Issue No. 20, November 1997
Preventing the Threat of Nuclear Terrorism: The Case of
By Vladimir Orlov
In the Soviet Union - from the first nuclear test in 1949 to the
Lithuanian crisis of 1990 which heralded the State's dissolution -
there were many factors guaranteeing the secure protection of
fissile materials (not to mention nuclear warheads) against any
unauthorized access. Among these factors were: the iron curtains of
the State's borders, the stability of the domestic political
situation, the total control over the personnel of strategic
nuclear facilities, and the immediate and sufficient financing of
the "nuclear shield of the motherland" which made work for the
nuclear industry hors-concours (1). Very little attention
had been paid to the issue of preventing "domestic enemies" such as
political terrorist groups, ethnic radical nationalists, or
organized criminals from attempting to smuggle fissile materials,
radioactive wastes, chemical weapons, nuclear warheads, or
technologies. The reason was simple: until 1990, criminal groups
were not well organized, while political opponents of the regime
were using peaceful democratic ways to fight communism. The only
potential concern of domestic origin was separatist nationalist
radicalism (2). Much more effort had been made, in particular in
the 1970s and early 80s, in preventing potential sabotage from the
In the early 1990s, the situation changed dramatically and
almost overnight. The imperialist West, and primarily the United
States, is currently the key donor of Russian efforts to improve
the physical protection, accounting and control of at least several
dozen Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom) facilities, and very few
Russians, even among the communist hardliners who are still active
in the Russian military-nuclear-industrial complex, have objections
to this assistance, agreeing that it represents a real step in
cooperative nuclear threat reduction.
At the same time, in the first half of the decade, Russia and
the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) continued to be
relatively free of terrorist activity. In 1990-95, the total number
of international terrorist incidents were: in Africa - 107; in Asia
- 230; in Europe (excluding Russia and CIS) - 934; in Latin America
- 782; in the Middle East - 464; in North America - 5; and in
Russia and CIS - 36 (3). The growth of national radicalism and the
appearance of religious sects similar to Aum in Japan, as well as
ethnic wars and low intensity conflicts in the geopolitical space
of the Former Soviet Union, together with the absence or
inefficiency of border controls within the CIS and the large number
of poorly guarded strategic facilities, has made Russia and her CIS
neighbors more vulnerable to the threat of terrorism involving
weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) than other regions of the world,
even those with a higher incidence of terrorist activity.
On 27 June, 1996 President Yeltsin signed, together with the G7
leaders, the Lyons Declaration on Terrorism which said: "We
consider the fight against terrorism to be our absolute priority.
… [S]pecial attention should be paid to the threat of
utilization of nuclear, biological and chemical materials, as well
as toxic substances, for terrorist purposes" (4).
Incidents and Responses
Russian officials for a long time denied any serious flaws or
lapses in the nuclear security of Minatom-(5) or Ministry of
Defence (MOD)-operated (6) installations. Moreover, they insisted
that the "anti-smuggling campaign" was directed by US and German
intelligence services and had a pure economic objective - not to
permit Russian nuclear-exporting State companies to appear and
successfully compete in the world market (7). Only in April 1996
did Russia for the first time officially recognise that the problem
of nuclear smuggling - and, in other words, the possibility of
unauthorized access to nuclear installations - was not created by
Russia's enemies but was also a real headache for the Russian
political and military leadership (8).
Although it is partly correct that some elements of the two
"anti-smuggling campaigns" in the West in 1992 and in 1994 were
inspired by purely political motives and not on well-checked and
proven facts, it would have been absolutely wrong to declare that
the threat of nuclear leakage in Russia was artificial. In 1995,
Yaderny Kontrol editors disclosed two cases of stealing
nuclear materials in the North Fleet, both involving enriched
Uranium - in one case, with 36% enrichment (9). After that,
government officials acted in three different ways. First, they
invested some modest funds to improve the Material Protection
Control & Accounting (MPC&A) situation in the North Fleet.
Second, they requested US assistance, which they finally received -
by the end of 1997, the establishment of modern MPC&A systems
at two storage facilities is expected to total $5 million (10).
Third, Russian officials prohibited the dissemination of all
information relating to cases of nuclear smuggling and leakage,
explaining that this was necessary "in interests of national
security". In fact, they have been concerned that organized crime
or ethnic terrorists might benefit from detailed information about
where the weakest points of current physical protection are.
Notwithstanding these efforts, cases of nuclear leakage continue
to happen. In 1996, the Tomsk Institute of Nuclear Physics of the
Tomsk Politechnical University Gosatomnadzor (Russian State nuclear
regulatory body under the President, known as GAN) discovered the
loss of one fuel assembly with uranium of 90% enrichment and
containing 145 grams of 235U. The material was never recovered.
Accurate accounting at the facilities is an even more serious
headache for the federal government. This year, in Murmansk, nine
cases of inaccurate data about quantities of fissile materials
(fuel rods, spent nuclear fuel) were detected. E.g., the amount of
fuel rods at the floating bases Imandra and Lotta was
"significantly less" than indicated in the accounting documents
(12). In 1996, as a result of six GAN inspections at the
Mashinostroitelny Zavod (Machine-Building Plant) of Elektrostal, 40
minutes by car from Moscow, checks with the weighting of nuclear
materials demonstrated three cases of surplus low-enriched uranium
(LEU) (total weight 8.4 kg) and three cases of surplus
highly-enriched uranium (HEU) (total weight 895 g) compared to the
accounting documentation at the facility which produces nuclear
fuel rods (13) and which is now in the process of being updated by
the US MPC&A computerized system.
It is clear, to take one of these examples, that the 145 grams
of weapon-grade HEU from the Tomsk Institute could be smuggled by
criminals with either commercial (which seems less probable) or
terrorist purpose. At the same time, it is important to mention
that even now Russian officials mostly continue to divide the
problem into two parts. On the one hand, to judge by interviews
with many Federal Security Service (FSB), Minatom and MOD officers,
they do recognize how significant the problem of threat of nuclear
terrorism in Russia is - in particular, after terrorist acts
committed by separatist Chechens in 1995-1996; on the other hand,
they do not recognize that this problem has its roots in a weakened
system of accounting, control, and physical protection of both
weapon-grade fissile materials and nuclear warheads.
As far back as 1992, the Russian Ministry of Security publicly
warned that the threat of nuclear sabotage was not only a scenario
for Hollywood movies. Representatives of the ministry wrote in an
article published in a governmental daily that between 1990-1992
the "directors of Kursk, Smolensk, and Rostov NPPs (nuclear power
plants) received letters with threats to explode or to seize the
Then, chemical weapons (CW) came on the scene. In 1995, Ivan
Kivelidi, a leading Russian businessman, head of the 'Roundtable of
Russian Businesses' and of Rosbusinessbank, was killed in his
Moscow office. Governor Dmitry Ayatskov of Saratov oblast later
stated that a top secret modern chemical substance from Shikhany -
a major storage facility of chemical weapons in Russia - was used
by the killers (most probably, phosphororganic or
amedefira-phosphoro-acidic substance). His sensational statement
was not denied by investigators. Although Stanislav Nesterov, head
of local administration in Shikhany, said "[t]his is a modern CW
with a secret formula. I do not know any confirmed cases of selling
it at or near the 'NII Orgsintez' Institute" (15), the
investigation has been delayed "for the reasons of national
During his trail in Tokyo, one of the Aum leaders stated that
the sect had acquired special sarine gas technologies in Russia,
with the direct assistance of the former Secretary of the National
Security Council, Mr. Lobov (17), although Russian law enforcement
structures which have carried out their own investigation have
never confirmed those statements.
Nuclear sabotage nearly became a reality in Russia in Spring
1997 when an attempt to commit a terrorist act at an NPP was
prevented by the FSB. An anonymous caller telephoned the
President's office and tried to blackmail the government with
threats to sabotage a NPP. According to the FSB, it was not a
bluff, and a terrorist could damage an NPP. The blackmailer was
arrested, and investigations have not yet been finalized although
his arrest was declared as "victory" by the FSB head Nikolai
Kovalyev (18). "Caucasian terrorism" has become the Number One
threat for federal authorities - in particular, in periods of
attacks by federal troops on military bases of Chechen separatists
in late 1994 and in 1996. Numerous e-mail requests and descriptions
of explosives and CW production materials were registered as being
sent from Chechnya addresses as well as from the Caucasian Diaspora
in the Middle East (19). On 21 November, 1995, Chechen terrorist
Shamil Bassaev put a container with radioactive cesium-137 in the
park of Izmailovo, in Moscow. The only practical, but very
effective, purpose of putting that source of low radiation in
Moscow was to alarm Russian public opinion (20) which, mainly as
result of the 'Chernobyl syndrome', usually interprets
"radioactive" as synonymous with "horrible".
Finally, Chechen terrorist leader Bassaev switched from
radioactive threats to nuclear ones: "We have no nuclear weapons
[in Chechnya. But in 1993] I was offered...a nuclear explosive for
$1,500,000"(21). The Caucasian region has also produced some
financially influential and politically ambitious ethnic-criminal
mafias - for example, the Ingushian, Abkhazian, and Kurdish groups.
In some of these areas, such groups can freely transfer drugs,
arms, and strategic raw materials. Anyone concerned about the
smuggling issue should pay attention to Nazran International
Airport. Nazran is a small town and capital of the Republic of
Ingushetia which is part of Russia but has no declared border with
its neighbor Chechnya, has official duty-free status and is the
center of criminal activities in the region. From the airport,
there are regular and charter flights to Turkey, Greece and other
States of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. At the airport
checkpoints, there is practically no control over goods
transferred. Of particular concern are charter flights from Nazran
to Antalya (Turkey) and Athens.
The Komsomolets nuclear submarine, buried, after the accident of
7 April, 1989, at a depth of 1.685 metres in the Norwegian Sea with
two nuclear warheads on board (total 6 kg Pu-239 and 116 kg
enriched uranium) has also become subject of concern. As an expert
put it, "terrorists will need a few hours to take one warhead,
about one day...to take the second one. Unauthorized activities in
this area have recently been detected"(22). Federal law enforcement
agencies have become more and more worried of intensive and
ever-developing ties and coordination between, on the one hand,
ethnic terrorist groups and organized crime in Russia, and, on the
other hand, the international criminal community. Currently, most
of the international cooperation of Russian mafias is directed to
financial operations, drug trafficking and illegal conventional
arms sales. As a result, the Russian criminal community has
established close connections with Italian, Colombian, and Arab
criminal and clandestine groups. Routes of illegal trade connect
Badakshan (Tajikistan), Abkhazia, and Chechnya, with Ingushetia
with Cali, Antigua, Peshavar, Yemen, Laos, and Estonia (23). As
General Valynkin, recently nominated as Head of the 12th Main
Directorate (Nuclear Weapons) of the Russian Defense Ministry, has
stated, "We cannot exclude possibilities of unauthorized access [by
individual terrorists and terrorist groups] to Russian nuclear
warheads in storage or in transportation in the future". He
believes "it could lead to a nation-wide crisis and would be
impossible to prevent by the instruments we [at the Defense
Ministry and Russian Government] now have" (24). Moscow Mayor Yuri
Luzhkov said that he is "concerned about possible accidents and
even sabotage at the nuclear facilities in Moscow" (25). And
according to the former FSB Director General Barsukov, "attempts of
sabotage against NPPs, other nuclear facilities, and CW facilities,
as well as to seize WMD are quite possible." (26)
The Need and Potential for a More Effective Response
To sum up this welter of disturbing evidence - in the mid-90's
Russia became one of the most vulnerable areas of the world in
terms of representing both the subject and an object of the WMD
threat (27). The key questions are: what should be done to avoid
the real catastrophe, what has been done already by the Russian
government, and which efforts have become a success and which have
Russia still has no law on terrorism. This means that even
definitions of what terrorism is vary. According to the draft law
on terrorism adopted in its first reading by the State Duma in
September, 1997, terrorism is defined as an attempt upon the life
of political and State leaders, using or threatening violence
against citizens or institutions with the aim of destroying
constitutional order, destabilizing State order, and/or making the
State follow terrorist demands (28). Because the President's office
has had numerous objections to the current draft (suggested by a
communist, Viktor Iluykhin, and a member of Zhirinovski's liberal
democratic party (LDPR), Alexei Mitrofanov) it is unlikely that the
law, first initiated in 1992, will by signed by the President and
enter into force in the next few months.
The draft law on terrorism does not include any special
provisions on WMD terrorism and measures to prevent it. The
situation is currently regulated in part by the Law on the
Creation, Functioning, Destruction and Security of Nuclear Weapons,
adopted by the State Duma this September; in particular, by its
Chapters 3 - "State management and regulations of activities in the
area of security of nuclear weapons" (Articles 17 to 20) - and 5 -
"Regulations of relations in cases of accidents with nuclear
weapons and at the nuclear defense facilities" (Articles 24 to
The Ministry of Defense has the following major concerns related
to the WMD terrorism threat: the possibility of nuclear accident by
"technological terrorists" (resulting in an explosion of
radioactive materials at the facility and radioactive contamination
akin to that caused in the Chernobyl disaster); an attack by a
terrorist group with the aim of seizing fissile materials of
category No.1-material - material which creates the real threat of
construction of nuclear device(s) by terrorists; and operations by
criminals from non-Russian CIS countries who worked for the Soviet
Nuclear-Technical Forces in the 80s and know characteristics of the
facilities, transportation details, and ways of obtaining access to
warheads (29). As results of analysis made at the PIR Center in
1996-1997 show, the most vulnerable points, equally related to
fissile materials and nuclear warheads at Minatom and MOD storage
We will look at each of these in turn.
- insufficient, and in some places poor, physical protection;
- transportation; and
- social tension and lack of a safeguards culture
As for the physical protection (PP) of Minatom facilities,
despite developing Russian-US cooperation 70% of installations are
in use longer than their instructions stipulate. 20% are in use
from 2 to 3 times longer than their instructions stipulate. These
installations should be dismantled immediately - it is now
impossible to maintain their capabilities. This completely outdated
equipment includes communications and alarm systems. Most of the
checkpoints still have no metal and/or nuclear and/or explosive
As First Deputy Minister of Minatom Lev Ryabev put it, "PP of
the majority of the facilities does not meet requirements of the
regulations which have entered in force in Russia in recent years,
[and…] PP of nuclear installations and materials is not
efficient against terrorist attacks. […] PP of military
nuclear facilities does not prevent accidents with explosion of
nuclear materials and radioactive contamination of the territories
of up to 100 km from the facility" (30). Thousands of individuals
fired from the facilities and currently unemployed still have their
permission-passes to enter the facility. Private companies (trade,
other businesses) are located in the territories of secret nuclear
facilities and research institutes, and there is no real control of
their activities and their personnel (31).
Transportation has become a critical problem, mostly for the
MOD, in the process of the ongoing dismantlement of nuclear
warheads. Nuclear warheads are traditionally transported only by
land in Russia. Notwithstanding, there is lack of special armored
anti-fire trucks. In late 1996, military units had only 16.5% of
the trucks they required. Many of the railcars have imminent
expiry-dates. By the year 2000, the MOD is expected to have only
362 railcars. The total number of railcars produced for the last
four years is 38; in the same period, 223 railcars were destroyed
because they had passed their expiry-date (32). The railroads used
for nuclear-weapons transportation are also a problem: they have
never been modernized before. In every facility, there are about
10-12 km of such railroad.
Social Tension and Lack of a Safeguards Culture
Social tension reached its peak in MOD facilities in late 1996,
and in Minatom-operated closed cities and NPPs in the summer of
1997. Results of an investigation into State supervision of the
security of nuclear weapons at one of the facilities of the 12th
Main Directorate of the Defense Ministry last fall demonstrated
that officers and soldiers were paid no salary for three months and
received no compensation for food during eight months: the military
who worked with nuclear warheads suffered from malnutrition, severe
enough in some cases to cause fainting fits. Officers had no
special slippers for work in the special area with nuclear warheads
(it is prohibited to work in ordinary footwear, and there were no
funds for slippers, so the officers who were paid nothing were
taking money from their wives' salaries to buy slippers).(33)
In June 1997, engineers from the Smolensk NPP organized a march
to the Moscow White House, the government's headquarters, and
demanded salary increases as well as funds for safety and security
improvements. Their action enjoyed the support both of public
opinion and specialists from other NPPs and met with sympathy from
numerous Minatom-related research institutes.
Beginning this summer, the Russian government implemented a
series of efforts to reduce debts by the States to the Minatom and
in particular to those MOD nuclear-related facilities where the
personnel was not receiving pay on time. This effort is currently
bringing some positive results, and there are early indications
that the tension in the majority of nuclear facilities and closed
cities may be set to decrease.
To prevent the threat of WMD-terrorism, and particularly nuclear
terrorism, Russia should implement a number of both urgent and
long-term measures. They should include: urgent finalizing and
entry-into-force of the Law on Terrorism; allocation of more funds
for the improvement of physical protection of fissile materials and
warheads as well as their transportation for Fiscal Year (FY) 1998
and FY 1999; development of national data banks; improvement of
MC&A of fissile materials; improvement of the safety culture in
facilities and enterprises dealing with WMD weapons and components,
and technologies; enforcement of intelligence activities against
terrorist groups; control over international travel of known
terrorists and suspects; measures to combat forgery of documents
(ID, passports); limitation of sources of funds for terrorist
groups where possible; legal consultations and data exchange among
the States; increased interagency coordination, in particular with
regard to data exchange, with the leading role to be assumed by the
recently founded Interagency Antiterrorism Commission (34); and the
training of special anti-WMD terrorism groups. The latter measure
is one of the most critical elements in preventing the threat. The
structure which is responsible for anti-nuclear terrorism
activities has the name Vympel and also known as the 'V'
Directorate of the FSB. This August, Vympel organized an exercise
codenamed 'Atom-97', as part of its training to prevent a potential
terrorist attack on the Kola NPP and at the atomic icebreaker
Siberia (both located in the Russian North-West). In the
exercise, "terrorists" managed to conquer the NPP for some time but
were not able to explode it or create any significant radioactive
danger (35). In the case of the icebreaker, "terrorists" attacked
and occupied the vessel and took hostages. They were attacked from
the ground - by the Murmansk local antiterrorist forces - from the
air - by the Vympel paratroopers - and from the sea - by the Vympel
military scuba divers. As Gen. Dmitry Gerasimov of the FSB
concluded, "Unfortunately, the threat of nuclear sabotage in
Murmansk oblast [region] still exists" (36).
Even more unfortunately, we should add that the zone at risk is
not only that region but the whole of Russia.
1. See: "Nelzya iskluchit vozmoshnost khisheniya yadernikh
materialov. Stenogramma parlamentskikh slushanii" ["Nuclear
smuggling should not be excluded. Record of parliamentary
hearings"]. Yaderny Kontrol No. 34-35, October - November,
2. Vassily Krivokhizha claims that by the mid-80's Russian
officials had started drawing attention to issues of nuclear
terrorism and were preparing immediate responses to attempts at
nuclear sabotage. Krivokhizha Vassily. O predotvrashenii yadernogo
terrorizma [On Prevention of Nuclear Terrorism.] Moscow, 1991.
3. Center for Political and International Studies. Material for
international conference "International terrorism: new approach".
Moscow, April 1997.
4. Lyon Summit. Declaration on Terrorism. June 27, 1996, p.1
5. Mikhailov Victor. Uchyet I kontrol yadernykh materialov: vzglyad
glavy Minatoma [MC&A: Minatom head's viewpoint]. Yaderny
Kontrol No. 2, February 1995, pp.9-11.
6. Maslin Eugeni. Poka chto ni odin yaderni boyepropas iz Rossii ne
propadal I ne byl pokhishen. [Yet, no nuclear warhead in Rusia has
been lost or stolen]. Yaderny Kontrol, No. 5, May 1995,
7. Mikhailov Victor. Op. cit., p.10.
8. Orlov Vladimir. Moscow Nuclear Safety and Security Summit:
Summing Up the Results. Digest of the Russian nonproliferation
journal Yaderny Kontrol No. 2, Summer 1996, pp.1-8.
9. Kulik Mikhail. Nekotorye problemy khraneniya yadernykh
materialov na Severnom Flote [Some aspects of storage of nuclear
materials in the North Fleet]. Yaderny Kontrol, No. 2,
February 1995, pp.12-15; Kulik Mikhail. Andreeva Guba: raskryto
eshe odno yadernoye khisheniye [Guba Andreeva: one more case of
nuclear theft disclosed]. Yaderny Kontrol, No.11, November
10. Interviews with Alexander Rumyantsev, Kurchatov Institute,
June 1997, and with Col. Robert Budrou from the US Embassy in
Moscow, October 1997.
13. Ovsiyenko S., Rafayenko N. Yest li garantii ot atomnogo
terrorizma? Rossiyskiye Vesti, No. 30, July 1992.
14. Berres L. Saratovskiye khimiki zarabotali na smerti izvestnogo
bankira. Kommersant-Daily, 19 April, 1997, p.7.
15. Nikulina N. Delo Kivelidi. Osoby sluchai. Vek, August
1-7, 1997, p.2; Nikulina N. Delu Kivelidi skoro dva goda.
Vek, No. 22, 1997, p.3.
16. Krutakov L., Kadulin I. Yaponski bog Olega Lobova.
Izvestia, May 25, 1997, p. 1,3; Gvozdev N. Oleg Lobov
otkrestilsya ot zaronovoy afery. Segodnya. 7 May, 1997, p.1;
Golovnin V. Byvshego sekretarya Sovbeza ozhidayut v prokuraturakh
Yaponii I Rossii. Segodnya, 24 April, 1997, p.1; Shomov I.
Vostok vsegda manil Olega Lobova. Segodnya, 26 April, 1997,
p.4; Bovt G., Tarasov S. Nachav ataku na korruptsiyu ne vsye v
Kremle zapaslis protivogazami. Ibidem.
17. Mikhailov A. Silovikam pridyotsya obyedinitsya. Krasnaya
Zvezda, 8 May, 1997, p.1.
18. Moskovskiye Novosti. 2-9 March, 1997, p.3.
19. Kommersant-Daily, 25 November, 1995; Gevorkyan N.
Zhurnalist I terrorist: chast vtoraya. Moskovskiye Novosti,
No. 87, 24-32 December, 1995.
20. Eismont M. U Shamilya Basaeva nyet yadernogo oruzhiya.
Segodnya, 25 July, 1995, p.2.
21. Kurchatov A. Yadernye arsenaly dlya terroristov. Moskovskiye
Novosti, 1-8 September, 1996, p.23.
22. Moscow News Confidential, February 1995, pp.2-10.
23. Records of the hearing at the State Duma of the Russian
Federation on nuclear security. November 1996. In: Yaderny
Kontrol, No. 34-35, October-November 1997, p.9.
24. Belikov V. Zasedaniye s ottenkom chresvychaynosti.
Izvestia, 6 October, 1994.
25. Mikhail Barsukov, FSB Director, in: Moskovskiye Novosti,
9 March, 1996.
26. Bukharin O. The Threat of nuclear terrorism and the physical
security of nuclear installations and materials in the former
Soviet Union. Monterey Institute of International Studies, August
1992, 20pp.; Bukharin O. Problems of Nuclear Terrorism. The
Monitor. Vol.3, No.2, Spring 1997, pp.9-10.
27. Stepovoi A. Gosduma nachinayet borbu s terrorizmom.
Izvestia, September 12, 1997, p.2.
28. Nelzya iskluchit vozmoshnost khisheniya yadernikh materialov.
Stenogramma parlamenskikh slushanii. [Nuclear smuggling should not
be excluded. Record of parliamentary hearings.] Yaderny
Kontrol, No. 32-33, August-September 1997, p.7; Voprosy
Bezopasnosti, No. 9, July 1997, pp.1-2.
29. Voprosy Bezopasnosti, No. 9, July 1997, p2.
30. Orlov V. Yaderny shantazh. [Nuclear Blackmailing].
Nezavisinoye Voyennoye Obozreniye. No. 32, 29 August-4
September 4, 1997, p.1,7. 31. Ibid.
33. Kak uberech rossiyan ot terrorisma. Zaklucheniye [presidenta
Yeltsina] na proyekt federalnogo zakona "O borbe s terrorizmom".
Rossiyskaya Gazeta, 26 June, 1997, p.6.
34. Gorlenko S. A Murmansk podumal: uchenya idut. Rossiyskaya
Gazeta, 26 August, 1997, p.3.
35. Gorlenko S. Zaslon terrorizmu. Nezavisimoye voennoye
obozreniye, 5-11 September, 1997, p.7.
Dr. Vladimir A. Orlov is Director of the PIR Center
(Center for Policy Studies in Russia) and Editor of Yaderny Kontrol
(Nuclear Control) arms control journal.
© 1998 The Acronym Institute.
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