By Chen Aizhu and Qi Ding
BEIJING (Reuters) - China has abruptly canceled plans to build its largest uranium processing plant in a southern Chinese city, a day after hundreds of protesters took to the streets demanding the project be scrapped, a local government website said on Saturday.
The proposed 230-hectare complex in the heart of China's Pearl River delta industrial heartland in Guangdong province had also sparked unease in neighboring Hong Kong and Macau.
Authorities in the gambling enclave had formally raised the issue with their Guangdong counterparts, the South China Morning Post reported.
A one-line statement published on the Heshan city government's website said that "to respect people's desire, the Heshan government will not propose the CNNC project".
State-run China National Nuclear Corporation and China Guangdong Nuclear Power Corp (CGNPC) had planned to build the 37 billion yuan ($6 billion) project.
Officials from both companies could not be reached for comment.
A Beijing-based nuclear power expert said he was surprised local authorities had taken the decision as the project designed to produce 1,000 tonnes of uranium fuel annually by 2020 was hotly contested by local governments.
"Compared to a nuclear power plant, a uranium processing facility is way more safer, as there is no fusion or reaction taking place in the production process," said the official with close knowledge of the project. He declined to be identified as he was not authorized to speak to the press.
The surprisingly swift decision to cancel the project came after hundreds marched to city offices on Friday that forced officials to pledge an extension of public consultation by 10 days. Locals had planned more protests on Sunday.
Chinese authorities are becoming increasingly sensitive to local protests over environmental issues, having canceled, postponed or relocated several major petrochemical and metals plants.
The planned conversion and enrichment plant had been meant to supply fuel for China's expanding nuclear power capacity, likely to reach 60-70 gigawatts by 2020 from the current 12.6 GW.
China currently produces 800 tonnes of uranium fuel at its plants in southwestern Sichuan province and north China's Inner Mongolia. China sources uranium both from domestic mines and imports from Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia, said the expert.
Guangdong is one of the country's largest nuclear power bases, already running five nuclear reactors and building another dozen, incorporating technologies from companies like French Areva and Westinghouse, a unit of Japan's Toshiba Corp <6502.
(Additional reporting by Clement Tan in Hong Kong; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)