AREVA is targeting to process highly contaminated water at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant by late next month, with an installation that can remove radioactive material from 50 tons of water an hour.

Chief Executive Officer Anne Lauvergeon told a Tokyo news conference Tuesday that a end of May start date represents the best-case scenario. Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) had said it expected water treatment to begin in June.

The system designed by AREVA will seek to decontaminate water pooling in the turbine buildings and equipment tunnels. This is essential to restoring the plant's own reactor cooling systems.

For three weeks, AREVA has sent radioactive effluent treatment specialists to Japan to participate in work groups with TEPCO. Backed by large teams in France, Germany and the United States, they proposed a method based on a co-precipitation concept. Developed by AREVA and used in the Marcoule and La Hague facilities, the process uses special chemical reagents to separate and recover the radioactive elements.

AREVA also called on the skills of Veolia Water. A large-capacity treatment plant equipped with the co-precipitation process will be delivered by AREVA.

Crews are pumping 480 tons of water a day into Fukushima Daiichi's debilitated reactors in efforts to cool them, only to see it leak out and form radioactive pools. TEPCO plans to recycle the decontaminated water. Under ideal conditions, the treatment process would clean 1,200 tons of water a day working around the clock.

By contrast, a floating treatment facility built by Japan and Russia for water with low-level radioactive contamination has a capacity of only 7,000 tons a year.

At least 67,500 tons of radioactive water is thought to be lurking at the Fukushima Daiichi compound, hampering work to bring the plant's cooling equipment up to speed. AREVA's treatment system will likely hold the key to progress on TEPCO's recently announced plan for ending the nuclear crisis. The French firm also plans to cooperate on soil decontamination at the plant.