TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda gave a former government spokesman the cabinet post responsible for the Fukushima nuclear crisis on Monday, acting to limit the damage to his new cabinet after the previous minister quit over gaffes.
Yukio Edano was named trade minister, a job that oversees energy policy, making it a key role in a country still coping with the affects of meltdowns at the Fukushima power plant. The plant was damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, causing the world's worst nuclear accident for 25 years.
Previous trade minister Yoshio Hachiro quit on Saturday after just eight days in his job, following reports that he joked with reporters about radiation from the Fukushima plant during a trip to the affected area.
At his inaugural news conference as trade minister, Edano said Japan should strive to create a society that does not depend on nuclear power, although he stopped short of calling for an eventual closure of all nuclear power plants.
"What we have to do is to create a society that can do without nuclear power, a situation where industry can exist without nuclear power," Edano said. "Then, we can discuss what we are going to do with nuclear plants."
Edano served as the public face of the government during the disaster, giving frequent televised briefings on the nuclear plant's status. A former chief cabinet secretary under previous premier Naoto Kan, he is considered to have a good understanding of nuclear issues.
"Public support for Noda's cabinet is unlikely to rise with Edano taking over, but the amount of damage has likely been minimized," said Tetsuro Kato, a political science professor at Waseda University, adding Edano was a safe choice for Noda.
Noda, who took over as Japan's sixth premier in five years at the start of this month, needed to act quickly because the blunders gave the opposition that controls the parliament's upper house ammunition to attack the new cabinet.
The 54-year-old former finance minister, who has emphasized the importance of uniting the fractious ruling party, is set to address parliament in a policy speech on Tuesday, which will be followed by questions from opposition leaders.
Support for Noda remained robust despite the abrupt departure of Hachiro, with 60 percent of those polled in favor of his government, a voter survey conducted for three days through Sunday by public broadcaster NHK showed.
That was largely in line with the results of similar newspaper polls a week ago, in a sign the Japanese public was willing to give the new leader the benefit of the doubt despite bitter disappointment with his predecessor Kan.
Kan's ratings plunged from similar highs to less than 20 percent at the end of his 15-month tenure after he drew fire for his cabinet's handling of the March disaster and the resulting nuclear crisis.
Noda must end the radiation crisis while tackling many challenges, including rebuilding after the March disaster and curbing huge public debt, and will need opposition cooperation to achieve that.
One of the near-term tests will come next month when the cabinet is expected to prepare and submit to parliament an extra budget of about 10 trillion yen ($128.6 billion) needed to start full-fledged reconstruction in the disaster-struck areas.
The public will be keen to see progress in bringing damaged nuclear reactors at the Fukushima plant to a safe shutdown by January, the process which will now be overseen by Edano.
Edano, 47, has said that Japan will need to review its nuclear power policy from scratch after the Fukushima accident tattered public trust in atomic energy.
"Mr. Edano has been deeply involved not only in reconstruction issues after the March 11 disaster but also in the issue of Fukushima, so that record must have been valued," Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told a news conference.
Edano will be charged with overseeing power utilities' stress tests to see how well prepared their nuclear reactors are to withstand the impact of extreme events. Japan's nuclear safety watchdog will be under the trade ministry until April.
Currently, only 11 out of 54 nuclear reactors are operating after others have been unable to restart following maintenance checks due to heightened public worries.
Edano said reactors that have been proven safe ought to be restarted only after enough efforts are made to win understanding of local residents, but that it would be difficult to build new nuclear reactors in Japan.
(Additional reporting by Shinichi Saoshiro and Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Tomasz Janowski, Yoko Nishikawa and Peter Graff)