By Yoko Kubota
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda chose on Monday former top government spokesman Yukio Edano as the new trade minister, acting to limit the damage to his new cabinet after the previous minister quit over gaffes.
Edano will be heading the trade ministry that also oversees energy policy, a key role as Japan works to bring under control the world's worst nuclear disaster in 25 years after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami set off meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
Edano, former chief cabinet secretary under the previous premier, Naoto Kan, is considered to have a good understanding of the nuclear issues and became the government's face as the radiation crisis unfolded with the frequent broadcasting of his briefings on the plant's status.
"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.
Previous trade minister Yoshio Hachiro quit on Saturday, only after eight days in his job, following reports that he joked with reporters about radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant during his trip to the affected area.
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.
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 Edano will oversee.
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.
Noda's government started out with public support ratings of more than 60 percent 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. ($1 = 77.750 Japanese Yen)
(Additional reporting by Shinichi Saoshiro; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Yoko Nishikawa)