Taylor Wilson, nuclear physicist, U.S. government security consultant, entrepreneur
Aaron VanDevender, Principal & Chief Scientist, Founders Fund
Leslie Dewan, Founder & CEO, Transatomic Power
Michael Solana, VP, Founders Fund
What does a perfect world look like?
Solana: What does a perfect world look like? From politics to Hollywood we spend a lot of time talking about how things could go wrong, but much less on what it is we’re actually working for. What if everything went right? What is Utopia? Our culture holds very strongly to a handful of very horrific ideas about the future. For almost every powerful technology we’ve seen developed since the splitting of the atom, we have a corresponding nightmare vision of it lodged into our imagination.
For nuclear science, we have the nuclear holocaust. In biotechnology, we see the rise of plagues invented by rogue states and crazy people in their basements. We see zombie plagues. In artificial intelligence, we have the Terminator. And then we have kind of every manner of political dystopia, in which a very small minority leverages technology to oppress a vast majority. In this way, stories about technology almost cease to be about technology. They become a Rorschach test.
How do you see people? What do you think about the human being? And in an age of post-modernism, that is worse than evil robots. So why does it matter? What’s so important about the kinds of stories we tell ourselves?
Dr. Strangelove clip: When they are exploded they will produce a doomsday shroud; a lethal cloud of radioactivity, which will encircle the Earth.
Solana: In 1964 Dr. Strangelove came out. This is a movie in which a doomsday device is built, which leads to the total nuclear annihilation of planet Earth.
Dr. Strangelove clip: I’m afraid I don’t understand something, Alexi. Is the Premier threatening to explode this if our planes carry out their attack?
No sir, it is not a thing a sane man would do. The doomsday machine is designed to trigger itself automatically.
Solana: When you first saw the film you were probably wondering, “What is the motive here? Why would you build a weapon capable of destroying the entire world at all?”
Well, uh, a couple of reasons. In the first place, these were not just Russians, Hollywood Russians built the doomsday device. And in Hollywood, Russians are evil, so there’s that.
Then, as Dr. Strangelove would explain, the doomsday device wasn’t intended to cause a nuclear war. It was intended to prevent one. The idea was, if the U.S. launched even one weapon the world would end. So, no one was ever going to launch anything, or, um, I think that was the idea. The problem with Dr. Strangelove—
Dr. Strangelove clip: Is that the whole point of the doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret. Why didn’t you tell the world, eh?
Solana: The Russians never told anyone they built a deterrence, which, obviously, undermines the entire point of a deterrence. It also pushes the entire the world to the brink of Apocalypse. You know one wrong move by anyone, and we’re not talking about the end of a city here, we’re talking about the end of a planet. But it’s only a story, right?
News clip: Using a complex network of sensors measuring seismic activity, air pressure and radiation to detect if the Soviet Union had suffered a surprise nuclear attack, the Dead Hand system was there to make sure the nuclear arsenal could be launched without anyone pressing the red button.
Solana: In 1985, the Soviet Union built this thing. In the case of the U.S. nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, in which the Soviet Union couldn’t respond, the Dead Hand would automatically launch every single missile in the Russian arsenal. The stories we consume shape the world; computers, robots, rocket ships, cloning. Has there even been a technological innovation that we didn’t see first in the pages of our fiction?
So the question becomes this: how can we hope to build a better world if we don’t even believe that’s something we’re capable of doing? In Anatomy of Next, we’re going to explore all the really big technology fears, all these really kind of intractable, dystopian nightmares. We’ll bring in the experts actually working on the technology in question. And then we’re going to paint a different kind of picture: not what the world looks like, not what the world might look like in a worst case scenario, but what it is exactly that we’re fighting for.
What would a world look like if you could build anything? What should the world look like? Today, we’re going to start this horror house investigation where it all began, nuclear science.
The Day the Earth Stood Still clip: This Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned out cinder.
Solana: We’ve bombarded with images of waste and war and nuclear meltdowns for decades. For many of us, our entire lives. Now, the risk of all of this, as we’ll explore in the episode, is not nearly as great as the doomsayers would have us believe. But, still, there is some risk. So, why are we taking any at all? What is at stake here? Why is the power of the atom so important?
Solana (to Wilson): Hey, Taylor, how’s it going?
Wilson: Hey, Mike. How’s it going?
Solana: This is Taylor Wilson. I met him when he was seventeen. That was three years after he became the youngest person in the history of the world to produce a fusion reaction. You might be wondering where a fourteen-year-old boy has produced nuclear fusion reactions these days. The answer is: basement. We talked a lot about the history of the science. Uh, we talked about perception of the science. We talked about mechanics of the science.
But the first thing that came up, surprising to me at first, less so the more scientists I interviewed in the field, was energy in general. Again and again people wanted to talk to me about this. These aren’t men and women working on something—the atom—just because it’s interesting. These are men and women who are trying to solve a really serious problem, and it’s not nuclear energy, it’s just energy.
Wilson: Energy is everything, right? That’s, that’s why, you know, I made a very conscious decision that the biggest thing I could be working on would be energy. Because if you look, society has—I mean, don’t get me wrong—a lot of problems. And most of those, not all of those, but most of those come back down to energy. Energy is the kind of currency of our physical world, of our everyday lives.
And whether you want to provide food for ten billion or fifteen billion people, or you want to have clean water supplies, or you want to improve healthcare in the developing world, or you want to increase manufacturing and increase, global economic growth—all of these things are reliant on having abundant, low cost, and at the end of the day environmentally-friendly energy.
We look at these problems like these ever-increasing draughts. California and Nevada have had this problem. We have lots of water on Earth. The problem is most of that water is not clean or drinkable, or even usable for agriculture. It has salt in it. It has contaminants in it. It has whatever makes it unusable. And, there are technologies out there like desalination, that mean you can take seawater, which is in incredible abundance, and turn it into either drinkable water or water for agriculture or anything else. It’s only a question of energy.
One of the biggest things about nuclear science—people always ask me, how did I get into nuclear science when I was ten years old, and I think there were probably a lot of factors to that, but, there was something very, very fascinating about how much energy was locked up in such a small place.
There is something very cosmic about being connected to these very fundamental reactions that built the building blocks of our everyday lives. But it’s also the fact that there is an incredible amount of energy locked up in a very, very small place. That’s the issue of energy density. Don’t get me wrong, every energy source has its pros and cons, but when you look at nuclear energy, whether it’s fission, whether it’s fusion, you can generate a tremendous amount of energy in a very small place from a very small amount of resource.
Solana: But that feels like a pretty big jump, right? We’re going from we need a lot more energy, to we need nuclear energy. Why? Why this one energy source—what is it about nuclear that has so many people excited right now?
So, we know we need not just enough energy to power the world as it stands, but enough energy to really improve the world, to elevate the Third World, especially. We know that fossil fuels just are not going to cut it for a variety of reasons, ranging from the fact that, one, they are poisoning our environment, to, two, they are a finite resource. There will come a day when the amount of energy it takes to extract things like oil and coal from the Earth will be higher than the amount of energy we get from the resource.
But what about renewables? What about renewable energy? What about solar? What about wind? What about hydro?
Every single time an article about nuclear comes out, or a politician makes the mistake of talking about nuclear in a positive way, there is tremendous blowback. And this is always the root of it: you’ll hear stuff like, “We already have technology to power the planet without fossil fuels. We, we don’t need them. We don’t need nuclear. We can, we can do it with solar. We can do it with wind. We can do it with hydro.”
So, is this actually true? Keeping in mind that our goals are not just to power the planet as it stands, but to elevate everyone on the planet; can we do this with the Sun and the wind alone?
For this, I talked to Aaron VanDevender, Chief Scientist at Founders Fund. He’s a big part of our energy strategy and he’s done a lot of thinking about this topic, in particular.
Solana (to VanDevender): I would love to talk about the renewable stuff. Whenever nuclear comes up, one of the big pushbacks is, why do we need it at all? Renewables are great, we just need more of them. We just need more wind power and more geothermal. We need more hydroelectric. Is that true? What is going on there with the renewables question?
VanDevender: So, renewables have a huge upside and it’s really great that we’re putting a lot of investment into them. The cost of solar panels has gone down really dramatically over the last several years. Everyone is really excited about that. That’s definitely going to be a big part of our power budget going forward. However, the renewables that we have, in particular, the big kind of output ones, are the wind, water and solar.
They have two systemic problems to them that make it difficult to supply our energy needs going forward. Those two things are they’re intermittent. So, at nighttime you don’t get any power out of your solar farm. And, when the wind stops blowing, you don’t get any power out of your wind farm. And, that they are geographically located, generally, far away from where your cities are, where your power demand is.
Solana: What about battery storage and things like this? If you had a great battery, would that fix the problem?
VanDevender: So, we a time problem and a space problem. There are technologies that we are developing to try and address those things, and we should definitely be investing in more of those. In order to solve the time problem, you need a big battery or some sort of reservoir that you can put the energy into when the sun and the wind is not available. And so, we are investing in those things.
There is a sort of pessimistic version of Moore’s Law that applies to silicon, which instead applies to batteries, that shows over the last one hundred thirty years or so battery technology has only gotten better by a couple of percent per year. And so if you can extrapolate that out, it’s really hard to see how you can get there.
Solana: Any heavy reliance on intermittent energy sources like renewables means a massive over-building of that energy source’s infrastructure. Then, as Aaron mentions, we still have to solve the problem of storage. So, if we’re looking to build a world of safe, clean, high energy consumption, solar and wind are not the answer here, or at least not by themselves.
Our culture tells the story of Daedalus and his son, Icarus, again and again. And there is this real danger in experimenting with things we don’t understand. But nuclear power, as we’ll get into in a minute, is just not one of those things anymore. So, what’s the real reason that we’re holding ourselves back?
VanDevender: As someone who is optimistic about the future, I would like to think that, actually, there isn’t really necessarily an optimum amount of energy that each person should have. The best actualization of human potential requires that each person have the most energy available to them to do, you know, really great things.
A lot of the models that say, “Well, if we just want to do this with no nuclear and only do it with solar, on a time scale that’s reasonable, that sort of gives us a shot at not going above the two degree centigrade climate deviation,” then you have to couple that with a large decrease in the total energy consumption. Which, means that maybe a few people on the bottom get to bring themselves up, but, mostly, you’re requiring that people sort of go back in time, that they decrease their standard of living to an earlier era when people used less energy.
The history of the evolution of our civilization really runs the other way. If you look at, say, a refrigerator that you can get at Home Depot today, it’s much more energy efficient than a refrigerator that you could have gotten thirty years ago. But we’ve also invented a lot more stuff, a lot more reasons to go up to that energy and on the balance, there’s more things out there. In the future, more significant consumptions of energy per person, so part of each individual’s footprint is, how much computing are you going to be leveraging in the cloud?
So your Gmail, your Facebook, your Twitter, like all of these things contribute to your personal energy footprint and, in the future, there are going to be more of those services available. Each individual computing core is going to become more efficient, but the total amount of computing power and artificial intelligence that’s in the cloud that’s devoted to working on problems that you care about, and making your life better, is going to increase. And so, the amount of energy that we require per person is going to increase also.
Solana: You mentioned earlier, we don’t want to be using less energy than we do now. We don’t want to be kind of going back to what we were using two hundred, three hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago. I think a lot of environmentalists, especially, would say, “Well, why not? Why can’t we go back? Why do we need to be using all this energy?” This is maybe a little bit off the technical side of things and onto this sort of just philosophical side of things.
VanDevender: If you say that there is some limit to the amount of energy that each person should use, there’s some optimum amount, what you’re saying is that there is a limit to human potential. I don’t believe that that’s true. I think that human potential is unbounded.
Solana: Remember, what are our goals here? It’s not global stasis. It’s, it’s definitely not some kind of pre-computer age, energy consumption levels. It’s Utopia. We, we want to build the perfect world, so we look to nuclear power.
Admittedly, current nuclear power plants are pretty bad ambassadors of the vision. But, in the middle of the 20th Century, there was all of this promise we seemed to have really forgotten about.
In the 1950s, in the 1960s, we began to see the development of a lot of new nuclear designs: waste, cost, safety, even proliferation—these were all challenges that we could overcome with technology. So the, the first and most obvious question is, what the hell happened? Why are we still living in a world that was imagined by scientists and politicians living in the 1940s?
Taylor and I talked a bit about this, as well.
Solana (to Wilson): So, why are we seeing so few innovations in nuclear? Or, why have we seen so little innovation in nuclear?
Wilson: Yeah. Look, I think it’s mostly a problem of inertia, especially in the nuclear industry, where everything is very large and very expensive. You have these problems of inertia, right? Whether it’s just the forces of the industry, or people have investment in manufacturing for light-water reactors, whether it’s forging pressure vessels or the multitude of other systems that go into light-water reactors. Or, it’s just an issue of inertia to get to a prototype.
I mean, it’s expensive. It’s not something that will happen overnight. We, as a country, have been very innovative in nuclear technology. We launched the Manhattan Project, and pretty much after the tests—the Trinity test, and then the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the scientists involved realized that, you know, this was a tremendous amount of power, and that it could be commercialized. You could commercialize fission power. That was done at Shippingport. That was done with the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. It could be brought under the good.
And the thing is, there were a tremendous amount of new designs in the next fifteen years, into the 1960s. And everybody thought that, you know, those would be the designs that kind of took hold for the next generation of nuclear power. That next generation never happened. It was very incremental improvement.
Solana: But there are signs of hope. There are reasons to be excited about the field right now, today. There are all sorts of really incredible things happening. I think the thing that is really remarkable about these exciting things on the horizon, these new innovations, is they solve all of the problems we were talking about earlier. So, let’s just get into them right now.
What are the things that people are really scared of when it comes to nuclear energy? It’s waste. It’s use in proliferation, so, war. It’s safety of the reactors themselves; you know, we want to talk about Fukushima, we want to talk about Three Mile Island. And, it’s also, cost. So let’s, let’s just hit them all.
Wilson: You know, nuclear waste has always been this issue, don’t get me wrong. And, it has some real technical merit to the challenges of disposing of nuclear waste. When you talk about having to segregate waste for time scales on the order of hundreds-of-thousands or millions of years, you know, pretty much longer than humans have been around, you have to keep an eye on the stuff. It’s a very hard problem.
Now, it’s not an impossible problem. And, typically, the problem from a technical standpoint, I think gets overstated.
You know, I don’t know if it’s a contrarian opinion in the nuclear industry or not, but, you know, nuclear waste reprocessing, at least as has been laid out, is not really an economically or an environmentally viable plan. The French have done it. The British have done it. Many people have done it.
And, at the end of the day, if you look at the economics of it, it’s cheaper to just put it in a hole in the ground than reprocess it, make the waste a little bit more compact, and then put the usable fuel back in the reactor. But what I have found, in trying to come up with a new generation of reactors, is that you can do this all inside the reactor.
And you look at companies like Transatomic, you look at companies like TerraPower, with their traveling wave reactor designs, and these are all kind of derivations on a theme. The less external reprocessing you have to do, the better it is for the environment and the better it is for issues of proliferation. When you’re separating out lots of weapons useable material external to the reactor, that can be problematic.
But if you can do all this processing inside the reactor and burn not all of the fuel, but a significantly larger quantity of the fuel in the reactor, that’s, I think, how you make nuclear viable.
Solana: Nuclear waste is such a powerful specter, kind of haunting the American imagination. I think, especially, for people who grew up in, in the ’80s and the ’90s. We were told this was really a problem that could not be solved. This hasn’t actually been true theoretically, for decades. And today we’re finally seeing some practical pushback against that dystopian fate we’ve been told for so long is unavoidable.
Taylor mentioned Transatomic Power.
Dewan: I’m Leslie Dewan. I’m the CEO of Transatomic Power, and we’re a nuclear reactor design company.
Solana: Other than waste, which I still wanted to dig into a little bit more, there were still the questions of cost, safety and proliferation to consider.
Dewan: So right now, worldwide, there’s about 290,000 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste and to put that into perspective, that would actually fit into a football field about ten feet deep.
Solana: Wait. Uh, uh, I’m sorry. So, so all of the waste in the world could fit into a football field right now?
Dewan: Yeah, nuclear waste is really dense so all of the long-lived actinides in particular, their density is about nineteen or so metric tons per cubic meter. So, 290,000 metric tons, you could basically pour all of that into a football field.
Solana: That’s insane. No one thinks that.
Dewan: It is still a problem, but it is compact. I think that there are really two parts to the nuclear waste problem. One is getting rid of the spent nuclear fuel that we already have, finding a way to consume that and, ideally, turn it into more electric power.
The other piece is to reduce the amount of nuclear waste that you’re producing in the first place. So you have both parts, reducing the stream going in and increasing the utilization of the spent fuel you already have—that’s how you can properly close the fuel cycle and solve the nuclear waste problem for good.
And one of the really interesting things is that there’s actually a lot of quite old technology out there that can be used to address that problem. So, the first piece, reducing the amount of nuclear waste you’re producing: you can move to higher burnup reactors is what they’re called. You can use more of the uranium fuel that you put into the system. There are designs like molten salt reactors, for example, liquid metal cooled reactors, some of which have already been built, some of which are currently in operation, that can achieve very very high fuel burnups and much less longer-lived waste coming out of the backend of the fuel cycle.
Similarly, a lot of proposed designs are available for burning up the existing spent nuclear fuel. You can do some of this in molten salt reactors and again you can do some of this in the liquid metal cooled reactors as well and you can extract as much as possible of the remaining energy from the spent nuclear fuel.
Solana: So what do you think happened? Why has there been this slow down? What do you think it was? Why did we go from—you said fifty and sixty years ago we were developing these new designs?
Dewan: It’s really interesting if you look at a graph of the age distribution of nuclear engineers. So you have a lot who are in their seventies, who are in their eighties, toward the end of their careers and then, some in their 60s, and then basically no one. Then you see another peak again of a newer generation of nuclear engineers who are in their twenties and in their thirties. And that gap in the middle was caused directly by Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.
So, nuclear engineers who were just starting out in their careers when those events happened. They would try as hard as they can for the most part to move to another field; they would say, alright, I’ll become a mechanical engineer. I’ll become a material scientist. I’ll become a chemical engineer. I’ll find some tangential path. And, an even greater number of potential nuclear engineers never joined the industry because, at that time, in the late 70s early to mid-80s there was the perception that there was no future in nuclear. And now there’s a new generation of nuclear engineers who are proving that wrong.
Solana: I guess what I’m wondering now is: there are still these three standing questions of cost, safety, and proliferation. Do we have solutions to any of these problems?
Dewan: The safety case is actually addressed very directly by some of this older generation of designs. I guess you can compare it to the conventional nuclear reactors that are operating today.
So the typical light-water reactors require a constant supply of electric power so they can continually pump water over their core so they can keep it from heating up catastrophically. So, if you lose electricity you lose the pumping and the water and the core starts to melt down. And that’s basically what happened at Fukushima and that’s what happened at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. One of the other problems with this type of design is that they operate at about a hundred times atmospheric pressure. So, if something goes wrong you have to contain this very large driving force that could potentially push radioactive material out beyond the site boundary.
The newer generation of designs address those problems very directly, they have very different cooling requirements. So, if you look at molten salt reactors, for example, they use a liquid fuel rather than a solid fuel and if you lose electric power the fuel can actually drain out of its operating configuration to an auxiliary tank where it freezes solid over the course of a few hours. So the system, if you lose electric power, can actually coast to a stop and freeze. So it fails in a solid form rather than a liquid or gaseous form. And also, this design operates at atmospheric pressure. So you don’t have that driving force. Everything is contained on site, even in the worst case scenario accident.
The safety case ties in very directly to the cost of the system. One of the most expensive parts of the conventional reactor are the backup safety systems: the large, concrete containment dome needs to hold in that hundred times atmospheric pressure, some of the high-pressure water injection systems, for example. All of those are extremely, extremely expensive but they’re not necessary in the next generation reactor designs. If you have an atmospheric pressure reactor you don’t need a containment dome to hold in pressure. Even components like your primary loop, your vessel, your heat exchanger, can be thinner because they don’t have to hold in as much pressure. They’re at, effectively, the same pressure as the outside air, and that can lead to immense cost savings.
Solana: All this brought us to the proliferation question, and that was always kind of a weird conversation to have. People like Taylor and Leslie have worked their entire lives to develop designs that produce vast amounts of energy with no application in weapons. But if the Dr. Strangeloves of the world are the kind of things that keep you up at night, you might be comforted by the fact that here, as well, advances in technology are making the world a safer, better place.
One of the scariest things about nuclear weapons is, where are they? Who has them? And today, by following the neutrino, we’re able to track a lot of this. I asked Taylor about some of his work in defense.
Wilson: Yeah, that’s a big part of it. So tracking nuclear material, if we interdict nuclear material with nuclear forensic techniques, we can tell what country it came from, even what facility and what reactor, and even, sometimes what part of that reactor. Basically, we’ve lived for decades under this kind of, you know, negative atom: whether it was mutually assured destruction, a thermonuclear exchange with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War, whether it was these nuclear power accidents.
You know, the atom has not always been our friend. There’s different parts to the puzzle. There are reducing nuclear stockpiles throughout the world, reducing stockpiles of fissile materials, weapons grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium. And, one way to do that is with these reactors that I’m developing and a new generation of advanced power reactors, that can use both down-blended, highly enriched uranium, and also weapons grade plutonium, and make it unusable for nuclear weapons, but also generate power from it.
You’re taking these things that, you know, put the world under a great degree of fear throughout the history of the Cold War, and you’re now producing electricity from it, in a carbon-free manner and, hopefully, protecting us from another great threat, the impacts of rising carbon emissions. I think that that’s pretty exciting, as far as eliminating these stockpiles of fissile materials.
The other issue is safeguards and nonproliferation efforts; you know, tracking nuclear material and making sure it’s not being smuggled into the hands of people that would use it nefariously. And then, lastly, it’s designing civilian nuclear energy, such that you reduce or eliminate the dual use possibilities. Now, a nuclear power reactor, a light-water reactor, doesn’t give you a nuclear weapons program.
But associated technologies, whether it’s, enrichment technologies, large gas centrifuge facilities, whether it’s reprocessing technologies, or whatever it is, certainly do have the possibility of proliferation. If you are a state, you can either become a de facto nuclear state with these technologies, or you can actually use them for weapons work. Which is what, you know, at least up till the early 2000’s, we think that Iran was pursuing; you know, a militarization program with the construction of seemingly civilian facilities for the enrichment of low-enriched uranium that could have a dual use.
You eliminate these threats completely if you develop a new generation nuclear power technology that doesn’t need, for example, enrichment, it doesn’t need reprocessing. And I think that’s a really exciting possibility. Not that one thing automatically leads to another when it comes to a civilian nuclear infrastructure and a military nuclear infrastructure.
But, if you have a technology that doesn’t need things like enrichment and technologies that could be weaponized, you’ve made the world a lot safer of a place, and you give a lot of people a lot less of a reason to pursue technologies that are potentially militarizable or weaponizable.
Solana: Which is to say, in a world of unlimited resources, how many of our foreign policy issues are just immediately solved?
Still, I had one more question to ask. When it comes to fears in nuclear, we’ve hit waste, we’ve hit safety, we’ve hit proliferation, but I read a lot of science fiction, and there are still these insane outliers.
Solana (to Wilson): Is there some potentially massively catastrophic incident that could occur? We were talking about nuclear fusion, is there some kind of way that an experiment in nuclear fusion could, I don’t know, light our planet on fire? Could it destroy the atmosphere? Are we looking at a small sun, or a black hole ripping up spacetime?
Is there a threat there at all?
Wilson: Well, I mean, you know, the nice thing about the physics that I deal with on a daily basis, at least in the energy world, when we’re talking about fusion and fission, is that it’s fairly old physics. It came around in the late 1930s and the 1940s. We pretty much have a good handle on the physics. So, if you talk about catastrophic events, you know, a fusion reactor lighting off some kind of an uncontrolled reaction or a black hole or things like this, those are well, well outside the realm of possibility.
Solana: I believe that, translated from polite genius, is, “What? No.”
The physics of fission haven’t changed since the Manhattan Project, and none of the risks we’re facing today in nuclear power are new: waste, cost, safety and proliferation. These are the same challenges we’ve been facing for almost eight decades. They’ve been addressed. And, our fears, once founded, once helpful, are now standing in the way of our potential.
At the top of the episode Taylor said, “Energy is the currency of our physical world.” Now, consider the human imagination untethered by resource constraints, because that is the essential first step to Utopia.
I’m Mike Solana, and this is Anatomy of Next.
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