This paper analyses how people understand civil nuclear risk in the local context in China. The findings of the paper are based on six months of fieldwork research on a potential inland nuclear power project in Dapu townland in 2007 and 2008. Understanding varies greatly depending on local context, with economic, geographic and social factors influencing the way people view risks and benefits. I argue that when local people do not have enough ‘scientific knowledge’ to understand risk from nuclear power, they can still use their experience of everyday life to reflect rationally on the risks and benefits that they face. I conclude that when local people trust in nuclear technology and ‘the government’, and are unaware of nuclear risk it is partly because of their over-dependence on institutions and experts. However, despite their lack of agency, local people rationally calculate risk and benefit in accordance with their social identity and geographical location.