03/01/2019

The Disastrous Days Of April 1986

26:08 minutes

gray and abandoned hallway with peeling paint and trash on the floors
An abandoned school in the town of Pripyat, Ukraine, near Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Credit: Shutterstock

During an electrical system test early in in the morning of April 26, 1986, Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded. The disaster at the plant was not caused solely by the test, however—a perfect storm of engineering and design missteps, operational errors, and cultural problems all aligned to bring about the catastrophe. In his new book, Midnight In Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, journalist Adam Higginbotham describes the events that led up to the meltdown, the dramatic, heroic, and perhaps futile attempts to lessen the extent of the accident, and the attempts by Soviet officials to contain the political ramifications of the explosion.

Read an excerpt from Midnight In Chernobyl.


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Segment Guests

Adam Higginbotham

Adam Higginbotham is a journalist and author of Midnight In Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster (Simon & Schuster 2019). He’s based in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is “Science Friday.” I’m Ira Flatow. Early in the morning of April 26, 1986, during an electrical system test, Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded. A helicopter flying through a toxically radioactive plume had its radiation meter register radioactivity higher than anything expected even during a nuclear war, prompting one officer on board to yell at the pilot, “You’ve killed us all.” 

Yet the effects of that explosion and the contamination it spread were felt far outside the Soviet Union, the worst nuclear disaster in history. And then the explosion at that plant was not caused just by the test. A perfect storm of engineering and design missteps, operational errors, and cultural problems all aligned to bring about disaster. I know all about this because I just read a great new book by Adam Higginbotham called Midnight in Chernobyl– the Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster just out from Simon & Schuster. Welcome to “Science Friday.” 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Thank you for having me. 

IRA FLATOW: We have a little excerpt at our website at ScienceFriday.com/midnight. I think of all the things in the book that I read, when he yelled that, that was the most dramatic thing I had– scary. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yeah. There’s a few moments in the book where people told me things like that, and in the interviews I did to get that material, I would think, oh! OK. I’ll put that in. 

IRA FLATOW: Before we get into what happened, I want to talk about how you got the information, the great detail that’s in that book. How were you able to find it? 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Well, there are a few different avenues of doing it. But primarily what I was interested in when I began reporting on it, which was back in 2006, was in meeting eyewitnesses to find out exactly those kind of telling details that you can only get by talking to people. So I would interview them and ask them how they felt at particular moments and what they could see. 

But another really, really important part of the reporting on the book was being able to go back to the places where all of this stuff had happened. Because obviously, the plant and the town that was built to accommodate the staff of the plant was all evacuated in the immediate aftermath of the accident. So that meant that when I was reconstructing what people were doing the day before or what they were doing during the evacuation, it meant that I could go back to the town and I could walk the streets and take the paths that they did and go to their apartments and see what the view was. So that was a really important way of getting those kinds of details in the book. 

IRA FLATOW: And you had no fear about leftover radiation or anything that– 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Well, I had plenty of fear. Of course I did. Do I look crazy to you? But to be honest, it’s not– 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: It’s not that dangerous. Pripyat, the town that accommodated the workers, is now a major tourist attraction. I think 60,000 people– 

IRA FLATOW: No kidding? 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yeah. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: 60,000 people went there last year. 

IRA FLATOW: 844-724-8255 is our number. OK. Let’s talk about the accident itself. You go through in graphic detail minute by minute. So much is going on. I’m not going to ask you to do that because it’d be– 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Thank you. 

IRA FLATOW: –very difficult to keep track. But basically, what’s the simple answer to what went wrong in Chernobyl? 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: The simple answer is that the reactor was badly designed. And the people that had designed the reactor knew 10 years before of many of these defects in the reactor. But they did not do anything to fix them. And they did not keep the staff that were operating the reactor fully informed of those faults or of their significance. 

And as a result of that, on the night of the accident, all of these different faults fell into a kind of deadly alignment. And they reached a point where the staff of the plant had inadvertently put the reactor into a state of colossal instability. And all that was required at that point was to take a further action which would, unfortunately, bring into effect one of the most serious faults, design faults, of the reactor, which was in the control rods, which could be used to bring about an emergency shutdown of the reactor in which you want to reduce reactivity to zero so that the reactor is turned off. But there was a fault in the rods that meant that for a split second, under certain circumstances, instead of decreasing reactivity within the reactor core, they would increase it. And that was the precipitating action that caused the explosion. 

IRA FLATOW: And nuclear reactions happen so quickly that even that fraction of a second– 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Exactly. 

IRA FLATOW: –was critical. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Exactly. So I think looking at the records that we now have of what happened, the final effects within the reactor took place so quickly that the instruments that were supposed to be recording what was going on inside the reactor couldn’t record what happened, it happened so swiftly. 

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And the culture was also part of the problem. You had officials, as you say, who might not know the actual workings of the reactor with the final say in how to operate it or not– and there were people, as you say, who knew there were problems, were not listened to. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yeah. 

IRA FLATOW: Right? 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: They were colossally overconfident because they had been assured that such an accident in which a reactor could explode, this reactor in particular, could explode, was impossible; it would never happen. It was much like the “Titanic,” which was unsinkable. This was a reactor that could never explode. 

IRA FLATOW: But you also had the Communist Party in charge having to put the front up of saying, this can’t happen to us, right? This is the Soviet system and we’re better than Three Mile Island. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Exactly. 

IRA FLATOW: That had happened earlier. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Exactly. So the official explanation within the nuclear industry was that Three Mile Island had happened because American nuclear technicians at the plant were so poorly trained. They were ex-Navy people then they just didn’t really know what they were doing. And that kind of accident could never happen in the Soviet Union because Soviet nuclear engineers were far better trained. 

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So in the moments leading up to the accident, you had people who didn’t entirely understand the massive work of engineering guiding delicate procedures and reacting in the wrong way once things started to go wrong, right? They– 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Well, it wasn’t so much they didn’t understand nuclear engineering. It was just that they had been led to believe that the device that they were using was far less sensitive than it actually turned out to be. They thought that their experience had taught them that bending the rules and pushing the reactor around– it was like a Labrador that you could just poke and do anything you wanted with. They knew nuclear technology was dangerous, but they’d become accustomed to the idea that this reactor was just something that was endlessly flexible. 

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And they took their time about alerting the people who lived around the neighborhood that there was something really going wrong here. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: They did. They did. The officials who came down from Moscow who were put in charge of trying to contain what had happened waited almost 36 hours before evacuating that local population from the town. And by the time they left, that was at least 27 and 1/2 thousand people who’d been exposed to fallout coming out of the reactor for that time. 

IRA FLATOW: To give our listeners a flavor of the book, I’m going to ask you to read a bit from page 94 of the book for us. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Sure. 

IRA FLATOW: It’s a picture of the chaos right after the explosion. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: “The two men turned into the corridor and reeled outside into the night. Standing no more than 50 meters away from the reactor, Yuri Tregub and Aleksandr Yuvchenko were among the first to comprehend what had happened to Unit 4. It was a terrifying, apocalyptic sight. 

The roof of the reactor hall was gone and the right-hand wall had been almost completely demolished by the force of the explosion. Half of the cooling circuit had simply disappeared. On the left, the water tanks that had once fed the main circulation pumps dangled in mid-air. Yuvchenko knew at that moment that his friend Valeriy Khodemchuk, was certainly dead. The spot where he’d been standing lay beneath a steaming pile of rubble lit by flashes from the severed of 6,000-volt cables as thick as a man’s arm swaying and shorting on everything they touched, showering the wreckage with sparks.” 

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Wow. The picture of what that site must have been like right there in that early morning is unimaginable. Can you compare it to anything else that– a war– was like a war scene, a bombing, a– 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Even having spoken to the people that saw it, I find it unimaginable. because Alexander Yuvchenko, who I mention in this passage, described this scene to me. And I find it unbelievable that I was sitting opposite him after he had witnessed this, describing it to me. So no, a lot of these scenes are described in detail in the book, but I, like you, find it hard to imagine what it was like to witness it. 

IRA FLATOW: And the plant operators really did not know immediately after the initial explosion how bad it was. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: There was a lot of disbelief. Viktor Bryukhanov, the plant director, is still held responsible for not adequately warning people, warning the plant staff as well as the population of the city, of what had happened. But I really think, having spoken to him and spoken to the people who were around him at the time, that his mind simply couldn’t comprehend what he was looking at. And that’s the case with several people who were there at the time, nuclear experts who were looking down from helicopters onto the open face of the reactor thinking to themselves, well, this just can’t be. 

IRA FLATOW: Right. Right. And so there was really no atomic bomb explosion. There was no– 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Right. 

IRA FLATOW: But would you describe it more like a dirty bomb happened? 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: It was much more like a dirty bomb because what happened was– we think, because nobody knows exactly what happened, but– 

IRA FLATOW: To this day. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: No. But the most realistic and accurate reconstructions that we know of suggest that it was a massive steam explosion within the reactor followed by a hydrogen gas explosion. And it was those two explosions that tore the reactor and then the entire building apart. 

IRA FLATOW: You tell some amazing and horrible stories about the workers being ordered to go up onto the lid of the reactor to try to hammer in some stuff. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Three guys were sent from the control room to try and force the control rods back into the reactor to try and stop the chain reaction. But of course by this time, the reactor no longer existed. 

IRA FLATOW: They found that when they got there, there was no roof on the reactor– on the core. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Right. Well, there’s no– 

IRA FLATOW: The core was totally exposed, right? 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Exactly. 

IRA FLATOW: And they would look down and see a glowing blob at the bottom? 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Again, I find it impossible to imagine what they saw. And those three men– without wishing to introduce any spoilers into the conversation, those three men did not survive long afterwards. 

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones, see if we can get some reactions from our listeners. Let’s go to Gary in Sacramento. Hi, Gary. 

GARY: Hi. Good morning. I’m getting goose bumps from recollecting– 

IRA FLATOW: Whoa, Gary, you’re there? Oh, we– 

GARY: –you hear me? 

IRA FLATOW: Yes, go ahead. 

GARY: Can you hear me? 

IRA FLATOW: You dropped out for a second. 

GARY: OK. Back then, I was at a tech sergeant in an Air Force laboratory that was responsible for analyzing airborne or microscopic airborne particulate. And we got real busy during in the month of Chernobyl. 

IRA FLATOW: Where was that? 

GARY: I’m sorry? 

IRA FLATOW: Where were you stationed? 

GARY: Well, your screener asked me if I was in Russia. And I said no, but pretty close. I was in Sacramento, California. That’s where the lab is. 

And it’s part of the Air Force Technical Applications Center if anybody wants to verify who was doing what. But we were supposed to get the particulate out of the airborne samples and get it analyzed and figure out how much of what was going where. And like I said, it got real busy that month. 

IRA FLATOW: I’ll bet it did. Thank you for taking time to talk with us. Thanks for that. Call our number, 844-724-8255. 

We’re talking with Adam Higginbotham, author of the book Midnight in Chernobyl– the Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster. I’m Ira Flatow. This is “Science Friday” from WNYC Studios. 

The book is so richly full of details and sequence. You’ve put a page-turner together. How difficult was that, to be able to reconstruct the story of everything that happened in sequence? 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: That’s a very good question. It was pretty tricky because there were quite a few– when I started reporting on it more than 12 years ago, there were a few English-language accounts of what had happened, but they were either largely technical or there were big holes in the story. And as I began talking to people, I discovered that there were a lot of things that were wrong in those accounts. So really, what it was was a matter of finding both individuals who could tell me what really happened at specific instances in the story and finding documentation that could help either back that up or fill other holes in the story. 

IRA FLATOW: Were people in Russia helpful? Did they put any roadblocks up for you or they– 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: No. 

IRA FLATOW: Did somebody say, hey, let me open up this little drawer, I’ve got some files you might be interested in– 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Well, I had a lot of help from people in Ukraine. And specifically, I had a lot of help from the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev. And the deputy director for science of the museum provided me with a huge amount of not only documents, but also handwritten memoirs, photographs, pieces of documentation like telegrams and stuff like that. 

And at one point, she did say to me, after I’d– I’d spent several weeks basically convincing her that all I wanted to do was possible. Because initially when I told her about it, she just said, well, nobody could do this. It’s simply impossible to tell an objective and complete account of everything that happened. 

And then at the end of one meeting, she said– she’d apparently come round to this idea. And she literally reached into a drawer and she said, well, if you’re serious about this, before you leave, I’ve got something here that you might think is useful. And it was a three-inch manila binder which was the original Interior Ministry working record of the accident from the police station in Pripyat that they’d kept from the morning of April the 26th to May the 6th. And it was all handwritten notes and typed reports and footnotes written by KGB officers. 

And it, like a lot of the other documents that had been kept at the time, had been intended to be destroyed both to limit the spread of contamination and, I think, the spread of information about what had happened. But the officer who was charged with disposing of it thought to himself, well, this actually might be of historical importance, so I’m just going to take it home, hang onto it, and see what– and he kept it in his garage for several years and then after the fall of the Soviet Union and the revolutions in Ukraine, brought it to the museum and gave it to Anna at the museum and said, here, this might be important. 

IRA FLATOW: So you were probably the first one to see it following– 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Well, certainly one of the first people, because she’d kept it in her desk drawer. 

IRA FLATOW: So she understood how important that was and– 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yeah. 

IRA FLATOW: –in her desk drawer, not somewhere down the hall. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: No. 

IRA FLATOW: She knew that this is stuff you have to protect. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: I was only allowed to photograph it in her office. It never left the room. 

IRA FLATOW: Does anybody else know until now that she handed this over to you? 

[LAUGHTER] 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: That, I don’t know. 

IRA FLATOW: All right. We’re going to take a quick break and talk lots more about the book. It’s a great book. It’s called Midnight in Chernobyl– the Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster. Adam Higginbotham– is a Higginbottom or Higginbotham? 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Higginbotham. 

IRA FLATOW: That’s what I thought– is here with me. Our number, 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us, @scifri. Lots of tweets coming in. We’ll go to the phones when we get back after the break. Stay with us. 

This is “Science Friday.” I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking with journalist Adam Higginbotham about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. He is author of Midnight in Chernobyl– the Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster just out from Simon & Schuster. And you can read an excerpt from the book on our website at ScienceFriday.com/midnight. 

Having, in my career, covered Three Mile Island, I was very interested in– I spent two weeks in Middletown there. And one word that kept popping up all the time was The China Syndrome because the movie had just come out, Jane Fonda, very much like– 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: It’s a good movie. 

IRA FLATOW: –life imitating art. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yeah. 

IRA FLATOW: You talk about that in the book. Was there fear that the core would just melt down and go right through to the groundwater like they were afraid of at Three Mile Island? 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: They were absolutely terrified that that was going to happen. 

IRA FLATOW: How close did it get to that? 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Well, part of the problem was that– although it would be reassuring to imagine from our standpoint now that this was something that could only happen in the Soviet Union and that if such a thing had happened here, we would all have been very well-prepared for it, the truth is that nobody on earth had ever prepared to deal with a nuclear catastrophe on this scale. And nobody knew what was going on and nobody had any decent projections, within the Soviet Union, of what might be happening if this nuclear fuel started to melt down. And they had great suspicion that it was, because they were taking air samples from which they could measure the isotopes that were being released from the fire and the melting fuel. 

And yes, they were very concerned that this molten corium, as it came to be known subsequently, this mass of molten uranium fuel and bits of the reactor itself and bits of concrete, had got so hot that it would burn through the base of the reactor itself and then burn through all of the basement rooms directly below it and then into the earth beneath and burn through into the water table. And the plant was built by the river Pripyat, which was a tributary of the Dnieper, which led directly to the Black Sea. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: And so they were concerned that this was– first of all, they were concerned that it was going to contaminate the water supply for 2/3 of Ukraine. But then also, that they were concerned that if it reached these water tanks, which were sealed water tanks in concrete boxes directly beneath the reactor, it could cause another huge steam explosion which would release yet more radioactivity into the atmosphere. 

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 844-724-8255. Let’s go to Ryan in Pittsburgh. Hi, Ryan. 

RYAN: Hi. Hi. How you doing? 

IRA FLATOW: Fine. Go ahead. 

RYAN: Hey, I just wanted to talk about the sarcophagus. I’m not sure how much you go into it in the book, Adam, but just the scale of the engineering of the sarcophagus that is surrounding the reactor right now– it’s the largest structure ever moved by man. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yeah. 

RYAN: It cost a billion and a half dollars. And it required a multinational effort and will last 100 years. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: In theory. 

RYAN: But the documentary that I watched on the subject said– there was a gentleman who kept driving home the point that we are going to have to contain this for longer than mankind has existed. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Right. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah, the knot– the deal that you make with nuclear energy. Because if something goes wrong, you have to live with it. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yeah. 

IRA FLATOW: Right? 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Which is exactly what’s happening with Three Mile Island. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Let’s go to the phones to Mike in Pensacola, Florida. Hi, Mike. 

MIKE: Hi, Ira. Great show. I just want to pass on to your listeners what it was like to be in Moscow at the time. I was in the embassy at the time. And we received calls from the Western press about midday on Monday the 28th. I understand that the Swedish ambassador was meeting with the Soviet foreign minister, Gromyko, around 3 o’clock on Monday. 

And then it wasn’t until 9 o’clock at night on the major news program, [RUSSIAN], that about the fifth story came on announcement saying there was an accident at Chernobyl. There are victims. And the word in Russian is [RUSSIAN], not clear of deaths or injuries. And then the last statement was, “measures are being taken.” And that was the end of the broadcast on that point and then they moved onto some agricultural success. 

And then in the aftermath of that, whenever we would try to engage the Soviet interlocutors, they would push back and not usually answer much. And they’d say, but you had Three Mile Island. So that was the context for how it was broadcast to the Soviet people at the time. And the story did not appear on Tuesday the 29th in Pravda either. So if you didn’t see it at 9:00, you were in the dark for the rest of the day. 

Lastly, I’ll just mentioned that Gorbachev sent his wife Raisa to Kiev in the days immediately afterwards to show the flag a bit. And of course, she had an early death from cancer– who knows what caused it– several years later. But anyway, great story. It was quite momentous. 

IRA FLATOW: You were a diplomat? 

MIKE: Thanks for taking my call. 

IRA FLATOW: You were a diplomat in Moscow? 

MIKE: Yeah. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah? OK. Thanks for that. 

MIKE: Yeah. 

IRA FLATOW: He’s taking notes for his follow-up. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yeah. 

[LAUGHTER] 

IRA FLATOW: In fact, that’s one part of the book, is how people started detecting it in other countries– 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Right. 

IRA FLATOW: –as the cloud started spreading. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yeah. Because the Soviet Union had experienced numerous nuclear accidents before this. And they’d all been successfully covered up. But what happened with this one is they tried to do the same thing, but the radiation that was released by the accident was of such a scale that it was detected at a nuclear power station in Sweden more than 700 miles away on Monday morning. And that’s how we in the West found out what has happened, not because the Soviets announced it. 

IRA FLATOW: It’s interesting to learn also that this design reactor is still operating, this kind of reactor, still operating. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Yeah. With significant modifications, we should say. But I think there are still 11 operating in Russia now, yeah. 

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And the official death toll from the accident is something like 30 people? It’s not– they waffle on that a little bit? 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: No, that remains the official death toll of the accident, 31 people. But they were the people who died of acute radiation syndrome and similar complaints within five months after the explosion. And really, then, a further few dozen people have subsequently been confirmed dead as a result of what happened. But beyond that, deaths of radiation exposure within the wider population– 5 million people lived in the area that was worst affected by the fallout. Those figures are largely projections and estimates at this point. 

IRA FLATOW: It’s like the figures here in New York for the Twin Towers on 9/11. We have an official number, but we have all these first responders who keep dying– 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Exactly. Exactly. 

IRA FLATOW: –from the effects of having been there. In the few minutes I have left, what shocked you the most or what did you find the most interesting, surprising, when you started doing your research, or did people started coming to you and saying, hey, I’ve got a story to tell, I’ll let you know? 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: What I learned is you have to be careful of those people. 

IRA FLATOW: Is that right? 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Because the people who say, I’ve got a story to tell are the people who’ve got some kind of often quite odd agenda. So there were a few of those. But I’d have to say that the most surprising thing was one of the first things I found out when I began reporting on the subject for the magazine story that I began work on in 2006 and was one of the initial points that made me think that I should write a book about it, which is where I was interviewing a physicist who’d been on the scene immediately after the explosion, in Kiev. I interviewed him in Kiev in 2006. 

And I asked him the same question I’d asked a lot of eyewitnesses during that reporting trip, which was, what was, for you, the most frightening moment? And in most cases, I expected I knew the answer, which was, well, there was this tremendous explosion. The walls of the building shook. I thought the Americans had attacked us at last. I thought the world was coming to an end. 

But he didn’t say that. He said, well, I think the most frightening moment for me was around May the 5th when we really feared that there was going to be a second catastrophic explosion so large that we were all going to die instantly. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: And at that point, I’d never read about this in any English-language sources. And I was talking to him through a translator. And I just had to say, I’m sorry, what did he say? 

IRA FLATOW: What was that thing? Wow. Adam, it’s a great book. 

ADAM HIGGINBOTHAM: Thank you. 

IRA FLATOW: Great book. Adam Higginbotham, whose new book Midnight in Chernobyl– the Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster and you can read an excerpt from the book on our website at ScienceFriday.com/midnight.

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