Nuclear power in Australia

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Chalcopyrite uranium-bearing ore from Olympic Dam mine, South Australia
Chalcopyrite uranium-bearing ore from Olympic Dam mine, South Australia

Australia currently has no nuclear facilities generating electricity. Australia has 31% of the world's uranium deposits and is the world's third largest producer of uranium after Kazakhstan and Canada.[1] At the same time, Australia's extensive, low-cost coal and natural gas reserves have historically been used as strong arguments for avoiding nuclear power.[2] The Liberal party has advocated for the development of nuclear power and nuclear industries in Australia since the 1950s. A modern resurgence of interest in nuclear power was prompted by Prime Minister John Howard in 2007 in response to the need to move to low-carbon methods of power generation in order to reduce the impact of climate change. In 2015, South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill announced that a Royal Commission would be held to investigate the state's role in the nuclear fuel cycle. South Australia is currently home to four of Australia's five uranium mines, and the possibility of the state developing nuclear power generation, enrichment and waste storage facilities have proven to be contentious issues in the past. The Royal Commission comes at a time of economic contraction for South Australia, which is suffering from job losses in mining and manufacturing sectors. Nuclear power generation remains prohibited under the Federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

Nuclear power plant concepts and proposals[edit]

1952 Upper Spencer Gulf, South Australia[edit]

In 1952, South Australian Premier Thomas Playford expressed with confidence that the first location for a nuclear power plant in Australia would be on the shores of Spencer Gulf.[3] In July of that year, it was announced more specifically that Fitzgerald Bay, which is located between Whyalla and Port Augusta would be the site.[4] The plant was never constructed, thought the region reemerged again in 2007 as a prospect for a nuclear power plant during the Federal leadership of Prime Minister John Howard.

1969 Jervis Bay, Jervis Bay Territory[edit]

In 1969, a 500 MW nuclear power plant was proposed for the Jervis Bay Territory, 200 km south of Sydney.[5] A local opposition campaign began, and the South Coast Trades and Labour Council (covering workers in the region) announced that it would refuse to build the reactor.[6] Some environmental studies and site works were completed, and two rounds of tenders were called and evaluated, but in 1971 the Australian government decided not to proceed with the project, citing economic reasons.[5][7]

1979 Perth, Western Australia[edit]

In 1977-78, the West Australian Government, under the leadership of Charles Court, announced plans for a nuclear power reactor near Perth. 1977 was seen as the year of mass mobilisation in WA, with 300 at the first anti-nuclear demonstration to 9,000 at the third protest in the inner city of Perth. Despite public protest, the WA Government selected a first site for a nuclear reactor in 1979 at Wilbinga, 70 kilometres north of Perth. Court predicted that at least another 20 nuclear power plants would be needed by the end of the century to meet rapidly growing power demand, but none of this came to pass.[8]

2007 Upper Spencer Gulf, South Australia[edit]

While a nuclear power plant in South Australia's Upper Spencer Gulf region has been discussed intermittently since 2007, as of February 2015 no formal proposal to construct a plant has been made.

In 2007, The Australian newspaper revealed that a location near Port Augusta in the Upper Spencer Gulf region of South Australia was being considered for a future nuclear power plant. A company called Australian Nuclear Energy had been registered on June 1, 2006 with three prominent Australian businessmen as major shareholders: Robert Champion de Crespigny (former Chancellor of the University of Adelaide), Ron Walker (former Lord Mayor of Melbourne) and Hugh Morgan (former director of Western Mining Corporation). Prime Minister John Howard supported the formation of the company, describing it as a "great idea".[9]

Five days after the company was registered, the Federal Government established the Switkowski review into nuclear energy. The company examined the viability of building a 20-50 megawatt pilot plant in the Upper Spencer Gulf area, at a cost of $70 million-$150 million, and had spoken to American company GE about supplying a nuclear reactor.[9]

South Australian Premier Mike Rann responded to news of the investigation by saying:

"It won't be built in this state while I am the Premier or Labor is in power... read my lips, no nuclear power plant in South Australia."[9]

On April 7, 2011, former Australian politician Alexander Downer addressed the students of UCL's Adelaide campus, discussing nuclear power. A long term advocate for nuclear power, he told The Australian that the South Australian town of Whyalla (also in Upper Spencer Gulf) would be ideal for a nuclear power plant to serve the interests of BHP Billiton, South Australia and the eastern states. He stated:

"You could attach it to a desalination plant, so you could solve the problem of Olympic Dam and Roxby Downs... The Upper Spencer Gulf cities, instead of using Murray River water, they could use desalinated water. And we would have a nuclear power station that would create power for the eastern states' grid."[10]

The Olympic Dam project was expected to use about 400MW of electricity per day if the proposed mine expansion went ahead. In 2011, the Olympic Dam mine expansion received State and Federal environmental approval, but in 2012, the BHP Billiton board decided not to proceed with the mine expansion as planned citing weakened economic conditions as the reason.[9]

In 2012 a first-of-a-kind study was undertaken in which a combination of solar and wind technology, proposed as a replacement for the ageing Northern coal power plant, was comprehensively compared with a reference nuclear reactor. Assuming equal public confidence and an established regulatory framework, the nuclear energy option compared favourably on cost, reliability, commercial availability, plant lifetime and greenhouse gas abatement, among other criteria.[11]

University of Adelaide Professor of climatology Tom Wigley co-authored an open letter calling for an expansion of nuclear energy as a tool against climate change.[12] Further calls for the consideration of nuclear power came from academics,[13][14] Australian media[15][16] and The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.[17]

In the lead-up to the 2014 South Australian election, Business SA proposed the establishment of a nuclear industry to enhance the state's economic growth.[18]

In 2015 South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill announced that a Royal Commission would be held to investigate South Australia's role in the nuclear fuel cycle.

Nuclear power politics[edit]

Prime Minister John Howard, 1997
Prime Minister John Howard, 1997

As uranium prices began rising from about 2003, proponents of nuclear power advocated it as a solution to global warming and the Australian government began taking an interest. In late 2006 and early 2007, then Prime Minister John Howard made widely reported statements in favour of nuclear power, on environmental grounds.[19] Faced with these proposals to examine nuclear power as a possible response to climate change, anti-nuclear campaigners and scientists in Australia emphasised claims that nuclear power could not significantly substitute for other power sources, and that uranium mining itself could become a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.[20][21]

In 2006, the Howard Government commissioned the Switkowski report, an investigation into the merits of Nuclear power in Australia. The report concluded that nuclear power would be competitive with coal power plants if Carbon credit sanctions were implemented upon Australia. The Industry would have been able to produce its first plant in 10 years and could have delivered 25 plants by 2050 supplying Australia with a third of its base load power.[22]

Queensland introduced legislation to ban nuclear power development on 20 February 2007.[23] Tasmania attempted a ban on nuclear power facilities[24] but later did not pass the bill.[25] Both bills were formulated in response to the pro-nuclear position of John Howard,[26] and the release of the Switkowski report.[27]

Anti-nuclear campaigns were given added impetus by public concern about the sites for possible reactors: fears exploited by anti-nuclear power political parties in the lead-up to a national election in 2007.[28][29] The Rudd Labor government was elected in November 2007 and was opposed to nuclear power for Australia.[30][31] The anti-nuclear movement continues to be active in Australia, opposing expansion of existing uranium mines, lobbying against the development of nuclear power in Australia, and criticising proposals for nuclear waste disposal sites.[32]

At the same time, a number of Australian politicians feel that the development of nuclear power is in the country's best interests. Notably, on 13 June 2008, the annual New South Wales state conference of the National Party passed the resolution, proposed by the delegates from Dubbo, supporting research into the development of a nuclear power industry and the establishment of an international nuclear waste storage facility in Australia. The resolution was opposed by the delegates from NSW's north coast and by the party's state leader, Andrew Stoner.[33][34]

In 2005, the Australian government threatened to use its constitutional powers to take control of the approval process for new uranium mines from the anti-nuclear Northern Territory government. Also, the government is negotiating with China to weaken safeguard terms to allow uranium exports there.[citation needed] States controlled by the Australian Labor Party are blocking the development of new mines in their jurisdictions under the ALP's "No New Mines policy."

The John Howard-led Coalition government went to the November 2007 federal election with a pro-nuclear power platform. This government was defeated by the Labor Party, however, which opposes nuclear power for Australia.[35][36]

During the Labor-led Rudd-Gillard Government the party's opposition to nuclear power was upheld, while Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson demonstrated his support for the uranium mining sector. Ferguson retired in 2013 and was replaced by Gary Gray who subsequently indicated support for future nuclear industrial development in Australia. At a South Australian mining and energy sector conference he stated:

"I am optimistic that we will get (power) generation issues attended to and that it will be done in a timely fashion."[37]

In 2013, the Liberal party, led by Tony Abbott, resumed power and reopened discussions about the future of nuclear power in Australia. Since Abbott's appointment, former Prime Minister John Howard, former foreign minister Alexander Downer, and several current members of the Abbott government have openly advocated for the consideration of nuclear power development, including Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.[38]

Nuclear law[edit]

The Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 prohibits certain nuclear actions specified in s.22 unless a federal approval is obtained. It specifically prohibits nuclear power generation in s.140A (an amendment insisted upon by the Australian Democrats). The Act states that the Minister must not approve an action consisting of or involving the construction or operation of a nuclear fuel fabrication plant, or a nuclear power plant, or an enrichment plant, or a reprocessing facility.

Nuclear power debate in Australia[edit]

In the 2010 book Why vs. Why: Nuclear Power[39] Barry Brook and Ian Lowe discuss and articulate the debate about nuclear power. Brook argues that there are various reasons why people should say "yes" to nuclear power, and these reasons include:[39]

  • Because renewable energy and energy efficiency may or may not solve the energy and climate crisis
  • Because nuclear fuel is virtually unlimited and "packs a huge energy punch"
  • Because new technology solves the “nuclear waste” problem
  • Because nuclear power is the safest energy option

Lowe argues that there are various reasons why people should say "no" to nuclear power:[39]

  • Because it is not a fast enough response to climate change
  • Because it is too expensive
  • Because the need for baseload electricity is exaggerated
  • Because the problem of waste remains unresolved

Advocates for nuclear power[edit]

Active advocates[edit]

Companies[edit]

  • Australian Nuclear Energy is an Australian company established in 2006 to investigate the feasibility of developing a nuclear power industry in Australia. It sought to investigate the possibility of constructing a plant in South Australia or Victoria. Directors include Ron Walker (former Lord Mayor of Melbourne), Hugh Morgan (former director of Western Mining Corporation) and Robert Champion de Crespigny (former Chancellor of the University of Adelaide). Ron Walker publicly welcomed the announcement in 2015 of a Royal Commission to investigate South Australia's role in the nuclear fuel cycle.[40]
  • Silex Systems is an Australian technology company which has developed SILEX (Separation of isotopes by laser excitation) for the purposes of uranium enrichment. The company has partnered with multinational nuclear power plant manufacturers General Electric and Hitachi and the world's largest uranium mining company, Cameco through a joint-venture called Global Laser Enrichment. In 2013, Silex Systems' CEO Dr Michael Goldsworthy advocated for Australia to embrace nuclear power. He told the ABC:

    "Our insatiable hunger for fossil fuels has to be tempered going forward and the only alternative for base load grid power, that's the power you need 24/7, other than coal, is nuclear power."[41]

  • SMR Nuclear Technology is a private Australian company established in 2012 with the goal of deploying small modular reactors in Australia and changing legislation to allow for it.[42] The reactors are light water reactors and can be air-cooled so that coastal locations (which would otherwise provide seawater for cooling) would not be required. Technical director Tony Irwin described the reactors as being "the size of a large petrol filling station... and the reactor is underground so it is again safe from external hazards or terrorists." Possible customers for SMR Nuclear Technology include large mining operations in remote locations. He also stated that the reactors would be suitable for integration into the existing Australian electricity grid system.[43]
  • South Australian Nuclear Energy Systems is an Australian private company registered on January 1, 2014.[44] The company is chaired by merchant banker and former News International director Bruce Hundertmark[45] and its board includes Ian Kowalick, the former chief of staff to ex-Liberal premier John Olsen. The company has discussed its business proposals with Federal and State politicians, with a view to amending laws that ban nuclear power generation. Hundertmark told The New Daily in 2014 that:
  • "The funding of the things that need to be done is not a real problem – the problem is to get the legislative changes needed.”[46]

Politicians[edit]

  • Alexander Downer
    Alexander Downer
    Former Prime Minister John Howard continues to advocate for nuclear power. in 2013 he stated that he believes nuclear power, shale oil, and fracking for gas will meet the world's energy needs.[47]
  • Former Federal politicians Alexander Downer (Liberal) and Martin Ferguson (Labor) have both advocated for nuclear power and for the expansion of uranium mining in Australia. In 2010, Liberal Opposition member Greg Hunt said of Ferguson: "Behind the scenes, we all know Martin Ferguson is agitating for nuclear energy against his Prime Minister, against Senator Wong."[48] Despite coming from opposing major parties, Downer has described Ferguson as:

"One minister who is not only competent but also does have convictions. He is the Resources Minister and often is quoted as supporting the further development of Australia's uranium industry. There is no doubt he also is a supporter of nuclear power in Australia."

  • Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his coalition government have expressed support for nuclear industrial development in Australia. The Federal Government allocated $2.5 billion in the May 2014 budget to fund clean energy initiatives, including “clean power stations”. On June 13, 2014, Abbott said that the Australian government “did not believe in ostracising any particular fuel”.[46] In 2010, while leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott stated that he believed nuclear power was the only proven way to generate baseload electricity while reducing carbon emissions and maintaining Australia's standard of living.[49]
  • In November 2014, Federal Foreign Minister Julie Bishop described nuclear power as an "obvious direction" in reducing Australia's carbon emissions while utilizing the country's reserves of uranium.[38]
  • Premier of Western Australia, Colin Barnett[50]
  • Former ALP president, Warren Mundine[50]

Defence[edit]

  • Paul Barratt, former secretary of Australia's Department of Defence, has advocated for nuclear power to be adopted in order to reduce Australia's carbon emissions.[41] He has an honours degree in physics from the University of New England and is a friend of fellow nuclear power advocate and former Prime Minister, John Howard.
  • The Defence Teaming Centre's chief executive officer Chris Burns believes that South Australia could become the "future Dubai of the world'' if it embraces nuclear industries, including enrichment of nuclear fuel.[51]
  • Governor General Peter Cosgrove believes that in the context of climate change "there is hardly a cleaner energy resource." Cosgrove believes that Australia should be moving towards nuclear power. He has disputed claims that nuclear power is unsafe, stating:

"We are a rich and technologically advanced nation sitting in a geologically stable continent. So surely we can expect to build and operate safe nuclear power stations."[49]

Entrepreneurs[edit]

  • Dick Smith held firm on his support for nuclear power following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. He said that burning coal ''could result in hundreds of millions of people dying, and if that's true … that could be far worse than using nuclear."[50]

Media[edit]

  • Senior writer for The Age, John Watson has espoused the safety of nuclear power plants in several pieces in 2013 with reference to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.[52][53][54]
  • ABC TV program Stateline in South Australia has run a number of stories on nuclear power since 2005. Voices in support of nuclear power including politicians, public servants and representatives of the uranium mining industry have outnumbered opponents. Stateline's former South Australian host, Ian Henschke has also written for The Advertiser espousing the merits of nuclear power.
  • The Advertiser has promoted uranium mining in South Australia and has advocated for the expansion of the nuclear industry in the state by interviewing spokespeople from the business community, uranium mining industry, economists, academics and industry consultants.[55] Reporting journalists include Cameron England, Christopher Russell, Valerina Changerathil and Andrew Hough. The newspaper has also published many opinion editorial pieces promoting nuclear power. These pieces often diminish safety concerns held by opponents and promote the safety of nuclear power and in some cases, exposure to ionizing radiation. They also focus on nuclear power's ability to provide base-load power and its potential to replace coal-fired power plants thus reducing risk of catastrophic climate change. Opinion writers include Barry Brook, Geoff Russell[56] and Ian Henschke. Counterpoints occasionally feature from authors such as Jim Green from Friends of the Earth.

Scientists[edit]

Industry associations and trade unions[edit]

  • Australian Workers Union National Secretary Paul Howes has been an active advocate for the legalisation of nuclear power in Australia and called for an urgent debate in 2009. He also referred to the uranium mining ban in Queensland and exploration bans in New South Wales and Victoria as ''superstitions of another age.''[58] Queensland and New South Wales bans were subsequently lifted.
  • Business SA, South Australia's Chamber of Commerce and Industry, promotes nuclear power development. The Chamber has demanded the lifting of federal prohibitions so that debate on specific nuclear reactor designs can proceed. In December 2014, spokesperson Nigel McBride stated: "We need governments to get out of the way." Business SA is pushing for a specific project to be considered; a $3 billion micro reactor known as a Prism power plant designed by General Electric and Hitachi. A fast-breeder reactor, it would convert used nuclear fuel rods and surplus plutonium into energy. He described the technology as safe and innovative, and argued the proposal would pay its own way after five years.[43]
  • Engineers Australia's spokesperson Tony Irwin has called for "simple legislation change" to allow the development of nuclear industries, particularly the deployment of small modular reactors. Irwin is also technical director for the private company SMR Nuclear Technology.[43]
  • The Minerals Council of Australia advocates for nuclear power in Australia. A representative from BHP Billiton manages the MCA's uranium portfolio.
  • The South Australian Chamber of Mines and Energy (SACOME) advocates for the development of nuclear power in South Australia. South Australia is home to the majority of the nation's uranium mines, and the Chamber represents the interests of several corporate members engaged in uranium mining and exploration. Members include Alliance Resources, Areva Resources Australia, BHP Billiton, Heathgate Resources, Uranium SA and others.[59]

Past and former advocates[edit]

  • Professor David Wigg (1933 - 2010), was the clinical examiner in radiotherapy physics for the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists from 1970 - 1978, and directed the expansion of radiation oncology and clinical radiobiology at the Royal Adelaide Hospital from 1980 until 1997.[60] In the years before his death, he published his views on the safety of low-dose radiation and the related misconceptions that impeded effective medical uses of radiation and the benefits of uranium mining and nuclear energy.[61]
  • The Australian Uranium Association was founded in September 2006 and advocated for the interests of uranium mining member companies. Its two full members were BHP Billiton and Energy Resources Australia (ERA), operators of the nation's two most established uranium mines: Olympic Dam and Ranger. In 2013, its work was integrated into the operation of the Minerals Council of Australia and the association was wound up.
  • The Uranium Information Centre promoted uranium mining and nuclear power in Australia from its establishment in 1978 until 2008. It was effectively succeeded by the Australian Uranium Association.
  • Tim Flannery is a professor at Macquarie University, and the chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council, an international climate change awareness group.[62] In 2006 he supported nuclear power as a possible solution for reducing Australia's carbon emissions,[63][64] but in 2007 he changed his position [65] and in May 2007 told a business gathering in Sydney that while nuclear energy does have a role elsewhere in the world, Australia's abundance of renewable resources rule out the need for nuclear power in the near term. He does however feel that Australia should and will have to supply its uranium to those other countries that do not have access to renewables like Australia does.[66]
  • Sir Ernest William Titterton (1916 – 1990) was a nuclear physicist and professor who publicly advocated nuclear power for Australia.[67]
  • Sir Philip Baxter (1905 – 1989), a British chemical engineer, was one of the most prolific public advocates of nuclear power in Australia.[68]

Opinion polls[edit]

A McNair Gallup poll on the construction of nuclear power plants in Australia was carried out in 1979. The same poll was conducted again 28 years later in 2007 on 1,000 randomly selected people throughout Australia. A new poll was asked in 2009 which marked the first time that more people support nuclear power than oppose it. The support for nuclear power is still in a plurality not an outright majority [1] . Respondents were asked the following question:

“Do you favour or oppose the construction of nuclear power stations in Australia?” 1979 2007 2009
Favour 34% 41% 49%
Oppose 56% 53% 43%
Don’t Know 10% 6% 8%

The 1979 poll was conducted soon after the Three Mile Island Unit 2 (TMI-2) nuclear power plant accident located near Pennsylvania USA where a sequence of events lead to the partial meltdown of the TMI-2 reactor core.[69]

Opposition to the construction of nuclear power plants in the 2007 poll was strongest amongst females, Greens supporters and Australians aged 18–29 and 40-49.[70]

Do you favour or oppose the construction of nuclear power stations in Australia? TOTAL ALP Coalition Greens
Favour 41% 30% 59% 22%
Oppose 53% 66% 34% 78%
Don't Know 6% 4% 7% 0%

The McNair Gallup Poll showed a significant difference in opinion between ALP, Coalition and Green supporters, and moderate differences by gender. Men were more likely to favour the construction of nuclear power stations (55%), with twice as many males in favour of the construction of nuclear power plants in Australia than women. 41% of men were more likely to oppose the construction of nuclear power plants in Australia. In contrast, 65% of women were more likely to oppose the construction of nuclear power plants in Australia, while 28% favour the construction of nuclear power plants.

A 2014 independent survey, commissioned by SACOME, of 1,214 South Australians revealed a distinct trend in the community towards supporting consideration of nuclear energy.[71]

Please rate your level of support for Nuclear Power? TOTAL Female Male 18-34 35-50 51-65 65+
Total Support 48.0% 44.5% 64.4% 52.3% 53.8% 52.3% 59.8%
Neutral 19.5% 26.2% 16.9% 22.9% 20.6% 21.6% 21.8%
Total Oppose 32.6% 29.3% 18.6% 24.7% 25.6% 26.0% 18.4%

The proportion of neutral respondents was at around 20-25% in all categories, with qualitative feedback largely indicating conditional support given the satisfactory addressing of concerns, or a requirement for further information. Positive responses outnumbered the negative, most dramatically men and the elderly, with less dramatic support from women.

After Fukushima[edit]

The nuclear debate in Australia increased after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.[72] Some protestors demanded a halt to uranium mining in their country and throughout the world.[73]

Nuclear waste storage[edit]

In response to the Northern Land Council's withdrawal of the Muckaty Station site as a potential centralised nuclear waste facility,[74] it was articulated that the process had suffered from a lack of recognition of the limited hazard posed by existing waste, which is currently stored at over one hundred sites in cities and industrial areas.[75] Furthermore, an open tender process for volunteered sites has attracted interest from pastoralists.[76]

2014 Energy Green Paper[edit]

The federal government released an energy green paper which articulated the potential for Australia in modern nuclear capacity, including small modular reactors, generation IV reactor technology and the role of thorium as nuclear fuel,[77] though industry minister Ian MacFarlane opined that "there is no need to have a debate in regard to nuclear energy in Australia but we should focus on the opportunities that nuclear energy presents in other countries and build our uranium industry to take advantage of that."[78] In contrast, foreign minister Julie Bishop declared support for nuclear energy, saying "It's an obvious conclusion that if you want to bring down your greenhouse gas emissions dramatically you have to embrace a form of low or zero-emissions energy and that's nuclear, the only known 24/7 baseload power supply with zero emissions."[79] The call for sensible discussion was publicly welcomed by economists and at least one member of the federal opposition.[80] The CEO of Origin Energy spoke in support of the prospect[81] and BusinessSA demanded the lifting of federal prohibitions so that debate on specific designs could proceed.[82]

At the end of 2014 an open letter[83] was addressed to environmental organisations and signed by seventy-five[84] distinguished climate science experts, including twenty-seven Australian-based academics, endorsing the findings of a peer-reviewed article which quantified the potential climate and biodiversity benefits of nuclear energy.[85]

2015 Royal Commission, South Australia[edit]

In February 2015 the South Australian premier, Jay Weatherill announced that a Royal Commission would investigate South Australia's future role in the nuclear fuel cycle. Former Governor and current Chancellor of the University of Adelaide, Kevin Scarce was appointed Commissioner, despite his lack of tertiary education or legal qualifications. Nuclear power advocates Barry Brook and Ben Heard supported the announcement stating that the debate about nuclear power in Australia has "remained open to distortions, fabrications and fearmongering. Fortunately, such tactics will not withstand the scrutiny of a Royal Commission. As scientists, academics and evidence-based activists, concerned with facts and objective judgement, we welcome this process."[86]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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