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Staff writer

Faced with the urgent task of dealing with the nation’s worst nuclear accident, new Science and Technology Agency chief and Education Minister Hirofumi Nakasone says his first job is to regain the Japanese public’s trust in nuclear power.

Nakasone, 53, who took over the job from Akito Arima Tuesday, declared his resolve to “not stop the flow (of work) because the minister in charge has changed.”

“We must never see that kind of an accident again, and we must disclose information (about nuclear facilities),” Nakasone said in an interview Thursday, a week after the accident at JCO Co.’s uranium-processing plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture.

To persuade the public that nuclear power is safe, Nakasone said the nation’s nuclear industry must strictly educate plant workers about the potential dangers and importance of their jobs.

Nakasone slammed as being “out of the question” the illegal use of stainless steel buckets for mixing a uranium solution at the JCO plant. “That clearly shows a lack of education of workers,” he said.

Right after assuming his Cabinet portfolio Tuesday, Nakasone said that the government plans to establish a new law on nuclear disaster prevention and revise the existing law on nuclear regulations to improve safety standards at nuclear facilities.

He also announced the establishment of a 30-member science agency task force, which has been assigned the task of investigating the cause of the latest accident and studying the safety control system.

Nakasone’s first action as science agency head was accompanying Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi on his visit to the village of Tokai Wednesday to inspect the JCO facility and neighboring areas.

“Seeing the area with my own eyes, I felt that the accident really caused great inconvenience to the people living around the area,” he said.

Commenting on what he thought about the plant after walking around it, Nakasone said, “unlike nuclear power plants, (the Tokai plant) hardly looked like a facility that processes uranium.”

Nakasone, a Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker in the Upper House and the eldest son of former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, recalled his childhood, when his father spoke of visiting a British nuclear power plant or about state budget allocations for the science and technology sector.

“That somehow remained in the back of my mind. It’s coincidental that my father’s first Cabinet post was also the science and technology chief, just like myself,” he observed.

On education issues, Nakasone showed he has inherited his father’s zest for administrative streamlining, voicing his support for converting national universities into independent public corporations.

“It is a good thing to grant more freedom to the presidents of national universities in deciding on their management and education policy,” he said.

In the first clear announcement of its stance on the issue, the Education Ministry said last month that it is desirable to turn each university into an independent corporation, a shift from its long opposition to the idea.

Nakasone, however, stressed that special measures such as financial support should be given to national universities in order to maintain or improve their educational standards.

The issue of turning universities into independent corporations has been discussed as part of Obuchi’s administrative reform plan, under which the number of civil servants will be cut by 25 percent by fiscal 2010, which begins in April that year.

Asked whether he feels English should be taught at the elementary school level, the new minister said “the earlier the better for teaching a language.”

However, Nakasone said that the teaching of English should not be introduced in a way that would cut into other important subjects. “It’s good to teach a foreign language, but the teaching should not exceed the (learning) capacity of children.”

As one way to tackle education problems such as bullying and truancy, Nakasone suggested introducing a long-term training program for elementary school teachers to enable them to gain experience outside school.

“By working at a private company or other places for a year or so, the teachers can learn how the world outside school works,” he said.

To have more elementary school teachers with balanced views is the most basic thing in improving education, Nakasone said, adding that he hopes to realize the training program while he is minister.

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