Photo/Illutration The gate opens on a road leading to JR Futaba Station in Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, at midnight as an evacuation order is partially lifted on March 4. (Toru Furusho)

FUTABA, Fukushima Prefecture--Road-paving equipment rumbled while workers toiled feverishly in the chilly weather to complete their projects before a milestone event in this town’s rebuilding efforts from the nuclear accident.

March 14 will mark the full reopening of the disaster-fractured JR Joban Line, one step in the mammoth overall reconstruction process for Fukushima Prefecture.

The train line will stop at JR Futaba Station, which has been rebuilt into a modern facility. New shops and houses are planned in the surrounding area.

However, Futaba is just a fraction of its former self, and large parts of the town remain mired in the heaviest fallout from the crippled nuclear plant, which is located just 4 kilometers southeast of the train station.

Futaba officials envisage about 2,000 evacuees will return to live in the town by 2027.

That figure is considered overly optimistic, despite representing less than 30 percent of Futaba’s pre-disaster population.

The train station and its neighborhood covering 5.6 square kilometers are in a “difficult-to-return zone,” meaning that entry is still prohibited because of high radiation levels.

But the central government designated the 5.6 square kilometers as a “special reconstruction area,” allowing for decontamination efforts to make the place livable again.

The evacuation order for part of the special area was lifted on March 4. The rest of the area is expected to reopen in 2022.

When the crisis unfolded at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant following the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, all 7,000 of Futaba’s residents were ordered to evacuate.

Futaba and the neighboring town of Okuma co-host the sprawling nuclear complex operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co.

Nine years later, many evacuees have rebuilt their lives--but not in their hometowns.

Kazuharu Fukuda, a 48-year-old evacuee from Futaba, had a new house built in Nihonmatsu, an inland city in the prefecture, about five years ago.

Although he harbors a desire to return to Futaba, he acknowledged that it will be “practically impossible.”

His daughter, who was 19 at the time of the nuclear accident, is now married with a child and lives near Fukada’s current home.

According to a survey conducted by the town hall last fall, 63.8 percent of the 1,399 households that responded have decided not to move back to Futaba.

And among people who have maintained their resident registration with Futaba, 2,130, or nearly 40 percent, now live outside Fukushima Prefecture.

One reason for the reluctance to return could be TEPCO’s payments of 7 million yen ($67,000) to each Futaba evacuee as “compensation for the loss of their hometown.”

“With the payments, many people may have felt resigned to the notion that they will never be able to go back to their hometown to live,” Futaba Mayor Shiro Izawa said.

Still, Futaba and Okuma officials have been relentless in their efforts to revive their ancestral hometowns.

In response to the officials’ persistent requests, the central government in August 2014 announced a vision to rebuild the municipalities.

Two years later, it set a policy of lifting evacuation orders for part of the no-entry zones in the towns and proceeded with widespread cleanup efforts.

As of March 4, the no-entry zones, where radiation levels exceed 50 millisieverts a year, covered 340 square kilometers over seven municipalities in the prefecture, including 96 percent of the land in Futaba.

The special reconstruction area, where the government intends to lift the entry ban in two to three years, accounts for less than 10 percent of the no-entry zones in those municipalities.

The rest of the zone is about 310 square kilometers, an area equivalent to half of Tokyo’s 23 wards.

The central government has repeatedly pledged to continue work to “have the evacuation order eventually lifted for all of the difficult-to-return zones, no matter how long it will take.”

But it has avoided setting a target date.

At a meeting with local officials in Fukushima in February, reconstruction minister Kazunori Tanaka stopped short of presenting a clear roadmap for lifting the evacuation orders for the zones.

“We will think about the direction to go while taking into account the circumstances of the ravaged municipalities and listening to the opinions of local leaders,” he said.

The central government will have spent about 3.4 trillion yen by the end of fiscal 2020 for cleanup efforts in Fukushima and seven other prefectures hit by fallout from the nuclear accident.

But it has yet to estimate the costs needed to decontaminate the remaining most polluted zones, according to the Environment Ministry.

A senior official with the Reconstruction Agency said that coming up with an estimate will not be easy.

“We need to figure out how many of the residents will go back to live,” the official said. “It is difficult to know.”

The mayors of the seven municipalities in the difficult-to-return zones said their urgent need is decontamination work, according to a survey conducted by The Asahi Shimbun in January and February.

“The party (TEPCO) that caused the nuclear accident is responsible for restoring the conditions of the pre-disaster days,” the Okuma mayor said, echoing the sentiment of the other local leaders.

The mayors said they cannot even think about rebuilding plans if many tracts of land remain heavily irradiated.

“Under the current circumstances, I am afraid that most former residents will not come back, even if evacuation orders are lifted,” one of the mayors said.

About 80,000 people fled their homes in Fukushima Prefecture under evacuation orders issued by the central government following the start of the nuclear crisis.

The number of those uprooted from their homes reached 160,000 at one point, if people who were not ordered to evacuate but did so anyway are included.

About 41,000 evacuees are still displaced.