The Nuclear Skeptic Part 2: Megaprojects vs Micropower (reprint)

[This article first appeared in European Tribune in 2006 and is a continuation of “The Nuclear Skeptic Part 1: Sketching the Playing Field”.]

I’m going to start with a fairly substantial quote from John Adams’ classic book Transport Planning, Vision and Practice, Routledge and Kegan Paul 1981 (note the year; and of course all boldfacing is mine not Adams’):

Raw materials for the nuclear alternatives are much more evenly distributed about the world than reserves of fossil fuels. But the economic and technological resources required to exploit them are, at present, dominated by a small number of countries. Such is the lethal potency of the processes and materials involved in nuclear energy that this dominance is jealously guarded.

In 1976 transport in Britain consumed, almost entirely in the form of oil, more than fifteen times as much energy as was generated by nuclear power. Thus for nuclear power to become a substitute for a significant part of the market now served by oil would require a very large increase in nuclear generating capacity. It would also require a very large increase in the resources devoted to the security of the nuclear industry.

Effective security depends on surveillance and secrecy, on learning as much as possible about the enemy while permitting the enemy to learn as little as possible about oneself. The requirements of security are in direct and inescapable conflict with the requirements of a free and democratic society. As the stock of toxic nuclear substances increases, the problem of keeping them out of the “wrong” hands is increasingly adduced as an argument for concealing information about the means of security. As dependence on nuclear power grows, the less admissible becomes discussion at public inquiries of the wisdom of government policies that foster this dependence. […] As the threat of nuclear proliferation grows, the larger the area of discussion subsumed by the prohibition “national security”. As cost over-runs grow, the more reluctant become those responsible for the miscalculations to provide the information necessary for an informed discussion of the reasons. As the quantity of low-level radioactive emissions increases, the stronger becomes the argument that public discussion of their uncertain consequences will spread panic among the scientifically untutored masses. The greater becomes the dependence of the world on nuclear power, the smaller becomes the possibility of the lay public participating in informed discussions about it.

The growth of the nuclear power industry has been accompanied by a growth in the opposition to it. Those who do not wish the industry well range from pacifists to terrorists and come in a great variety of political colours. Those who represent the most serious threat to security are the least likely to parade in their true colours. Hence effective security requires keeping an eye on all opposition. Spokesmen for the industry are most anxious to assure law-abiding citizens that the security requirements of the industry pose no threat to their civil rights. P J Searby […] offered the following reassurance in a letter to ‘The Times’: “Bodies and individuals opposed to the development of nuclear power would not be subject to security surveillance unless there was reason to believe their activities were subversive, violent, or illegal” (12 August 1977).

And […] [the] Chairman and Secretary of the Electrity Supply Industry Employuees’ National Committee, in another letter to ‘The Times’ dismiss concern about civil liberties as scare mongering:

This is an aspect of the nuclear debate which needs airing but MR Seighart [Joint Chairman of Justice] fails, it seems to us, to explain why the existence of a number of fast breeder reactors would create any more of a problem in respect of civil liberties than does the present existence of the MoD and all its range of activities. (27 Sep 1977)

Those who are attempting to subvert the prevailing belief that the growth of the economy and energy consumption can and should continue indefinitely are little comforted by the assurance that only the subversive are to be targets of surveillance. Nor are they reassured by the suggestion that nuclear security poses no more of a threat to civil liberties than does the MoD. Civil liberties end where the realm of the military begins. Armies are run as dictatorships. The cardinal virtue of the soldier is obedience. He has no right to withdraw his labour if he disagrees with his general about the identity of the enemy. The operations in which he engages, even in peacetime, are shrouded in secrecy — from the enemy, from subversives, from the civilian population and, usually, from himself. His right to privacy is sacrificed to the demands of security. Passes, security checks and surveillance are normal features of military life. Attempts to subvert the dogma of the high command by reasoned argument are ruthlessly suppressed.

A very plausible account of the threat to civil liberties posed by nuclear power is contained in a report entitled ‘Nuclear Prospects.’ The report describes some of the catastophic consequences that could follow from a failure of nuclear security in the plutonium fuel cycle. They range from releases of radioactivity from nuclear electricity generating plants, to the havoc that could be wreaked by psychopaths armed with plutonium or even atomic weapons. It then describes what is known of present security practice. Its salient features include positive vetting for all the industry’s professional staff (i.e. intensive scrutiny of their characters, associations and vulnerability to “subversion”), a special armed constabulary with powers to engage in “hot pursuit” and to arrest on suspicion, and an apparatus of surveillance — the nature and extent of which is [of course] an official secret.

Placing credible threats of sabotage or malicious use of stolen nuclear material in the context of present security practice, the report proceeds to outline the probable security requirements of the greatly expanded nuclear programme envisaged by the industry’s proponents. The picture that emerges is one of a society crucially dependent for its very existence on electricity generated in heavily defended installations to which only vetted people are permitted entry, supplied with fuel transported under armed escort, from equally well guarded fuel refining and reprocessing facilities. Given the scale of the operation, the numbers of people involved, the widespread hostility it would be bound to provoke, and the extreme consequences of a failure of security, the report argued that it would be irresponsible for the nation not to guard it with a strict, pervasive, militaristic security service.

The authors of the report, Michael Flood and Robin Grove-Wright, anticipated that those responsible for nuclear security might resent their “casting a light on activities which, arguably, rely on darkness for their full effectiveness”. They cited an article in ‘Atom’ by Sir John Hill (Chairman of the UK Atomic Energy Authhority) in which he condemned a similar exercise conducted in the US on the grounds that it “provided a great deal of information which might just give the necessary encouragement to terrorists contemplating some nuclear outrage.” But they remained unrepentant: “It would be far the unhappiest and most distinctive feature of nuclear power if its successful development were held to involve hazards so great that a democracy could be prohibited from talking about them.”

When they proffered their report to the electricity supply industry for comment they had their anticipation confirmed. They were told by one of the most senior figures in the industry that their report was “seditious.” Nowhere did their report advocate, or even hint at condoning, the violent overthrow of the government. On the contrary their case against the nuclear industry rested on the argument that its further expansion would do violence to cherished democratic institutions. They argued that the expansion of an industry inherently incapable of democratic control would foster and opposition that had a diminishing regard for the conventions of democratic protest.

The inability, or unwillingness, of the industry’s leadership to distinguish between sober, precautionary argument, and incitement to the violent overthrow of the state, illustrates the inherently totalitarian tendencies of the nuclear power industry. An infallible sign of a tyrant is his inability to distinguish legitimate opposition from illegitimate — all opposition is sedition. The principal difference between the security services required by a society dependent on nuclear power, and those by a country at war against a foreign enemy, is that the former must be directed against threats that are largely internal. Waging the moral equivalent of nuclear war on the energy crisis would involve living with the moral equivalent of a security system appropriate to a society in the throes of civil war.

JA wrote this essay sometime between ’78 and ’80 for publication in ’81, iirc. It is now over 25 years later, and imho the points he made have never been answered by the nuclear industry, nor has its track record since that time encouraged any neutral observer into a greater comfort regarding the inherently antidemocratic aspects of nuclear technology. US Liberal Blogistan was notified via a Greenpeace press release in May ’06 of

[..] the arrest of an activist from the French Nuclear Phase-out network (Sortir du Nucleaire), who was accused of violation of France’s nuclear Secret Defence by having a copy of the EDF document.(2) The activist, Stephane Lhomme, was interrogated over 14 hours on Tuesday after ten anti-terrorist police and others raided his home in Paris, removing documents, computers and phones.

The document in question allegedly describes serious vulnerabilities of the new EPR design. Whether it does so accurately or not, the treatment of anti-nuclear activists as de facto terrorists is not a symptom of any particular model of economics or governance, but inherent in the potential lethality of the technology and the desperate desire (whether on the part of government or industry) to evade liability (as in Belarus where, as we saw in the Chernobyl anniversary diaries, simply doing epidemiological research on Chernobyl fallout was grounds for arrest and imprisonment).

The industry remains tightly coupled to the military and to weapons manufacturers; plants are considered part of the “Security State within the state” for this reason as well as for their manifest vulnerability to terrorist attack. Secrecy, coverups, and obfuscation continue to be the normal working methods of the industry when dealing with errors, near-mishaps, and actual mishaps at nuclear facilities (which I hope to discuss in subsequent diaries). Moreover, nuclear power has an appeal to the kind of government/elite cadres who prefer an autocratic or repressive Security State model for their country.

Tony Blair, for example — a fan of Panopticon type public surveillance, national biometric ID cards, increased police powers and support for US military adventurism — is also a fan of nuclear power. After years of preparing the ground while he pretended to vacillate (for example by suppressing a government study showing nuclear to be uneconomic and then issuing a total re-write, ignoring warnings from the waste management committee, and preparing one secret plan and then another), he has most recently attempted to impose the nuclear power option by fiat as UK energy policy:

Tony Blair ignited a political storm, including within his own cabinet, by endorsing a new generation of nuclear power stations last night. Mr Blair warned that failing to replace the current ageing plants would fuel global warming, endanger Britain’s energy security and represent a dereliction of duty to the country.

Effectively pre-empting the outcome of the government’s energy review due to be published in July, Mr Blair, in a speech to the CBI, said the issue of a new generation of stations was back on the agenda with a vengeance, alongside a big push on renewables and a step change in energy efficiency.

Mr Blair’s spokesman said the prime minister was speaking after reading “a first cut” of the Department of Trade and Industry-led review on Monday. He said the country could not rely on one new source to meet the coming energy gap, pointing out that renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, had technical problems.

Ministers believe a new generation of nuclear stations will require an extension of the current renewables subsidy to nuclear electricity and some form of pre-licensing agreement to speed up planning permission for new stations.


The French company Areva said last night its reactors could be up and running by 2017 — if the planning procedures were streamlined and decisions made on long-term waste storage. […]

Note that this autocratic move from Blair came about 2 months after the report from his own Sustainable Development Committee which was less than enthusiastic about the nuclear power option:

Tony Blair’s backing for nuclear power suffered a blow yesterday when the Government’s own advisory body on sustainable development came down firmly against the building of a new generation of reactors.

Despite the Prime Minister’s well-known support for the nuclear industry, the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) concluded that a new nuclear programme was not the answer to the twin challenges of climate change and security of supply. In a hard-hitting report, the 15-strong Commission identified five “major disadvantages” to nuclear power […]

But instead of sanctioning a new nuclear programme, the SDC urged Mr Blair to back a further expansion of renewable power, fresh measures to promote energy efficiency and the development of new technologies such as “carbon capture” to tackle the environmental threat posed by fossil-fuelled stations.

The commission’s report comes just three months before the Government publishes the results of its latest energy review, which is widely expected to pave the wave for a new generation of nuclear stations.

Sir Jonathon Porritt, the chairman of the commission, said: “Instead of hurtling along to a pre-judged conclusion (which many fear the Government is intent on doing) we must look to the evidence. There’s little point in denying that nuclear power has its benefits but, in our view, these are outweighed by serious disadvantages. The Government is going to have to stop looking for an easy fix to our climate change and energy crises — there simply isn’t one.”

The commission said that even if the UK’s existing nuclear capacity was doubled, it would only lead to an 8 per cent reduction in carbon emissions from 1990 levels. By contrast, renewable energy sources such as wind, wave, solar and biomass, which are zero-carbon sources of energy, could supply 68–87 per cent of the country’s electricity needs if fully exploited.

Sir Jonathon added that opting for the “big-bang fix” of a new nuclear programme would jeopardise public-sector support for renewable power. It would also undermine efforts to improve energy efficiency, which the report estimates could reduce UK energy demand by as much as 30 to 40 per cent and cut carbon emissions by 20 million tons a year — equivalent to the output of 27 power stations.

Sir Jonathon said, that among the commission’s 15 members, eight had come down against nuclear power, five had concluded it was not yet time for a new programme and two had said there was “maybe” a case for more reactors. […]

The cultural signature of the nuke industry is fairly plain here; first, that the report of a “Trade and Industry” group is privileged over a report from a sustainable development (public interest) group; second, that the nuclear option is declared by fiat, pre-empting normal democratic process and justified by “state of emergency” rhetoric; third, that the decision is wrapped in the flag, i.e. couched in the language of patriotism and nationalism (it would be “dereliction of duty to the country” not to build more reactors). The fears which Sir Jonathon cites certainly appear to be realistic. And diversion of current renewable subsidies to nuclear power generation will preclude investment of those subsidies in what many would call “real” renewable technologies — i.e. the “undermining” or opportunity cost which the SusDev commission accurately predicted.

I note also the implicit threat of “streamlining planning procedures” — which inevitably means reducing time spent on public input, ignoring what input there is, disregarding all expert opinions other than those of interested parties, shortcutting EIRs and equivalent impact reports, and otherwise “fast tracking” under the umbrella of the “state of emergency” mentality that has been so profitable for private contractors in just about every emergency, wartime, or black-ops spending spree. These are early warning signs of autocratic, centralised, nondemocratic planning — straight out of the Three Gorges Management Programme Handbook.

The antidemocratic or pro-authoritarian impulse implicit in nuclear power generation is not the only conceptual and physical implication of the technology. It is inherently centralised and large-scale, and hence “megaprojecty”. These are imho serious strategic problems, and not only for ethical reasons having to do with the erosion of democratic/liberal values. Centralised authoritarian systems are functionally brittle, and dependent on high energy inputs and hypermobility for maintenance.

Robust systems — systems that can withstand damage, partial failure, changing conditions — are those which feature flexibility, diversity, fractal/dense variability, redundancy, and so on. Thriving biotic systems exhibit these qualities, with many niches and every niche filled, and significant variety/specialisation within niches. They have a vast reserve of strategies and attributes from which to draw when conditions alter; an attack on one niche does not take down the whole system, and information is often replicated in many locations (analogous to holography) and is not lost by the loss of one niche. By contrast the highly centralised, authoritarian systems which have characterised power generation and distribution since the great consolidations (here’s a typical history) of the 20th century are vulnerable to single-point failures (as many major power outages over the last 20 years have demonstrated), can only be scaled in enormous costly increments to adapt to increasing load, and — ironically — rely on the continuing availability of cheap energy to deliver cheap energy to their millions of dependent and far-flung customers.

An interesting sidelight on this “takes cheap energy to make cheap energy” Catch-22 is that in the US — oddly enough — most (maybe all?) reactors do not use their own generated power for their own control systems. This has led to some (ahem) darkly comic moments in nuclear history:

On August 14th the largest electrical blackout in history caused sixteen nuclear plants to automatically shut down in the U.S. and Canada.

Nuclear power plants run on offsite power, not their own reactors.

If the electrical grid fails, reactors are designed to automatically close down. One or more diesel generators are supposed to start up, with capacity to power basic safety equipment, including the cooling system. If generators fail, the reactor cannot be restarted without offsite power.

David Lochbaum of the Union of Conerned Scientists compares this to a car without a battery, further explaining, “Nuclear reactors will automatically trip upon detection that the electrical grid is going down. Nuclear plants generate electricity by passing steam through a turbine. The electrical grid going down is to a nuclear reactor and its turbine/generator what stepping on the clutch is to a manual transmission car engine when traveling at 65 mph. To protect the turbine from spinning too fast with its ‘clutch depressed,’ valves that admit steam to the turbine close in seconds. Since the steam no longer has anyplace to go, there’s a pressure pulse racing back towards the reactor. To limit the size of this pressure pulse, the reactor automatically trips. With the reactor down, there’s less steam with no place to go. As long as it is available, offsite power is the preferred power source for the nuclear plant. However, once the electrical grid fails, the emergency diesel generator automatically starts and supplies power to safety equipment. The emergency diesel generators cannot provide enough power to operate the non-safety equipment at the plant.

In other words, these plants require continuous baseline AC power from “somewhere” (currently fossil fueled) in order to operate, and diesel generators for emergency backup.

The assumption of cheap energy is also built into the extremely long supply lines — fuel sometimes transported across or between continents by bulk carrier and truck, copper wires spanning hundreds of miles from generator to load, energy-intensive mining and fuel processing. Cheap fuel is a given, for example, in the assumption of responsibility by a central agency for thousands of towers, transformers, insulators, and cables. PG&E alone, in California, is responsible for 120,000 miles of utility line and 125,000 towers, much of this infrastructure being in remote areas carrying service to distant loads. It is only cost-effective to transport crews and parts to these remote areas in a regime of cheap fossil fuel to power the enormous (PG&E alone runs over 8500 ICE trucks in California) truck fleet that services the grid. The wastefulness of long-haul transmission lines is acceptable only under a regime of cheap energy; estimates range from 7 to 8 percent loss in the lines alone, and iirc German figures were a bit over 15 percent end-to-end. (It seems difficult to find figures via a casual google fishing expedition, for total loss from generator to wall outlet at the customer’s site; I’d appreciate it if any Eurotribbles have pointers to such figures.)

As mentioned earlier, the nuclear power model is inherently centralised and authoritarian; one thing that nobody wants is their neighbour fooling around with a hobby nuclear reactor in the garage. The toxicity of the fuel and the extremely critical handling and control requirements, not to mention the potential for weaponisation, imply very tight control in the hands of “trusted authorities” — the State, or corporations licensed and supervised by the State. The expense of elaborate surveillance and defence of nuclear plants, and the area affected by catastrophic failure, multiplies with their number; so there is a built-in incentive to minimise the number and build a few huge ones rather than tens of thousands of little ones. By contrast, a wind plant could be installed on every individual farm in the MidWestern states of the US without raising any security or control issues. Nuclear power is inherently “megaproject” stuff, with all the problems of financing, oversight, accountability and deployed robustness that attend the megaproject model.

Megaprojects are so notoriously problematic that they have become the subject of academic research in their own right.

Cost overruns of 50% are common, overruns of 100% not uncommon. Similarly, substantial benefit shortfalls trouble many megaprojects. Finally, regional development effects and environmental impacts often turn out very differently from what proponents promised. Cost overruns combined with benefit shortfalls spell trouble. But an interesting paradox exists for megaprojects: More and bigger megaprojects are being planned and built despite their poor performance record in terms of costs and benefits.

One of the obvious problems with megaprojects is that such huge budgets attract embezzlers — rich pickings can be had from fudging even the “small ticket” line items on projects with budgets in the 7 to 9 figures; small personal fortunes can be looted from minor fiddles in the books, lost in the noise — and oversight is costly and difficult for projects of this size and complexity. Such projects have to serve enormous areas in order to justify their enormous size and cost; therefore the actual locus of construction is seldom considered as other than a cost item or strategic decision, and the people living in that locus often experience being “railroaded” or “fast tracked” without democratic process, with the political decision-making (and skulduggery) taking place far away at fairly high levels of government. Megaprojects have a profoundly antidemocratic track record worldwide. Their enormous size encourages “greater good” and eminent domain arguments which are used to crush local political autonomy.

All this dissing of megaprojects implies that there is an alternative; and I do think there is a viable alternative.

The competing model is micropower. Micropower presumes a rhizome structure rather than a tree structure; many peer nodes of small to moderate size and local function, networked in a complex and redundant architecture, and diverse/variegated in detail.

Decentralized generation — in The Economist’s apt term, micropower — enjoys an important market share in some countries: in 2004, 52% of the electricity generated in Denmark, 39% in the Netherlands, 37% in Finland, 31% in Russia, 18% in Germany, 16% in Japan, 16 % in Poland, 15% in China, 14% in Portugal, 11% in Canada. Yet it is omitted from many official statistics and projections, underreported in the media, and often dismissed by policymakers as small and slow a fringe market too trivial to bother with. Surprise!

A recent compilation of industry and official data published in June by Rocky Mountain Institute RMI) found that micropower worldwide has already surpassed nuclear power in both annual output (in 2005) and installed capacity (in 2002), and is growing far faster in absolute terms. In 2004, DG added 2.9 times as much output and 5.9 times as much generating capacity as nuclear power added worldwide. Since nuclear power is often represented as an important technology, providing 20% of US and 16% of world electricity, surpassing this benchmark should at last qualify micropower as a serious competitor.

That was Amory Lovins and the gang at RMI [PDF], not perhaps the most impeccable source (I take exception to some of Lovins’ positions on other issues) but he generally gets his basic quantitative surveys right.

Micropower is inherently democratic — a “convivial technology” in Illich’s ingenious words. It can be constructed at the local level, permitting local democratic process to work out the details of implementation. It can be optimised to the resources available at the local level, introducing variability (diversity, the insurance policy against systemic failure). It is robust against single point failures; the failure of one plant does not leave millions of people without light or other electric services. With intelligent complex peer/peer negotiated load balancing algorithms, functional nodes can even “band together” to carry the load from nodes that have failed. Unit investments are low and the grid can scale up in small increments as required rather than in enormous megaproject increments; hence scaling can happen faster, taking place at a smaller/lighter/faster level of funding, approval, and implementation.

Micropower serves first and foremost the community where it is generated, with only the surplus being routed to an intelligent grid [similar to “family farming” in which the family derives its food security from the home farm, marketing only the surplus]. This means that producers and consumers are in close communication within a manageable geographic region. Issues of accountability are far more easily detected (and resolved) when the people who benefit from the process are the same people who experience the costs. Megaproject power generation all too often dumps the costs (smokestack emissions, mine tailings, catastrophic MTR, isotope leaks, reactor failures) onto populations far from the mass of beneficiaries; distance lends unreality and the illusion of “externalisation” of these costs, whereas when they are in our own back yards we have to weigh them more seriously against our benefits. Any provisioning system which requires the creation of extensive wastelands or “sacrifice zones” should be questioned and re-examined; it is “slash and burn” thinking and no longer suitable to Reality Planet (the one we actually live on, which is roughly spheroidal, with limited resources as to both sink and source).

Micropower generally involves least-toxic processes and materials (although in some regions where coal is the obvious fuel source the usual issues of coal combustion come to the fore even in micro-installations); biomass, solar, wind, biogas digesters, tidal, etc. all have successful pilot projects and all — though capable of failure and even of causing injury or death in extreme failure modes or with the assistance of extreme human stupidity — present extremely benign worst-case scenarios compared to nuclear (a technology that has already created several of the most toxic and expensive “sacrifice zones” on the planet).

I hope to return to the model of “rhizome-like micropower” in a future diary; for now, I emphasise that distributed generation with intelligent load balancing does not involve the heavy, top-down apparatus of State surveillance, heavy restrictive security, and secrecy which inherently accompany the nuclear option. Operating costs (both social and financial) are very high when the power generation source is itself a major threat to biotic systems, and this makes it inherently a threat to social capital and democratic systems; the two toxicities go hand in hand..

The only statement we can make with confidence about the future is that it looks unstable and unpredictable; global climate shows signs of greater extrema and a higher number of catastrophic events; many disturbing trends suggest a serious dearth of material resources (steel, aluminium, other ores, potable water, topsoil, fish, wood among others) as well as energy, in our imminent future. Geopolitical instability appears to be increasing rather than decreasing and there is a general rightward trend in many countries as well as a recidivism towards ethno-religious tribalism and separatism. All of these argue poorly for the kind of stability of government, longhaul trade, and complex high technology infrastructure on which the nuclear option absolutely depends. It is not only inherently megaproject-oriented and antidemocratic, but an optimist’s gamble on a stable and orderly future which (from where I sit) looks increasingly uncertain.

When conditions are unstable and ominous, the best prospect for survival lies in diversification (hedging one’s bets), localisation (shortening supply lines), simplification (reducing dependence on highly complex and/or energy-dependent systems) and democratisation (empowering localities as much as possible to manage their own affairs, so that there is not paralysis and disorder if communications or supply lines are disrupted). Nuclear power at this critical stage in industrial civilisation is a very large bet — double or nothing — against the odds.

The industry has had had over 60 years to develop since the first reactor was tested in 1942. Remember the first American experimental reactor? The story goes that it was built secretly under the football stadium at the University of Chicago during World War Two. They had a control rod suspended by a rope, and a guy standing by with an axe to chop the rope — dropping the control rod and damping the reaction — if the reactor started to run away. Fortunately, nobody blew it and U Chicago is still inhabitable. [No, I am not making this up.]

I think there has been enough track record by now to justify an evaluation — in terms of CBA, in terms of social and political implications, in terms of applicability in the very near and practical term to the urgent problem of climate destabilisation and fossil fuel drawdown. If the technology hasn’t proven itself after 60 years (even with massive government subsidies and taxpayer risk assumption) then it’s time for a rethink. Not all technologies are winners; the eight-track tape player, quadraphonic headphones, CP/M, the Osborne portable…

[The prosecution takes a deep breath and a long drink of water, and rests its case for the nonce.]

Hat tip to DoDo for the Tony Blair history links.

Originally published at

Retired; ex-software engineer. Paleo-feminist. Sailor. Arduino tinkerer. Enviro. Libertarian Socialist (Anarcho-Syndicalist, kinda). Writer. Altermondialiste.

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