KIEV - The world community, spurred by the nuclear crisis in Japan, on Tuesday pledged 550 million euros ($780 million) extra cash to help build a new containment shell at the site of the 1986 Chernobyl accident.
Ukraine had hoped for 740 million euros from world governments and international organizations at a conference in Kiev, marking 25 years since the world's worst nuclear accident on Ukraine's northern border with Belarus.
"This is what we have been able to raise through joint efforts — and we consider this figure preliminary — 550 million euros," Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich said at the end of a pledging conference in Kiev.
Though the figure was short of Ukraine's goal, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said it was possible when all the pledges had come in that the conference's "very ambitious goal" could be achieved.
Ministers and officials from the Group of Eight industrial nations and the European Union took the lead at the conference, expressing resolve to fund a new giant encasement over the Chernobyl reactor that exploded in 1986, billowing radiation across Europe.
But Japan's nuclear crisis cast a deep shadow.
Delegates expressed solidarity with Tokyo's efforts to control the crisis at Fukushima, while its ambassador told the gathering that "under the challenging circumstances" Japan would not be able to pledge additional funds to the Chernobyl effort.
The Japan crisis was a reminder that "nuclear safety recognizes no national borders," Zbigniew Brzezinski, a U.S. National Security Advisor under former President Jimmy Carter, told the conference.
Yanukovich said the Soviet-era disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 had left Ukraine with a "deep wound which it will have to cope with for many years.
"Neither Ukraine nor the world community has the right to turn back from seeking answers to the questions which Chernobyl has presented us with," he declared.
Barroso, describing the pledges as a "very good result," said the European Commission had committed itself to putting up 110 million euros extra cash. In all, the EU bloc was providing half the funds required for Chernobyl "shelter and safety" projects, he said.
The European Bank of Reconstruction and Development said it would put up 120 million euros and French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said his country would provide 47 million euros.
A European-backed venture foresees a new arching shell over Chernobyl's No. 4 reactor, which blew up in April 1986 after a safety experiment went wrong.
It will cover the present makeshift shelter that is now beginning to leak radioactivity from hundreds of tons of radioactive material inside.
More than 100 meters high, it will slide into place over the damaged reactor, sealing it at least until the end of the century. During that time, work can be undertaken to dismantle the present shelter and move radioactive material to a safer place. Extra funds pledged will also go toward storage facilities for nuclear waste removed from the Chernobyl reactor.
Week of commemorations
The donors' conference launches a week of commemorations in Ukraine marking the Soviet-era explosion and fire.
A prevailing southeast wind carried a cloud of radioactivity over Belarus and Russia and into parts of northern Europe.
The official immediate death toll from Chernobyl was 31, but many more died of radiation-related sicknesses such as cancer, many of them in neighboring Belarus.
Chernobyl has remained the benchmark for nuclear accidents. On April 12 Japan raised the severity rating at its Fukushima plant to seven, the same level as that of Chernobyl.
The total death toll and long-term health effects remain a subject of intense debate. Yanukovich said on Tuesday: "As a consequence of the accident, millions of people suffered, thousands of them died."
Prypyat, the town closest to the site, is now an eerie ghost town at the center of a largely uninhabited exclusion zone with a radius of 19 miles.
(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Editing by Janet Lawrence)