KIEV, Ukraine – A donors conference seeking €740 million ($1.1 billion) to clean up the Chernobyl disaster site fell well short of its goal Tuesday, but officials remained optimistic that money will be found to make the world's worst nuclear accident site environmentally safe.
Pledges from nations and organizations at the conference totaled about €550 million ($785 million), along with €29 million ($41 million) from Ukraine.
The money is being sought to complete the construction of a gargantuan long-term shelter to cover the nuclear reactor that exploded April 26, 1986, and to build a facility to store waste from the plant's three other decommissioned reactors.
Japan had been one of the top donors in previous years, contributing €72 million ($103 million) in total. But this year, after last month's devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant crisis, Japan held back from pledging money.
Several other major donors in the past also did not announce pledges Tuesday, citing their own economic difficulties or impending national elections. Among them were Ireland, Spain and Canada.
But "undoubtedly, the countries that were not ready to offer today are still with us," said French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, whose country pledged €47 million ($67 million). France is the strongest defender of using nuclear power in Europe.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych reached out to countries not at the conference, saying, "We will always be thankful for timely assistance."
Other top pledging countries at the conference included the United States, promising $123 million, Germany with €42.4 million ($60.5 million) and Russia, a latecomer to decades of Chernobyl contributions, pledging €45 million ($64 million). Russia's pledge doubled the amount it has donated since it began contributing in 2005.
The European Commission pledged €110 million ($157 million) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which is directing the Chernobyl projects, promised €120 million ($171 million).
The international community already has poured €864 million ($1.2 billion) into the fund to build the shelter over the reactor. In the months after the blast, workers hastily built a so-called sarcophagus to block off the radiation being spewed from the reactor, but it has already exceeded its proposed service life and has been plagued by structural problems.
The new shelter, which will look like a giant Quonset hut, is to be assembled adjacent to the reactor building and then slid over it on rails. The shelter, designed to last 100 years, is supposed to be in place in 2015, after which the reactor can be disassembled.
The separate spent-fuel storage facility is to hold the waste fuel from the plant's other reactors, which were phased out of service after the blast.
The donors' conference kicked off a week of meetings on the 1986 explosion that spewed a cloud of radiation over much of Europe.
In Ukraine, an area of 30 kilometers (19 miles) radius around the plant remains blocked off by guards and is largely uninhabited except for some rotating maintenance workers at the idle plant and a few hundred residents who moved back to their homes despite advice to stay away.
At a separate conference in Kiev, one U.N. expert said ecological conditions in some of the fallout-affected areas have improved considerably.
"In most of the territories, background radiation nowadays is not different to many places where there were no similar catastrophes, and in fact there can be normal life there. The health risks are much smaller than they used to be 20 years ago or 15 years ago," said Jerzy Osiatinski of the U.N. Development Program.
Associated Press Writer Anna Melnichuk in Kiev contributed to this report.