BEIJING — Bowing to days of passionate street protests, a city government in eastern China said Wednesday that it had halted any plans to build a nuclear fuel plant there. The reversal was the latest indication of how public distrust could hold back China’s ambitious plans for expanding its nuclear power industry.
The government of Lianyungang, a city near the coast of Jiangsu Province, announced the retreat in a terse message online. “The people’s government of Lianyungang has decided to suspend preliminary work for selecting a site for the nuclear cycle project,” it read, referring to a proposed plant for reprocessing used fuel from nuclear plants.
No reason was given, but it appeared clear enough. In recent days, residents have taken to the streets to oppose any decision to build the plant nearby. The main urban area of Lianyungang is just 20 miles southwest of a large and growing nuclear power plant on the coast, but the idea of a nuclear fuel reprocessing facility also being built in the area seemed to push public unease to a new height.
A 21-year-old Lianyungang resident with the surname Tang said Wednesday that demonstrators had been chanting “Oppose nuclear waste, defend our home.” Like other people contacted there, she did not want her full name used, citing fear of reprisal for talking to reporters.
“Nobody wants this kind of thing built in their own home,” Ms. Tang said.
China’s authoritarian leaders are wary of local protests escalating into broader challenges to their power. But local governments have often given ground in the face of growing public opposition to chemical plants, waste incinerators and other potential sources of pollution. Now proposed nuclear projects are also becoming increasingly troublesome.
A model of a nuclear reactor on display at the stand for the China National Nuclear Corporation at an expo in Beijing last year. Across the country, the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011 has hardened public wariness of nuclear power.
“While the Chinese government does not hesitate to arrest the few political dissidents, it spends more time and energy to appease public demands,” Wenfang Tang, a professor of political science at the University of Iowa, who studies public opinion and politics in China, said in emailed comments.
“The high level of government sensitivity and responsiveness to public opinion further encourages political activism in Chinese society,” Professor Tang said. “The louder you are, the more quickly the government will respond.”
In Lianyungang and across China, the nuclear calamity in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011 has hardened public wariness of nuclear power, although the government argues that expanding the industry is essential for weaning the economy off coal, with all of its dangerous pollutants.
The biggest protest in Lianyungang took place on Saturday, when many thousands of people, including families with children, marched through the downtown area.
Despite warnings from the government, protests continued on a smaller scale this week, as residents defied ranks of riot officers with shields, according to news reports and video that people shared through social media.
“I told my daughter that she must go to this protest,” one resident said, according to Sixth Tone, an English-language news website based in Shanghai. “With every extra person, the momentum will get bigger.”
The announcement does not mean the nuclear fuel-reprocessing proposal is dead. The project is a collaboration between the China National Nuclear Corporation and a French company, Areva, and it has high-level government support, although no final agreement to build it has been signed. Five other Chinese provinces are under consideration for the initiative, and Lianyungang could lift its suspension. The two companies have said that they want to start building in 2020 and finish by 2030.
But in China, suspensions of contentious projects have a way of quietly turning into permanent cancellations, and Lianyungang appears likely to follow that pattern. The big question now will be whether public opposition coalesces in the five other areas under consideration.
All but one — Gansu Province in the northwest — is a heavily populated coastal province. Gansu is already home to China’s first civilian nuclear reprocessing plant, a small facility that has been held back by technical problems.
In 2013, officials jettisoned plans for a nuclear fuel fabrication plant in the southern province of Guangdong after protests. Preliminary proposals to build nuclear power plants inland have also ignited intense opposition.
The Chinese government has said that as it expands its fleet of nuclear power plants, it needs a plant for reprocessing spent fuel, a practice that separates unused plutonium and some uranium from waste. That unused material could be used to generate power, but critics have warned that the plutonium could be deployed for weapons. Japan has also built a full-scale reprocessing plant, but it has not started up yet.
On Chinese social media, and even on news websites, commentators said that the contention in Lianyungang showed that the public should have a bigger say in nuclear energy planning.
“In just a few days, the official stand of Lianyungang has undergone a sea change,” read a comment on Sohu.com, a Chinese news website. “Don’t underestimate just how determined the public is in opposition to nuclear waste, which is far more dangerous than wastewater from any paper pulp mill.”