China has abandoned plans for a $6 billion (£4 billion) nuclear processing plant in the southern province of Guangdong after hundreds of protesters took to the streets to air their environmental concerns.
The proposed facility was expected to drastically boost the country’s capacity for enriching uranium, but caused unease in neighbouring Hong Kong and Macau, as well as amongst residents.
And in a rare show of sensitivity towards public health concerns, a local government website issued a statement saying the plans from the state-run China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) had been scrapped.
The statement ran to just a single line, saying: “The people's government of the city of Heshan has decided to respect the public opinion and will not consider CNNC's Longwan industrial park project.”
More protests had been expected on Sunday, while the South China Morning Post reported that authorities from Macau had formally raised the issue with their Guangdong province counterparts.
The decision to adhere to these complaints nonetheless came as a surprise. The original 10-day public consultation period was only extended yesterday, after protesters marched to the city offices.
It seems indicative of a change in Chinese policy on environmental issues, and came after the authorities had recently cancelled, postponed or relocated several major petrochemical and metals plants following shows of public opposition.
A Beijing-based nuclear expert, who remained anonymous because he is not authorised to talk to the press, said he was surprised the project was dropped.
He said: “Compared to a nuclear power plant, a uranium processing facility is way safer, as there is no fusion or reaction taking place in the production process.” The project was designed to produce 1,000 tonnes of uranium fuel by the year 2020.
China's expanding nuclear power capacity is expected to reach 60-70 gigawatts by the end of the decade, from the current 12.6 GW
Guangdong is already one of the country's largest nuclear power bases, operating five nuclear reactors and with plans in place to build another dozen.