For more than four decades, the Kansai region has relied on Fukui Prefecture’s nuclear power plants, including 11 operated by Kansai Electric Power Co. (Kepco), to keep the region powered up.

But now that a growing number of plants are nearing or have reached the end of their 40-year life cycle, the question is: What’s next?

While most of the discussion is focused on whether to continue running or decommission them, there is an interesting — to be polite — school of thought among certain politicians that says they should be replaced with underground reactors.

Don’t laugh (or cry). The idea has intrigued some very influential people, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

He, along with several other prominent politicians from the Liberal Democratic Party, the Democratic Party of Japan, and Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), formed a Diet group in May 2011 to study the issues involved.

One of the most ardent backers is LDP Lower House member Taku Yamamoto. He represents Fukui Prefecture’s second district, where several towns host nuclear power plants.

His wife, Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi, has also participated in the Diet group on underground reactors.

“The accident at Fukushima No. 1 wouldn’t have occurred if the plant had been underground,” Yamamoto told a press conference in June 2011.

“Even if we suppose it had occurred, the damage would have been minimal. Natural energy is ideal, but we can’t guarantee sufficient electricity generation with it using today’s technologies,” he continued. “In order to maintain Japan’s international competitiveness, underground nuclear reactors are necessary.”

Aside from the obvious questions — such as “Are these people crazy?” and “Who are the contractors specializing in underground construction that are funding them?” — lies the question of whether the idea is even remotely realistic.

Technologically, the answer seems to be yes.

In an interview with The Associated Press in April, William Magwood, new head of the Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency, an intergovernmental entity organized under the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, suggested using small underground reactors to produce fractional amounts of electricity at a much cheaper cost.

In the United States, the Energy Department has spent $450 million trying to convince U.S. firms to develop small underground reactors, and the idea even has the support of people like Microsoft founder Bill Gates. But concerns about funding, regulation and fears of nuclear proliferation have all slowed the effort.

All of these issues, and more, apply to Japan, and the conventional wisdom might be that the idea is far too bizarre to be taken seriously.

But given the interest in the Diet, the fact that many important people in Fukui and Kepco want to keep nuclear-related subsidies flowing, and given that other prefectures with aging plants are also worried about the future, underground nuclear power plants might just become one of those crazy ideas that find enough influential backing to become reality.

What could possibly go wrong?

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