China cancels $6bn uranium plant a day after protests

Local government authorities in the southern Chinese city of Heshan on Saturday cancelled plans to build the country’s largest uranium processing plant, a day after hundreds of people had demonstrated demanding the $6bn project be scrapped.

The Heshan government said in a press conference that it would cancel the project due to “opposition from every level of society”.

On Friday, hundreds of protesters had demonstrated outside government offices in Jiangmen, which lies downstream from the proposed facility. The cancellation appeared to be an effort to ward off further demonstrations planned for Sunday.

Across the country, Chinese citizens are increasingly taking to the streets to fight new industrial plants in their areas, a movement made possible by smartphones and social media – as well as their adeptness at skirting censors’ controls.

The worsening pollution of China’s air, water and soil has sparked public health concerns and fuelled growing distrust of the local governments that are supposed to be responsible for monitoring polluting plants.

Local authorities are increasingly caving in to public pressure and cancelling or altering projects that attract public opposition.

In May, thousands demonstrated in Kunming over a proposed petrochemical refinery. The protest prompted officials to promise that the carcinogenic chemical paraxylene, which was a focus of the protests, will not be manufactured there, although other chemicals will still be produced at the refinery.

Earlier this year, thousands of petitioners outside Shanghai similarly succeeded in getting a planned battery factory stopped. Last year, a number of proposed plants were cancelled after environmental protests, including a wastewater facility in Nantong, a copper refinery in Shifang and a petrochemical plant expansion in Ningbo.

Protesters in Jiangmen on Friday had said they had a duty to protect their home town.

“I would never want my students to have to study in such a [poor] environment,” said a 23-year-old teacher, surnamed Xiong, who participated in Friday’s march.

Friday’s protests follows dozens of others this year, which have in many cases been successful at stopping or suspending work on the industrial plants in question.

In May, thousands demonstrated in Kunming over a proposed petrochemical refinery. Earlier in the year, in a Shanghai suburb succeeded in getting a planned battery factory stopped.

Empowered by social media tools such as Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, and WeChat, a smartphone messaging app, China’s urban citizens are becoming more and more vocal about environmental concerns.

Friday’s protest was organised almost entirely through Weibo, WeChat, and the messaging service QQ, according to participants. It flourished despite censor’s attempts to delete posts about the planned demonstration.

With slogans like “Give back our home” and “Oppose nuclear facilities”, hundreds of people marched to the local government headquarters to plead their cause. Large numbers of police and paramilitary forces were present but did not interfere with the march, eyewitnesses said.

“If the local government has nothing to hide, why didn’t they inform us how they planned to use the land months ago?” said one young mother, surnamed Zhang, who wanted to take part in the demonstration but could not get time off work.

Public concerns over nuclear plants and uranium processing facilities have grown after the nuclear accident at Fukushima, which was triggered by a disastrous earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011.

Following the Japanese nuclear crisis, Beijing suspended approvals for new nuclear plants for 18 months, before resuming its nuclear programme with new safeguards in place.

China’s southern provinces are relatively dependent on nuclear power because they are so far away from the coal mines that supply many Chinese power plants.

The now cancelled Heshan processing facility in the heart of China’s Pearl River delta industrial heartland in Guangdong province was to be built by China’s two largest state-owned nuclear companies, China National Nuclear Corporation and China Guangdong Nuclear Power Corp. The proposed plant had also sparked unease in neighbouring Hong Kong and Macau. Neither company could be reached for comment.

Additional reporting by Julie Zhu in Hong Kong and Wan Li in Beijing

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