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NPR Story on the Future of Nuclear Power 353

Posted by Hemos
from the whither-goes-the-world dept.
deeptrace writes "The Living on Earth show on NPR recently had a segment on the future of Nuclear Energy. The nearly hour long show is available as an mp3 and in transcript form. It talks about hot fusion, cold fusion, and Pebble Bed Reactors. It provides a well balanced and informative overview of progress towards their use for future nuclear power generation. Most interestingly, they talk with Dr. Pamela Boss and Dr. Stanislaw Szpak at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego. Dr. Szpak says of their cold fusion experiments: 'We have 100 percent reproducible results'."
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NPR Story on the Future of Nuclear Power

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  • 100%? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Iphtashu Fitz (263795) on Monday March 06, 2006 @09:35AM (#14857224)
    We have 100 percent reproducible

    100% success or 100% failure?
    • Re:100%? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by larkost (79011) on Monday March 06, 2006 @10:54AM (#14857672)
      I would guess that this means 100% success. The much more important question is if they are getting anywhere near brea-even energy production (if you get as much energy out as you expend getting it). My guess is that they are still orders-of-magnitudes away from that.

      In other words: they are getting fusion, but their means of getting it is (currently) worthless for energy production.
      • by Zdzicho00 (912806) on Monday March 06, 2006 @12:19PM (#14858498)

        The amount of excess heat is usually about a few Watts per square centimeter of palladium electrode.
        During some experiments this excess heat is believed to achieve much higher value:

        One event described here which is not described in the technical literature is an extraordinary 10-day long heat-after-death incident that occurred in 1991. News of this appeared in the popular press, but a formal description was never published in a scientific paper.

        Mizuno says this is because he does not have carefully established calorimetric data to prove the event occurred, but I think he does not need it. The cell went out of control. Mizuno cooled it over 10 days by placing it in a large bucket of water. During this period, more than 37 liters of water evaporated from the bucket, which means the cell produced more than 84 megajoules of energy during this period alone, and 114 megajoules during the entire experiment. The only active material in the cell was 100 grams of palladium. It produced 27 times more energy than an equivalent mass of the best chemical fuel, gasoline, can produce. I think the 36 liters of evaporated water constitute better scientific evidence than the most carefully calibrated high precision instrument could produce. This is first-principle proof of heat.

        A bucket left by itself for 10 days in a university laboratory will not lose any measurable level of water to evaporation. First principle experiments are not fashionable. Many scientists nowadays will not look at a simple experiment in which 36 liters of water evaporate, but high tech instruments and computers are not used. They will dismiss this as "anecdotal evidence."

        It is a terrible shame that Mizuno did not call in a dozen other scientists to see and feel the hot cell. I would have set up a 24-hour vigil with graduate students and video cameras to observe the cell and measure the evaporated water carefully. This is one of history's heartbreaking lost opportunities. News of this event, properly documented and attested to by many people, might have convinced thousands of scientists worldwide that cold fusion is real. This might have been one of the most effective scientific demonstrations in history. Unfortunately, it occurred during an extended national holiday, and Mizuno decided to disconnect the cell from the recording equipment and hide it in his laboratory. He placed it behind a steel sheet because he was afraid it might explode. He told me he was not anxious to have the cell certified by many other people because he thought that he would soon replicate the effect in another experiment. Alas, in the seven years since, neither he nor any other scientist has ever seen such dramatic, inarguable proof of massive excess energy.

        Here is a chronology of the heat-after-death event:

        • March 1991. A new experiment with the closed cell begins.
        • April 1991. Cell shows small but significant excess heat.
        • April 22, 1991. Electrolysis stopped.
        • April 25. Mizuno and Akimoto note that temperature is elevated. It has produced 1.2 H 107 joules since April 22, in heat-after-death.
        • April 26. Cell temperature has not declined. Cell transferred to a 15-liter bucket, where it is partially submerged in water.
        • April 27. Most of the water in the bucket, ~10 liters, has evaporated. The cell is transferred to a larger, 20 liter bucket. It is fully submerged in 15 liters of water.
        • April 30. Most of the water has evaporated; ~10 liters. More water is added to the bucket, bringing the total to 15 liters again.
        • May 1. 5 liters of water are added to the bucket.
        • May 2. 5 more liters are added to the bucket.
        • May 7. The cell is finally cool. 7.5 liters of water remain in the bucket.

        Total evaporation equals:

        • April 27, 10 liters evaporated. Water level set at 15 liters in a new bucket.
        • April 30, 10 liters evaporated. Water replenished to 15 liters.
        • May 1, 5 liters replenished.
        • May 2, 5 liters replenished.
        • by An dochasac (591582) on Monday March 06, 2006 @08:31PM (#14863165)
          A bucket left by itself for 10 days in a university laboratory will not lose any measurable level of water to evaporation. First principle experiments are not fashionable. Many scientists nowadays will not look at a simple experiment in which 36 liters of water evaporate, but high tech instruments and computers are not used. They will dismiss this as "anecdotal evidence."

          Weren't Pons and Fleishman from Utah? Humidity there is typically under 4%. I once watched .5 liter of Kool Aid evaporate off the hood of a car before it had a chance to pour onto the ground. I don't need expensive computer equipment to "prove" anything to me, just a basic calorimiter and the kind of careful measurements a C- high school chemistry student is expected to make.
        • by Unknown Poltroon (31628) * <unknown_poltroon1sp@myahoo.com> on Monday March 06, 2006 @08:44PM (#14863215)
          Did he add in the "students dumping the bucket for chuckles effect?"
    • 100% BS - maybe? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by argoff (142580) on Monday March 06, 2006 @12:36PM (#14858668)
      Everytime I hear about cold fusion, my BS alarm just rings like wild. If they're getting such real results, then why not hook up an array of these to a small generator that feeds back into itself and give themselves some free energy. Any competent physicist/chemist would know how to convert heat to electricity with an acceptable loss rate - especially at the 4x output that's being claimed in some cases.

      If I had a portable fusion generator, the first thing I would do is hook one up to my house and disconnect myself from the electric company so I wouldn't need to pay electric or heating bills anymore. The next thing I would so is start selling "long life" battery systems, or "super duper efficient" heating systems to fund my research. Considering that this is the last thing they are doing, even after having 8 years to study it - my BS alarm is ringing like wild. They wouldn't happen to be seeking big government funding would they? Hmmmm.
  • by Jesrad (716567) on Monday March 06, 2006 @09:43AM (#14857267) Journal
    Considering all the various physical constraints and obstacles to sustained fusion reactions (like: current density must be over 2.6 A / squared cm, surface status must be as crack-free as possible, hydrogen-metal ratio inside electrode must be over 0.84, there must be some but not too much "light" water in the heavy water, etc...) I prefer calling it "Difficult Fusion" :D
  • Crystal or Sonic? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Zediker (885207) on Monday March 06, 2006 @09:45AM (#14857276)
    Were these the guys who did the Crystal or Sonic based fusion? As I recal, while they are repeatable, neither of them were particularly usefull for creating large scale fusion reactions.
  • Great! (Score:5, Funny)

    by ArcherB (796902) on Monday March 06, 2006 @09:51AM (#14857303) Journal
    Now that NPR is on board, when can we start to build new reactors?

    • Re:Great! (Score:3, Insightful)

      by MrFlibbs (945469)
      It will truly be an amazing day when NPR advocates nuclear energy. However, this article doesn't exactly constitute a ringing endorsement. The three articles essentially say this:

      1) "Hot" fusion works, but a practical solution is always 20 years away. (However, they then go on to say that the current target date for a workable solution is 2050 -- 44 years from now.)

      2) "Cold" fusion is not quite dead yet. A small group of researchers claims fusion is taking place with a mechanism requiring "new physics",
      • Re:Great! (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 06, 2006 @10:43AM (#14857602)

        NPR is still a long way from advocating nuclear power.

        Seems to me, this is NPR doing its job of presenting an issue in a balanced manner. No, they're not advocating anything here. They're just informing.

        • Re:Great! (Score:5, Insightful)

          by earnest murderer (888716) on Monday March 06, 2006 @11:27AM (#14857967)
          Seems to me, this is NPR doing its job of presenting an issue in a balanced manner. No, they're not advocating anything here. They're just informing.

          That's the trouble with balanced journalism, a great many people find listening to an opposing point of view unbearable.
        • Re:Great! (Score:3, Insightful)

          by fm6 (162816)
          When it comes to hot-button issues like nuclear power, most people equate "balanced" with "agrees with me". That's how Fox gets away with claiming that they're "fair and balanced".
      • by gammoth (172021) on Monday March 06, 2006 @11:20AM (#14857888)

        NPR is a media organization. Their focus is on public discussion, information dissemination, and issue analysis. As such, NPR is much more useful, and threatening to the status quo, than they would be if they were a politicized organization such as MoveOn.org or the American Heritage Foundation. (And yes, I did mean the American Heritage Foundation.)

      • Re:Great! (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Phanatic1a (413374) on Monday March 06, 2006 @11:23AM (#14857915)
        1) "Hot" fusion works, but a practical solution is always 20 years away. (However, they then go on to say that the current target date for a workable solution is 2050 -- 44 years from now.)

        Which is where it's been since we started thinking about it: 40-50 years from now. Fusion, real controlled commercially viable fusion power, as opposed to just an interesting source of neutrons, is fantasically difficult. Hell, forget the difficulty of actually sustaining the reaction; we don't even have a good idea of what materials to build the reactor out of; over the life of the reactor vessel, every single atom in it will be struck and displaced by neutrons up to 500 times, and that does very bad things to all known materials; austinitic steels start to swell and degrade after only 30 dpa, and the best candidates we know of can only handle 150 dpa. And ITER doesn't even come close to generating the number of neutrons necessary to test these things in a reasonable time frame; there's another facility due to be built to explore this single issue, but there's not even a completed design yet, let alone an ECD.

        So we don't even know what to *build* a real fusion reactor, as opposed to a test vessel, out of, and we haven't even spoke of how difficult the actual fusion process is to get useful energy out of. Brehmstrallung losses mean that, really, D-T fusion is the only real candidate, so all those fancy aneutronic schemes that enable you to extract energy directly from charged particles, and all the non-equilibrium schemes, will result in a net energy loss.

        Fusion isn't just hard, it's *really really really* hard. By comparison, the Manhattan Project was just a trivial engineering problem. There are aspects of fusion power, like that materials issue I mentioned, for which a solution just might not exist.

        but the economics are vastly overstated and there's no disposal solution.


        There are plenty of disposal solutions. The amount of nuclear waste generated per unit of electricity is absolutely piddling. You could take the stuff and dump it into a subduction zone, or even just into some random abyssal trench, and you'd end up doing far less environmental damage than we're doing right now with fossil fuels, for which the "disposal solution" is "vent the waste directly into the atmosphere." Just because a cost is widely distributed, doesn't make it any less of a cost. Just because you kill people all over the planet, instead of just around the power plants, doesn't mean they're any less dead.
        • Re:Great! (Score:4, Funny)

          by vmcto (833771) * on Monday March 06, 2006 @12:11PM (#14858409) Homepage Journal
          Duh.

          Just use unobtainium like they did in the movie "The Core"... It actually gets STRONGER with heat and pressure.

          If more scientists went to the movies I think we would be much farther along.
        • by PIPBoy3000 (619296) on Monday March 06, 2006 @12:15PM (#14858460)
          It turns out that dropping things into the subduction zones doesn't work out very well [newscientist.com]. The problems are mainly due to instability, as it doesn't simply suck what's there into the earth's core, but rather spews it around as well. There's some better solutions that involve burying it in the deep clays in more geologically stable areas.

          Of course, many countries have banned dumping radioactive waste into the sea under the London Convention [londonconvention.org]. The United States signed it in 1998, but it hasn't been ratified yet.
        • Re:Great! (Score:3, Interesting)

          by MSZUNI (959313)
          About the materials, you are correct that we still do not have a steel that can withstand years of neutron bombardment, however we do have methods to study the materials in relatively short times. You can simulate neutron damage pretty well in stainless steels with a proton accelerator. We cannot learn all of the problems associated with neutron damage with protons, however it is a great first step toward narrowing down the materials. Only the best proton resistant materials will we spend money on testin
    • Nuclear Public Reactors?
  • by Stele (9443) on Monday March 06, 2006 @09:52AM (#14857310) Homepage
    You can never put TOO much water in the reactor.
  • by joshsnow (551754) on Monday March 06, 2006 @09:57AM (#14857330) Journal
    ...seem like an interesting concept.

    I was especially interested to read the following (apart from the funny connotations of the scientists name!)

    Sue Ion is the technology director for British Nuclear Fuels. She thinks nuclear energy is becoming more attractive because of the growing concern over greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. Ms. Ion also says pebble beds have an added benefit that can move them beyond the electricity business. The reactors will operate at extremely high temperatures -- not hot enough to melt the fuel, but hot enough to efficiently desalinate ocean water for drinking. And actually so hot they could crack open molecules of water. That would make it possible to manufacture hydrogen.

    It would seem that this could kill several birds with one stone - "cleaner" electricity production, a source of hydrogen for motor vehicles and the possibility to make sea water domestically usable. Those seem like massive upsides, what are the downsides?
    • by Stormcrow309 (590240) on Monday March 06, 2006 @10:09AM (#14857393) Homepage Journal

      Depends on how good operational control and maintainance is. Make the operations manager criminally liable for any negligent activities. Considering that I live near a nuclear power plant and a nuclear bomb plant, I am pretty froggy on the concept. The big part would be making sure that the plants are run effectively, efficently (not the same thing as effective, btw), and safely.

      Three Mile Island [TMI] happened due to poor operations control layout and bad UI. There was poor disaster planning and insuffecent communications ability in and out of the plant. Better planning and an effective use study could of taking care of that. I do use studies on how people read reports on supply usuage in their departments. They can do that with how people operate a nuclear reactor. In addition, mandated training on disaster scenarios in a functional trainer mock-up mandated every year would also be advisable.

      On the Chernobal accident, it came down to a bureaucracy forging ahead because an incompedent manager made a decision to go ahead with a test because he didn't want to tell his bosses he couldn't due to worry excessively over what could happened. He should of worried more.

    • Of course it is hot, of course it can vaporize water : this is how it works ! Desalinize sea water with it if you wish, but this is a waste of heat that could be used to produce electricity. You can make hydrogen too, but I doubt that it will be more efficient than making electrolyse...
      • Re:Errrr... (Score:5, Informative)

        by meringuoid (568297) on Monday March 06, 2006 @10:27AM (#14857509)
        Desalinize sea water with it if you wish, but this is a waste of heat that could be used to produce electricity.

        In a nuclear reactor, heat is cheap.

        What you're doing with these things is using the heat from the nuclear reaction to boil water, then using the steam to spin turbines and thus turn dynamos to generate electricity. It's a giant steam engine.

        Now, if you want to desalinate salt water, one way to do it is to boil the stuff. The salt is left behind, and once the steam condenses you have fresh water. So. Use your nuclear furnace to boil off some salt water from the sea. Direct the hot steam through your turbines. Generate electricity. Then condense the steam in your cooling towers and output fresh water.

        There'll be some tricky engineering to be done to make sure you don't get salt deposits clogging up your plumbing, but in principle the idea is pretty sound.

        • Re:Errrr... (Score:3, Informative)

          by Silverstrike (170889)
          Not to nitpick, but if we're still talking about Pebble Bed Reactors:

          Instead of water, it uses pyrolytic graphite as the neutron moderator, and an inert or semi-inert gas such as helium, nitrogen or carbon dioxide as the coolant, at very high temperature, to drive a turbine directly.

          From this Wikipedia Article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pebble_bed_reactor/ [wikipedia.org]
          • You could never cycle drinking water through the reactor as the primary coolant anyways, it becomes radioactive. iirc, helium, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide do not (or the nuclear products have sufficiently short half lives that it's not a problem), which also has the benefit of massively reducing the impact of a coolant leak (some people may talk funny until the helium dissipates vs. tens of thousands long term deaths from cancer).

            You could still heat exchange from an inert gas to water, however, and m
        • Re:Errrr... (Score:4, Informative)

          by Kadin2048 (468275) <slashdot DOT kadin AT xoxy DOT net> on Monday March 06, 2006 @11:15AM (#14857847) Homepage Journal
          You would never actually run the seawater through the reactor core itself; not only would you have the problem of salt deposits that would clog the thing up rather quickly (you can do the calculation yourself -- figure out the grams of dissolved solids per liter of seawater and figure out how many thousand liters you'd run through before you filled whatever the empty volume of the reactor chamber would be), but also you'd have the issue of making the core area, which is assumedly radioactive, not a sealed unit.

          What's generally done in nuclear reactors is that the core cooling is done through a sealed loop; the material which flows through the core never actually goes near the steam turbines. It goes out of the core, into a heat exchanger, and then back into the core. That's it. Barring some sort of disaster, it never leaves this closed loop.

          This gives you a lot of additional flexibility in terms of what kind of coolant you want to use, too. It doesn't have to be water -- it can be liquid metal (IIRC the French use or used liquid NaK in their breeder reactors) or even some sort of pressurized gas or something more exotic.

          Having an open-loop core cooling system just doesn't strike me as a particularly good idea; I do like the concept of using the waste heat from power generation for some actual purpose though, be it desalination or H2 production or whatever, but I think there are lots of ways to do this without opening up the core to the environment.
    • Use a nuclear reactor to make drinking water - what could possibly go wrong?
      • by The Snowman (116231) * on Monday March 06, 2006 @10:38AM (#14857580) Homepage

        Use a nuclear reactor to make drinking water - what could possibly go wrong?

        Given that the pressurized water heated by the reaction is kept in separate pipes from the water that turns to steam, not much. Any leaks or other issues would cause big enough problems that the last thing you'd worry about is clean drinking water.

      • by 'nother poster (700681) on Monday March 06, 2006 @10:40AM (#14857592)
        Well, it happens every day. Big ass fusion reractor a couple of million miles that direction (points at sun)evaporates sea water. Water vapor rises and is spread around the world until conditions cause it to condense and precipitate out of the atmosphere. We throw a little bit of sodium hypochlorate, or other sanitizing agent in it, at least around where I live, and drink it. Yum.
    • by hey! (33014) on Monday March 06, 2006 @10:58AM (#14857699) Homepage Journal
      What was wrong with Ms. (Dr.?) Ion's parents, naming her Sue of all things.

      If my name was Ion, I'd surely name my daughters Anne and Katya (Kat for short).
  • Small Scale (Score:5, Interesting)

    by hhawk (26580) on Monday March 06, 2006 @10:12AM (#14857410) Homepage Journal
    The 1st NPlant in the US came in ahead of time and ahead of budget. Protests have kept every other plant from being on time and on budget. It also made every plant larger and larger; as they tried to make the economics work.

    Each plant being so big and so custom made to the area, also makes them hard to inspect; each one is different to some degree.

    The French have been building small scale N-Plants w/ passive cooling; meaning if something goes wrong it shuts itself down without any need (or room for) equipment failure. (an example being using the pressure from the reaction to hold back water. If there is less pressure or more pressure the water enters an shuts down the plant.

    It seems to be passive cooling and uniform construction is key to safety. Building them smaller means there are more of them and they are closer to "you." So not sure how I feel about size. Also there is security risks, more plants to watch equate to more risk.

    • Re:Small Scale (Score:3, Interesting)

      by QuantumPion (805098)
      The French have been building small scale N-Plants w/ passive cooling; meaning if something goes wrong it shuts itself down without any need (or room for) equipment failure. (an example being using the pressure from the reaction to hold back water. If there is less pressure or more pressure the water enters an shuts down the plant.

      All light water reactors have this system. It is called Safety Injection.

      Furthermore, most French reactors are basically identical to most US reactors, they are the same Westin

  • by ErichTheRed (39327) on Monday March 06, 2006 @10:17AM (#14857449)
    Fission reactors will always produce harmful waste, but we have been able to deal with that in the past quite effectively. The problem that will kill nuclear energy is people. Private citizens are freaked out about both meltdowns and terrorism, so they'll lobby to have new plants built in someone else's backyard. The other people problem is the people running the plants. If you hire an $8/hour rent-a-cop to guard your facility, you're asking for trouble. Also, both the Three Mile Island incident and Chernobyl were caused by inattention and lack of maintenance. I guarantee that turning over contol of nuclear facilities to the private sector will immediately trigger the hiring of low-wage bare minimum staffs to save money. Eventually, someone will screw up, trigger another disaster, and that'll be the end of nuclear power in the US forever once people start demanding a stop to it.

    I agree that nuclear energy is probably one of the best choices for the future as coal, natural gas and oil run out, but it's got a lot of obstacles to overcome.
    • Very true, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have put such a stigma on nuclear power that it will be almost impossible to build new reactors anywhere.
    • by The Snowman (116231) * on Monday March 06, 2006 @10:52AM (#14857657) Homepage

      I guarantee that turning over contol of nuclear facilities to the private sector will immediately trigger the hiring of low-wage bare minimum staffs to save money.

      From what I understand, nuclear power plants are owned and operated by the private sector, but are highly regulated. Regulated to the point that they effectively are co-owned by private and public interests. Normally I am all for the free market, but anything involving splitting an atom should have the Energy department heavily involved. Incompetant bureaucracy, money-grubbing business... so far the two seem to cancel each other out.

    • Eventually, someone will screw up, trigger another disaster, and that'll be the end of nuclear power in the US forever once people start demanding a stop to it.

      Are you not aware that turning off the powerplants in the US is not an option? Where would you get the energy from? Hurriedly building 1000 water dams or 1000000 windmills? Coalplants? Burning the rapidly dwindling oil? Either way, Electricity prices would multiply by 20 and you'd have an instant major recession.

      -Filik

  • by cryfreedomlove (929828) on Monday March 06, 2006 @10:33AM (#14857551)
    I believe in conservation as a means to make our society more energy efficient. However, in a world of increasing population and bringing 3rd world economies into a one world modern economy, we cannot expect global energy consumption to decrease. This means either burning fossil fuels at a faster rate, wind and solar, or nuclear. As far as burning fossil fuels go, realize that we will run out and that burning coal releases tremendous radioactivity into the atmosphere. I love wind and solar but I think we need to hedge our bets with a major committment to developing safe nuclear power generation.
  • At some point you have a heat exchange process somewhere, right? They didn't detail it -- I did listen to the hour long program. Now, isn't that heated coolant considered 'dirty' and if so, what coolant can you use to carry that heat to an exchanger but use a low enough volume of it so that what is exchanged is still hot enough to crack open water to get hydrogen and still have enough energy left open to produce the steam required to run the turbines? Once you're used the steam that way, and its gone through the expansion process, how do you STILL have enough energy to heat even more water to desalinate it?

    It seems like you're re-using the same heat from that coolant quite a few times. You can't use the coolant directly without the exchanger, I assume, since it would be contaminated -- and what good would desalinated but otherwise radioactive water be to anyone?
    • IIRC, the pebble bed designs usually use helium as primary coolant, and helium simply doesn't get "dirty". The natural isotopes (He3 an He4) are stable, and the others are both hard to create and have half-lives of under one second.
    • by The Fun Guy (21791) on Monday March 06, 2006 @11:29AM (#14857988) Homepage Journal
      I don't think that they are proposing that you re-use the heat. Power generators like to have steam go from ~900F to ~500F, to imporve efficiency. Everything after that is waste, which they dump out of the cooling tower. If the power plant is nearby some homes & offices, you could capture that heat and pipe it to where it's needed, but that would require more heat exchangers, etc. I'm not sure the economics would work.

      For the desalination or hydrogen cracking, I believe they are talking about that being the *primary application* of the reactor. In a place where you need power, you use the heat to make electricity. In a place where you need water, you use it to desalinate. In a place where you need hydrogen, you use it to crack water.

      Electricity is great for running stationary objects like buildings, but not so good at vehicles. A storable fuel is better for that.

      Consider some seaside urban area that is outgrowing its supply of fresh water. Since these reactors are modular, you could install one reactor to make electricity, one to make water and one to make hydrogen for the cars. The power, water and hydrogen distribution grids are all in place and benefit from economies of scael, and you can share the administrative/training/regulatory overhead of running the reactors.

      Need even more power/water/H2? Install another module.

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