Story by Rebecca Priestley, published 12 Jun 2006