March 17th, 2011

Chernobyl and Fukushima: how do we define “disaster?”

We’ve been hearing the word “disaster” in connection with the nuclear reactors in Japan, usually in the context of phrases such as, “Japanese teams work mightily to avoid looming disaster.”

But what is the definition of a disaster these days? Surely, by any reasonable measure, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami qualify as an enormous disaster. The death toll will run into tens of thousands and perhaps even a hundred thousand or so before the work of rescue and discovery is over, and the rebuilding will take years and eat up enormous amounts of money. The psychological toll on Japan is hard to overestimate, although the people are remarkably resilient. But in an instant, whole villages were wiped away, and the shock must be profound. It’s frightening even to view it from afar, reduced to a small computer or TV image.

But what of the nuclear power plant problems? That is a projected disaster, a feared and dreaded one. The word “meltdown” is another that’s constantly used in news stories as a likely possibility, and it conjures up images of something cataclysmic. The specter of Chernobyl is raised again and again, even though that plant’s design was profoundly different in critical ways.

Chernobyl was by far the worst accident in the history of nuclear plants, but the initial incident claimed 57 lives. This is tragic and horrible, but not usually the sort of thing that enters into “disaster” territory, if sheer numbers are the measure.

But what of its residual long-term effects? The main Wiki article on the subject notes, “Estimates of the total number of deaths attributable to the accident vary enormously, from possibly 4,000 to close to a million.” That would certainly constitute a disaster—but are those figures correct?

They do not appear to be. Chernobyl is not only a word that strikes fear into the heart, but it is one of the most-studied environmental incidents ever in terms of its possible effects. The following is what UNSCEAR, the United Nations Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation, has learned over the twenty-five years since Chernobyl occurred:

Among the residents of Belaruss 09, the Russian Federation and Ukraine there had been, up to 2002, about 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer reported in children and adolescents who were exposed at the time of the accident, and more cases are to be expected during the next decades. Notwithstanding problems associated with screening, many of those cancers were most likely caused by radiation exposures shortly after the accident. Apart from this increase, there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 20 years after the accident. There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure. The risk of leukaemia in the general population, one of the main concerns owing to its short latency time, does not appear to be elevated. Although those most highly exposed individuals are at an increased risk of radiation-associated effects, the great majority of the population is not likely to experience serious health consequences as a result of radiation from the Chernobyl accident. Many other health problems have been noted in the populations that are not related to radiation exposure.

Wiki also notes that “thyroid cancer is generally treatable. With proper treatment, the five-year survival rate of thyroid cancer is 96%, and 92% after 30 years.” This is not to make light of the stress of having a child thus diagnosed, but in general we can say that the number of additional deaths beyond the original 57 that could be attributable to Chernobyl is small. We can be fairly certain of this because there has been no lack of effort to find them, and no dearth of studies that would be likely to have detected them if they had existed.

But such reports have not eradicated the idea that Chernobyl was a dreadful disaster that caused an enormous number of deaths. For example, Greenpeace jumped into the arena, speculating so wildly based on suspect and non-peer-reviewed studies that even Gregory Härtl, a spokesman for WHO, “expressed concern that the conclusions were motivated by ideology.”

There is little doubt that the accident had a negative effect on the flora and fauna in the area. But again, it was less than in the popular imagination.

Speaking of imagination: paradoxically, that is what has been responsible for a fair amount of harm. Not only has fear of nuclear power reduced our willingness to build nuclear power plants and continued the world’s dependency on imported oil from the Middle East and all its attendant woes, but this fear may have had an indirectly deleterious effect on the emotional health of the population around Chernobyl:

It also concluded that a greater risk than the long-term effects of radiation exposure is the risk to mental health of exaggerated fears about the effects of radiation:

“The designation of the affected population as “victims” rather than “survivors” has led them to perceive themselves as helpless, weak and lacking control over their future. This, in turn, has led either to over cautious behavior and exaggerated health concerns, or to reckless conduct, such as consumption of mushrooms, berries and game from areas still designated as highly contaminated, overuse of alcohol and tobacco, and unprotected promiscuous sexual activity.”

That is not to say that Chernobyl was nothing. It was most definitely something: a frightening event that shone a light on a large number of mistakes (especially in Soviet power plants) that needed to be righted, and a tragedy from which people and the environment suffered and many lives were lost.

But “disaster” is a word that has been too freely used. It is not exactly clear how best to define disaster—whether by number of deaths, amount of property destroyed, human suffering, environmental damage, or some complex combination of all or some of them. But on the worldwide scale of events, an argument could be made that Chernobyl only qualifies as a major disaster in its lasting legacy of hyper-fear bestowed by those who exaggerated its effects in order to further their own political ends.

[NOTE: For example, the NY Times today has a piece entitled “Scientists Project Path of Radiation Plume.” And although the article makes it clear in the second paragraph that the radiation will be essentially negligible almost as soon as it begins to make that worldwide journey, the headline and the lede (“A United Nations forecast of the possible movement of the radioactive plume coming from crippled Japanese reactors shows it churning across the Pacific, and touching the Aleutian Islands on Thursday before hitting Southern California late Friday”), which is probably all many people read, are designed to stir up anxiety. Why not put the word “harmless” in the headline, right before the word “plume?” Funny question, I know. Perhaps the Times has stock in iodine pills.]

[ADDENDUM: The Christian Science Monitor also attempts to set the record straight. Good luck.]

48 Responses to “Chernobyl and Fukushima: how do we define “disaster?””

  1. Fred Says:

    What’s the most disgusting at the moment is all the anti-nuclear types hoping, nay praying that it’s “worse than Chernobyl”. There’s even a sense of glee that this accident has happened.

    Cos being seen to have been right about nuclear power is more important than people’s lives.

    $10 bet: Fukushima will kill less people than the first wind-turbine to come down on a highway in rush hour.

  2. Ken Says:

    Someone brought this up on another blog I read: this is a disaster for Japan, not because of the physical scale of the crisis, but because of the psychological scale.

    Radiation is to the Japanese what the Holocaust is to Jews: a wound in the national psyche that will never fully close. The mere prospect (however unlikely) of a nuclear meltdown causes more angst in Japan (and about the Japanese) than fear of an Iranian nuclear weapon does for Israelis.

    It is not a disaster because millions will die (because I think it unlikely, from what I’ve read, that such a thing will happen [God forbid]), but because it will stick a nuclear-reactor-sized finger into the wounds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and cause that pain to come right back.

  3. DirtyJobsGUy Says:

    I agree with Fred, there is an astonishing wish for things to get worse. 50-100 years ago the press would have been playing up the heroic actions of the workers and industry in the face of a huge natural disaster. THis is more than a purely political wish to damage the nuclear industry (that is there). It is part of a larger handwringing mentality fostered by liberals and greens that man is the bad actor in all of this. The almost criminal neglect of the earthquake/tsumani is a clear sign. No villa’s, just Gaia at work.

    (In my house we take the opposite view. I’m an old nuke and my daughter is a Geology Major so we agree the Earth is the real cause)

  4. Sergey Says:

    I remember the days of Chernobyl disaster with such clarity and vividness as only deep emothional shock can bring about, up to the moment when I first read and heard of it. For millions (tens millions, to be more exact) people in Soviet Union this was a watershed. The credibility of official propaganda was lost completely and for ever. This brought about abolishion of censorship, all events named Perestroika and Glasnost, and eventually fall of Communism. So the psychological impact on society was disproportionally tremendous and out of any proportion to actual, physical impact.

  5. neo-neocon Says:

    Interesting, Sergey.

    Now, of course, that official propaganda (which I assume said all was well when it was not) has been replaced by another sort of propaganda by the press itself, the left, and various anti-nuclear groups: purposely driving up the fear for political purposes.

  6. Ben David Says:

    A better measure of nuclear disaster could be the contamination of a geographical area.

    Chernobyl launched highly radioactive materials into the atmosphere, rendering a large area uninhabitable.

    Oh, and let’s define “highly radioactive” as not just dosage, but persistence, of radiation. The media have been talking about the materials released in the hydrogen explosions in Japan – but these are largely transient radioactive materials that readily decompose.

  7. Sergey Says:

    The worst nuclear disaster was not Chernobyl, but another event, so deeply put under veil of secrecy that almost nobody knows about it. It was explosion at Kyshtym, a site of Soviet nuclear combinat “Mayak”, where plutonium for warheads and the warheads themselves were produced. My wife witnessed the explosion as a little girl, and only 2 years after it her family was allowed to move from the contaminated area. This was a chemical explosion at the store of nuclear waste, where a huge basin where the liquid waste was stored dried up due the failure of cooling system. Since the waste was mostly a solution of ammonia nitrate, it became a tinderbox, and one day detonated, blowing into the air many tonnes of extremely active radionuclides. Many of them are long-lived, so a huge area, thousand sq. miles, was contaminated to dangerous levels for centures. A Tatar village downwind was evacuated and asphalted, but all villagers soon died from radiation poisoning.

  8. Parker Says:

    I agree that to the MSM nearly everything is about a political agenda. They will wring every drop of hysteria possible from this incident. Coverage of Three Mile Island was the same, promote fear and loathing of all things nuclear.

    The inhabitants of the MSM have little or no scientific or technical knowledge and the same is true of a large majority of the public. And, unfortunately its always easy to find an ‘expert’ who will help feed the hysteria. Ignorance is a wonderful thing to leverage to promote an agenda. Let no crisis go to waste. Who wants to educate the public in a calm and rational manner when its so easy to control their emotions and votes with fear?

    Naturally, our government is doing the same thing. “Radiation is drifting towards the west coast” and Home Land Insecurity is installing more air monitors and scanning planes, passengers, and cargo coming from Japan. Yesterday we learned the Surgeon General was promoting KI pills. This only adds fuel to the fire.

  9. Sergey Says:

    Here about Kyshtym explosion:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyshtym_disaster

  10. Parker Says:

    Sergey,

    Please provide more info on this Mayak incident. I’m aware the USSR had at least one disaster in the Barents Sea involving warheads, but I’ve never heard of this one. Thanks.

  11. Parker Says:

    Thanks Sergey, you beat me to the punch.

  12. stumbley Says:

    If folks want a pretty informative, unbiased look at what’s going on with the reactors in Japan, this is a good site:

    http://www.bravenewclimate.com

  13. Sergey Says:

    The most salient fact about radiation release from Fukushima plant is that the most feared radionuclide, iodine-131, the only one naturally accumulated in human body and causing thyroid cancer, have half-life 8 days. Another little known fact is that expected levels of this isotope at California would be around 3 times higher then natural background levels (average), and in some places these natural background levels are (and always were) 10 higher this average. So technically radiation does drifted to USA, but without a sensitive detectors its arrival hardly can be noticed and does not deserve to be mentioned.

  14. Parker Says:

    Thanks stumbley, I will visit that site. Others might want to bookmark nei.org. Its a great source of info about all things that glow in the dark.

  15. Tom Says:

    Always follow the money.

    If the enviros spoke honestly about how much has been accomplished exclusively in the West, their contributions, predominantly from the middle class, would dry up.
    If the Greenies dealt wish costs and benefits, they would all be blown away. As they would if they faced nuclear power objectively.
    This is the basis for the anti-nuclear movement.

    It is an unholy alliance. There have in aeternam been hordes of the impoverished and the few wealthy, but the economic class between these two extremes has really only existed in any number for a couple of hundred years. It is in this middle class that the belief in individual responsibility and personal liberty resides, and it is this class that will be extinguished by the alliance of the poor, the rich, the green, all of whom are totalitarian by instinct.

    It is the middle class that was brutalized by every totalitarian movement in the past hundred years. It is the middle class that is the Jews of the planet.

  16. Brad Says:

    I will say the comments section of the CSM has easily some of the most hysterical posters I have ever seen. That’s rather sad, but it seems this subject brings out the fear in people in a very big way.

    Whatever the failings of the Japanese government in this crisis, there STILL has yet to be any kind of “major disaster”.

  17. neo-neocon Says:

    Brad: I wrote about the sort of fear here.

  18. Curtis Says:

    The Yahoo page headline:

    Japanese race to avert nuclear catastrophe.

    What a load of hooey from the screwy. But I don’t care. The corned beef is done and delicious. It’s been cooking since this morning in the crock pot in my office and stinking the place up rather nicely might I add. McNalley is picking me up at 5:00 and were heading to the pub.

    Happy St. Patty’s Day!

  19. Sergey Says:

    Another little known fact shows that even our radiophobia is highly selective. The main source of industrial radiation now is not nuclear power plants, but coal power plants. They emit from their smoke chimneys 30 times more radiactive particles than all nuclear plants combined, even including Chernobyl and other nuclear accidents. Coal always contains some other minerals, including radionuclides, and all of them eventually are discharged into air in form of micrometer-sized particles which can not be filtered out. The sheer amount of coal burned results in many thousand tonnes of these particles in the air every year.

  20. Parker Says:

    Sergey is right on target, a coal power plant puts more radioactivity into the atmosphere than a nuke plant. Most fear what they don’t understand. Superstition ain’t the way.

  21. Occam's Beard Says:

    Sergey, Parker, please stop clouding the issues with facts.

    (As an aside, I have to say you’re an amazing fount of disparate information, Sergey!)

  22. jvermeer Says:

    The phrase in Neo’s referenced article about the fear of radiation causing more problems than radiation itself brought back a memory. In the 1970′s, when the anti-nuclear power movement was in full swing, I was handed a flyer in Seattle (where five new nuclear plants were in the building stage) asserting that people had a right to be free of sexual dysfunction caused by the fear of nuclear power plants. Who knew? Did Jesse Jackson Jr include this right among his proposed constitutional amendments?

  23. Michael Says:

    Sergey is right. I’ve been waiting to this fact to come to light.

    Now we can discover that the Ronald Regan which is providing aid to Japan is a Nimitz class carrier and draws it’s power from two nuclear reactors.

    In a way it is ironic. Atomic power is the cause and atomic power is the solution.

    By the way would not it be nice if just for once someone presented some numbers rather than just say we are all going to die?

  24. Sergey Says:

    I must confess that just now I am not a big fan of building new nuclear power plants in nearby future, but for reasons completely different from safety concerns. Nuclear renessance is good thing in principle, but it will be wise to postpone it by 20 years to make it better provided by fuel. The tecnology still is not mature enough in one critical aspect: it burns out only a small fraction of accessible fuel, namely U235, which is only 3.5% of all uranium. We can consume all of it just in 50 years. U238, plutonium and thorium can not be used by existing technology, and real future of nuclear energy lies with using all this, much more abundant fuel. But even breeder reactors producing Pu and converting thorium into fissible material all need U235 for start-up. We undercut future of nuclear energy by spending it now. Investment in nuclear energy now should be channeled to R&D of fast-neutron reactors and thorium reactors, of which we have now only experimental prototypes and no working designs sutable for building at large, industrial scale.

  25. Occam's Beard Says:

    I say again …

  26. Parker Says:

    Sergey,

    I think 20 years is too long on the timeline. Lets try to cut the R&D stage to 10 years with a sustained commitment. I welcome government funding for research & development of molten salt reactors. I see a future of widely scattered, small scale reactors as the way to go.

    As far as fast neutron reactors are concerned I favor R&D in that area too. But IMO there are more inherent problems compared to the MSR concept; namely sodium as a moderator is troublesome and the need for highly enriched fuel. However, all options for producing the next generation of nuclear reactors should be explored. Let a thousand design concepts flourish. Power grows from the transmutation of the elements. ;-)

  27. Sergey Says:

    Fast-neutron was proposed exactly to widen amount of fuel base. With invention of thorium cycle this approach is now looks rather obsolete. But there already are large-scale reactors of this type. They are inherently dangerous and expensive, and progress here is not as fast as was expected. LFTR are more promissing, but less developed. New materials can change this balance, so it will be wise not to put all eggs in one basket.

  28. Sergey Says:

    It seems, Japan authorites are now repeating the mistake of Soviet authorities about Chernobyl. By providing too little information they only aggravate panic. When information is scarce, fantasy florishes and always paints more gloom picture than objective, honest reporting.

  29. expat Says:

    It is such a delight to read comments from people who know a lot but don’t think they know it all. An English decorating mag used to have a regular back page article asking some well-known person who they would like to invite to a dinner party. Usually the guest list included a mix of living and dead historical figures, artists or musicians, writers, etc, and usually it was an interesting mix. Out of deference to our hostess, I would try to get Churchill, but otherwise I think the posters here would make for a spectacular evening.

  30. Deeka Says:

    My ex-wife is in the nuclear business and extremely knowledgeable in all of this. Assuming I can get her permission, I will post what she has written regarding this on my own blog. It is quite illuminating.

  31. Parker Says:

    Sergey says, “… so it will not be wise to put all eggs in one basket.”

    Yes, otherwise one ends up counting chickens before they have hatched. ;-)

    expat,

    I agree with your (& neo’s) choice of Churchill and would add Maggie Thatcher as an alternate. And, lets not forget H.L. Mencken, an amusing rascal with much to agree and disagree.

    Mencken: “An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make a better soup.”

  32. SteveH Says:

    “”But what is the definition of a disaster these days?”"

    Anything suitable to scare an uninformed public while convincing them too little govt and taxes was the culprit.

  33. expat Says:

    Parker,

    In college, I used to go to the Peabody Bookshop, which was a former speakeasy (in my time a legal bar) frequented by Mencken. You passed through a bookshop, then went down a few steps to the bar area. There was a moosehead above a fireplace and an old couple who played piano and had probably played for Mencken. We went there on cold winter evenings to have Irish coffee and pretend we were intellectuals. I would gladly have Mencken attend my dinner party. We could chat about the good old days and make cracks about the present.

  34. rickl Says:

    OK, breathe. Calm, calm, calm.

    I just went over to the Market Ticker to link the following post, which appeared this morning. It’s about the radical, anti-nuclear past of our present chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko. You may recall that yesterday he announced that the spent fuel pool atop Reactor 4 was completely dry. That was not and is not true.

    Beware Scaremongers In Government: The NRC

    Go on. It’s worth reading.

    But then I saw THIS.

    Holy Mother of Pearl.

  35. Parker Says:

    expat,

    Can I pretty please sit across the table from Mencken, and if you wouldn’t mind please put Thatcher on my right? (You and Neo get to sit on either side of Churchill.)

  36. Parker Says:

    rickl,

    Never trust the head of the NRC, the director of the EPA, or the secretary of the DOE. This ain’t the 20th century, this is the temporary age of Obama.

    As Artfldgr said: “4 score and 7 czars ago.”

    PS – The worker bees of the NRC are generally very competent people.

  37. SteveH Says:

    I think the reason libs hate nuclear power can probably be found in how few potential union jobs it creates per kilowatt of power produced. Sort of shines a light on why they demand terribly inefficient energy sources like solar and wind. If anything the green agenda is always boasting the creation of millions of jobs. Which are nothing but make work jobs when you get around to disecting them.

  38. Parker Says:

    SteveH,

    I created and/or saved 10,089 green jobs today by the arduous task of pulling an imaginary number out of my backside. May I be president for a day? I’m not into golf but I’d love to fly to Rio on air force 1.

  39. Beverly Says:

    Instapundit has linked to some more reliable sources about the nuclear situation in Japan.

    Meanwhile, the hydroelectric dam that failed in the quake and wiped out an entire village is not even mentioned. Nor do we hear the Greenies shrieking that we should get rid of all dams, STAT.

    But there I go, being logical again (as a boss of mine used to chide me).

  40. Beverly Says:

    And if no one has mentioned it — Three Mile Island, which polemicist Michio Kaku keeps referring to (and linking to Chernobyl), had exactly 0 fatalities. Zip, nada, niente, nessuno. Nor any cancers, injuries, etc.

    It’s safety mechanisms worked brilliantly, and contained the melted fuel just like they were designed to.

  41. Foxfier Says:

    Beverly-
    up here in Washington they’ve been shrieking about getting rid of dams for years, but they’re using the “environmentalist” angle. (It kills fishies!)

  42. SteveH Says:

    The lib/enviro position is one of not making decisions about energy, because the replacement sources they tout are in no way capable of replacing what they want to shut down.

    In essence they want defacto immunity from all problems in this area because they basically punt on decision making. Except they want to pretend no decision is not a decision in itself. It is, and a very bad one.

  43. Artfldgr Says:

    here is something i noticed…

    nuclear power plants are often HOT..
    they have to be located next to water sources.
    so they are usually next to rivers, or shorelines.

    now, i am no nuclear scientist. but if emergency super cooling was the issue in a problem. why not hollow out a big space underneath it, and have a channel to the water? (if you just dont run it below water line and not bother)

    i mean if you have this huge cooling problem that basically can get real bad.. why not just make the last ditch point huge amounts of water thats near by anyway?

    right now the problem, if looked at from another angle is that its above the water table and every means of pumping water uphill is not sufficient.

    sooooo… wouldn’t the obvious design flaw and solution for future power, is to put it lower down so that flooding it is easy?

    just thought i would mention it
    seems no one else is…

  44. Artfldgr Says:

    want another obvious design flaw?
    ok. its laptops, but as far as i am concerned they are designed by aliens. ever see anyone with a thumb in the right location so you can use the pad and the buttons for the pad? is it really that expensive to mount the buttons on a slider for left and right hands if you cant afford to make two sets?

    how did it become that the right solution for this is to forget human hands and pretend we descended from birds…

  45. IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society Says:

    Great piece, Neo.

  46. IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society Says:

    The worst nuclear disaster was not Chernobyl, but another event, so deeply put under veil of secrecy that almost nobody knows about it. It was explosion at Kyshtym, a site of Soviet nuclear combinat “Mayak”, where plutonium for warheads and the warheads themselves were produced.

    Sergey, in the USSR it may have been a secret, but here in the USA, not much of one. Anyone who had even the least interest in nuclear power issues knew about it. As a physics major in college in the late 1970s, without even looking for it, I encountered info about it — Jerry Pournelle, the SF writer, had a popular science column at the time, in which he told every one of his readers about it. These columns are still available (and somewhat readable, though dated) in the collection A Step Farther Out. Note that these are not SF, they are “popular science” articles written for the average somewhat techie reader.

    I found it amazingly hilarious (ha-ha-only-serious “hilarious”) about 2-4 years later when Ralph Nader, then claiming to be oh-so knowledgeable about nuclear power, came onto 60 minutes and “revealed” this big awful nuclear secret, claiming “Coverup!!!” — yeah, right. 60 Minutes didn’t challenge him in the least. That’s when I began to truly and completely distrust the media. Because if *I* knew about it, then anyone claiming “expertise” should have known about it.

    BTW, that also says how “secret” it was here in the USA — any Americans watching 60 minutes knew about it in the early 80s.

    No one remembers these days because, like so many other such “disasters”, while it was certainly a tragedy on a personal, human scale for many, in the Great Big Scheme of things, it was literally nothing.

    —-The Chinese Relativity Axiom:—-
    No matter how great your triumphs, no matter how humiliating and utterly complete your failures, approximately one billion Chinese could care less.

  47. IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society Says:

    I created and/or saved 10,089 green jobs today by the arduous task of pulling an imaginary number out of my backside.

    You know, if you square those, they become Real. Where do you think the Greens get their numbers?

    (8^D

  48. IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society Says:

    Artflddgr:

    No, unfortunately, that is not considered a good idea, as it threatens in two ways — one is a steam-based “explosion” (a pressure explosion is still an explosion) that can blow a hole in any containment vessel, then allowing superheated steam to escape and carry away radioactive debris.

    The other is the possibility that the radiation can then seep into the groundwater, if there is an issue.

    There’s really nothing wrong with the current scenarios that a few small but now-so-but-not-previously-obvious tweaks can’t fix.

    Keep in mind that this DID require three massive things to cause the issue to spiral out of some, if not all, control:
    1) Earthquake that is the fourth worst ever recorded by man
    2) Followup tsunami knocks out previously functioning safety mechanisms, esp. emergency cooling pumps.
    3) (and here’s the really fixable part) A system that could get knocked out by the above with an apparently substantially incompatible power connector that has so far prevented power from being restored to the coolant systems.

    How many plants worldwide will be revised to use a totally universal internationally standard connector in the above situation so that a generator can be in place to power pumps within hours, from anywhere in the world?

    Can you say, “All of ‘em”?

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