Challakere, KARNATAKA -- When labourers began excavating protected pastureland in India’s southern Karnataka state in 2012, members of the nomadic Lambani tribe were startled. For centuries, the scarlet-robed herbalists and herders had freely crisscrossed the undulating meadow there, known as kavals, and this uprooting of their rich landscape came without warning or explanation.
By autumn, Puttaranga Setty, a wiry groundnut farmer from Kallalli, encountered a barbed wire fence blocking off a well-used trail. His neighbor, a herder, discovered that the road from this city to a nearby village had been diverted elsewhere. They rang Doddaullarti Karianna, a weaver who sits on one of the village councils that funnel India’s sprawling democracy down to the grass roots.
Karianna recalls being baffled and frightened by the news. He said the 365,000 residents of the farming and tribal communities that live in over sixty villages alongside the kavals believe they are protected by a female deity that rises from the pasture, and so the “thought of not having [access to] the kavals was terrifying; like saying there will be no Gods.”
Officials with India’s state and central governments refused to answer his questions. So Karianna sought legal help from a combative ecological-advocacy group in Bangalore that specializes in fighting illegal encroachment on greenbelt land. But the group’s lawyers were also stymied. Officials warned its lawyers that the prime minister’s office was running the project from New Delhi.
“There is no point fighting this, we were told,” Leo Saldanha, a founding member of the advocacy group recalled. “You cannot win.” Indeed, an unprecedented election boycott and protests by thousands of local residents, some violent, have had no effect.
Only after construction on the site began that year did it finally become clear that two secretive agencies were behind a project that experts say will be the subcontinent’s largest military-run complex of nuclear centrifuges, atomic research laboratories and weapons and aircraft testing facilities. Among the project's aims: to expand the government’s nuclear research, to produce fuel for India’s nuclear reactors, and to help power the country’s fleet of new submarines, one of which underwent sea trials in 2014.
Councillor Doddaullarti Karianna tours the villages beside the kavals, at Khudapura, to listen to the fears of neighbours and friends, who still have not been consulted about the construction of a nuclear city in Challakere.
But another, more controversial ambition, according to retired Indian government officials and independent experts in London and Washington, is to give India an extra stockpile of enriched uranium fuel that could — if India so decides — be used in new hydrogen bombs (also known as thermonuclear weapons), substantially increasing the explosive force of those in its existing nuclear arsenal.
Such a move would be regarded uneasily by India’s close neighbours, China and Pakistan, which experts say might respond by ratcheting up their own nuclear firepower. Pakistan in particular considers itself a fierce military rival, having been entangled in four major conflicts with India, as well as frequent border skirmishing.
New Delhi has never published a detailed account of its nuclear arsenal, which it first developed in 1974. Until now, there has been little public notice, outside India, about the construction at Challakere and its strategic implications. The government has said little about it, and made no public promises about how the highly-enriched uranium to be produced there will be used. As a military facility, it is not open to international inspection.
But a lengthy investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, including interviews with local residents, senior and retired Indian scientists and military officers connected to the nuclear program, and foreign experts and intelligence analysts, has pierced some of the secrecy surrounding the new facility, parts of which are set to open next year. It makes clear that it will give India a nuclear capability – the ability to make many large-yield nuclear arms – that most experts say it presently lacks.
And if these tasks require the trampling of the kavals, so be it.
The independent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that India already has between 90 and 110 relatively low-yield nuclear weapons, as compared to Pakistan’s estimated stockpile of up to 120. And China, to India’s north, is estimated to have more than 260 warheads.
China successfully tested a thermonuclear weapon — involving a two-stage explosion, typically producing a much larger force and far greater destruction than single-stage atomic bombs — as long ago as 1967, while India’s scientists claimed to have detonated a thermonuclear weapon in 1998. But test site preparations director K. Santhanam said in 2009 it had “fizzled,” rendering the number and type of such weapons in India’s arsenal uncertain to outsiders.
India, according to a recent report by former Australian nonproliferation chief John Carlson, is one of just three countries that continue to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons (the others are Pakistan and North Korea). The enlargement of India’s thermonuclear program would more clearly position the country alongside Britain, the United States, Russia, Israel, France, and China, which already have significant stocks of such weapons.
Few authorities in India are willing to discuss these matters publicly, partly because the country’s Atomic Energy Act and the Official Secrets Act shroud everything connected to the Indian nuclear program, and in the past have been used to bludgeon those who divulge details. Spokesmen for the two organisations involved in the Challakere construction, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), which has played a leading role in nuclear weapons design, declined to answer the Centre’s questions about the government’s ambitions for the new park, as did the Indian ministry of external affairs.
Western analysts, speaking on condition that they not be named, say however that preparatory work for this effort has been underway for four years, at a second top-secret site known as the Rare Materials Plant, 160 miles to the south in Rattehalli, close to the city of Mysore. Recent satellite photos of that facility have revealed the existence of a new nuclear enrichment complex that is already feeding India’s weapons program, and some Western analysts maintain, laying the groundwork for a more ambitious hydrogen bomb project. It is effectively a test bed for Challakere, they say, a proving ground for technology and a place where technicians can practice producing the highly-enriched uranium the military would need.
The environment ministry approved the Mysore site’s construction as “a project of strategic importance” that would cost nearly $100 million in Oct. 2012, according to a letter marked Secret, from the ministry to atomic energy officials that month. Seen by the Center, this letter spells out the ambition to feed new centrifuges with fuel derived from yellowcake — milled uranium ore named after its colour — shipped from mines in Jadugoda, 1,200 miles away in India’s north, and to draw water from the nearby Krishna Raja Sagar dam.
Finding authoritative information about the scope and objectives of these two massive construction projects is not easy. “Even for us, details of the Indian program are always sketchy, and hard facts thin on the ground,” a circumstance that leaves room for misunderstanding, a senior Obama administration official said in Washington.
“Mysore is being constantly monitored, and we are constantly monitoring progress in Challakere”
But Gary Samore, who served from 2009 to 2013 as the White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, said "I believe that India intends to build thermonuclear weapons as part of its strategic deterrent against China." Samore said it is unclear when India will realise this goal of a larger and more powerful arsenal, but “they will.”
A former senior British official who worked on nuclear issues likewise said intelligence analysts on both sides of the Atlantic are “increasingly concerned” about India’s pursuit of thermonuclear weapons and “actively monitoring” both sites. U.S. officials in Washington said they shared this assessment. “Mysore is being constantly monitored, and we are constantly monitoring progress in Challakere,” a former White House official said.
Robert Kelley, a former project leader for nuclear intelligence at Los Alamos, who served twice, from 1992-1993 and 2001-2005, as the director of the Iraq Action Team at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said that having analysed the available satellite imagery, as well as studying open source material on both sites, he believed that India was pursuing a larger thermonuclear arsenal. He warned that its development “will inevitably usher in a new nuclear arms race” in a volatile region, where India, China, and Pakistan have border disputes, wary militaries, and diplomats who sometimes deploy incendiary rhetoric.
However, Western knowledge about India’s weapons are stored, transported and protected, and how the radiological and fissile material that fuels them is guarded and warehoused — the chain of custody — remains rudimentary.
After examining nuclear security practices in 25 countries with “weapons usable nuclear materials,” the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit organisation headquartered in Washington, in January 2014 ranked India’s nuclear security practices 23rd, only above Iran and North Korea. An NTI analyst told the Center India’s score stemmed in part from the country’s opacity and “obfuscation on nuclear regulation and security issues.” But the group also noted the prevalence of corruption in India and the insecurity of the region: the rise of Islamist jihad fronts inside India and in nearby Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as home-grown leftist insurgencies.
“Many other countries, including China, have worked with us to understand the ratings system and better their positions,” but India did not, the analyst said.
Spokesmen for the two organisations involved in the Challakere construction, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), which has played a leading role in nuclear weapons design, declined comment about the government’s ambitions for the new park.
Like the villagers nearby, key members of the Indian Parliament say they know little about the project. One veteran lawmaker, who has twice been a cabinet minister, said his colleagues are rarely briefed about nuclear weapons-related issues. “Frankly, we in Parliament discover little,” he said, “and what we do find out is normally from Western newspapers.” In an interview with Indian reporters in 2003, Jayanthi Natarajan, a former minister for environment and forests and past member of a parliamentary committee on defence and atomic energy matters, said that she and other members of Parliament had “tried time and again to raise [nuclear-related] issues … and have achieved precious little.”
Starting work while the nuclear deal’s ink is still wet
Nonetheless, lawyers acting for the villagers living close to Challakere eventually forced some important disclosures. The Parliament’s representative for the region heard about plans for the park from the Indian defence minister as early as March 2007, according to a copy of personal correspondence between the two, seen by the Center.
This was the very moment India was also negotiating a deal with the United States to expand nuclear cooperation. That deal ended nearly three decades of nuclear-related isolation for India, imposed as punishment for its first atom bomb test in 1974. U.S. military assistance to India was barred for a portion of this period, and Washington also withheld its support for loans by international financial institutions.
The agreement was highly controversial in Washington. While critics warned it would reward India for its secret pursuit of the bomb and allow it to expand its nuclear weapons work, supporters emphasised language in which India agreed to identify its civilian nuclear sites and open them to inspection by the IAEA.
India also said at the time that it would refrain from conducting new atomic weapons tests. And in return for the waiving of restrictions on India’s civil nuclear program, the President was required to determine that India was “working actively with the United States for the early conclusion of a multilateral treaty on the cessation of the production of fissile materials for use in nuclear weapons.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 2006 that the deal would not trigger an arms race in the region or “enhance [India’s] military capacity or add to its military stockpile.” Rice added: “Moreover, the nuclear balance in the region is a function of the political and military situation in the region. We are far more likely to be able to influence those regional dynamics from a position of strong relations with India and indeed with Pakistan.”
Opponents of the deal complained, however, that it did not compel India to allow inspections of nine reactor sites known to be associated with the country’s military, including several producing plutonium for nuclear arms. The deal also allowed 10 other reactor sites subject to IAEA inspection to use imported uranium fuel, freeing up an indigenously-mined supply of uranium that was not tracked by the international community and could now be redirected to the country’s bomb program.
“We are far more likely to be able to influence those regional dynamics from a position of strong relations with India and indeed with Pakistan”
Given India’s “need to build up [its] nuclear deterrent arsenal as fast as possible,” it should “categorise as many power reactors as possible as civilian ones, to be refuelled by imported uranium, and conserve our native uranium fuel for weapons grade plutonium production,” strategist Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam, a longtime adviser to the Indian government, notoriously wrote in 12 December, 2005, in The Times of India.
By May 2009, seven months after the US-India nuclear cooperation deal was ratified by Congress, the Karnataka state government had secretly leased 4,290 acres adjacent to Varavu Kaval and Khudapura villages in the district of Chitradurga to the defence research group and another 1,500 acres to the Indian Institute of Science, a research center that has frequently worked with the DRDO and India’s nuclear industry, the documents obtained by lawyers showed.
In December 2010, a further 573 acres were leased to the Indian Space Research Organisation and 1,810 acres were bought by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. Councillor Karianna said the villagers were not told at the time about any of these transactions, and that the documents, which they saw two years later, “were stunning. We were being fenced in — behind our backs.”
Srikumar Banerjee, the chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, first offered an official glimpse of the project’s ambitions in 2011, when he told CNN’s Indian news channel that the enrichment plant could be used to produce nuclear fuel, or slightly enriched uranium, to power India’s heavy and light water reactors. However, Banerjee added that the site would also have a strategic use, a designation that would keep international inspectors away.
Erecting barricades and draining the local water supply
The sensitivity of the Challakere project became clearer after the legal team filed a lawsuit in 2012 at the High Court of Karnataka demanding a complete accounting of pasture land being seized by the authorities, only to learn from the state land registry that the Indian army was to be granted 10,000 acres too, as the future home for a brigade of 2,500 soldiers. The State Reserve Police, an armed force, would receive 350 acres, and 500 acres more was being set aside for a Commando Training Centre. The nuclear city close to Challakere would, in short, be ringed by a security perimeter of thousands of military and paramilitary guards.
In July 2013, six years after the plans were green-lit by Delhi, the National Green Tribunal — India’s environmental agency — finally took up the villager’s complaints. It dispatched investigators to the scene and demanded that each government agency disclose its ambitions in detail. The DRDO responded that national security trumped the tribunal and provided no more information.
While the IAEA would be kept out, villagers were being hemmed in. By 2013, a public notice was plastered onto an important shrine known as Boredevaragudi warning worshippers it would soon be inaccessible. A popular altar for a local animist ceremony was already out of bounds. The route for a festival of Hiriyara Habba at Khudapura, which celebrated the community’s ancestors, was also blocked.
“Then the groundwater began to vanish,” councillor Karianna said. The district is a semi-arid zone, and local records, still written in ink, show that between 2003 and 2007, droughts had caused the suicides of 101 farmers whose crops failed. Now, due to the construction, a critical man-made reservoir adjacent to Ullarthi was suddenly fenced off. Bore wells dug by the nuclear and military contractors as the construction accelerated siphoned off other water supplies from surrounding villages.
Seventeen miles of 15-foot-high walls began to snake around the villagers’ meadows, blocking grazing routes, preventing them from gathering firewood or herbs for medicine. Hundreds rallied to knock holes into the new ramparts. “They were rebuilt in days,” Karianna said, “so we tried again, but this time teams of private security guards had been hired by someone, and they viciously beat my neighbours and friends.”
By the spring of 2014, more than 17 miles of 15-foot-high walls had been built throughout the kavals, catching out villagers who had not been consulted. They were now prevented from grazing their cattle or, in some cases, from reaching holy sites. A few broke through the walls, like here in Voru Kaval. Most were rebuilt immediately and security patrols by a private company now guard them. Photo: Adrian Levy
BARC and the DRDO still provided no detailed explanations to anyone on the ground about the scope and purpose of their work, Karianna added. “Our repeated requests, pleadings, representations to all elected members at every level have yielded no hard facts. It feels as if India has rejected us.” Highlighting local discontent, almost all of the villagers ringing the kavals boycotted the impending general election, a rare action since India’s birth as an independent democracy.
The growing local discontent, and the absence of public comment by the U.S. or European governments about the massive project, eventually drew the attention of independent nuclear analysts.
Suspicions stoked by satellite photos
Serena Kelleher-Vergantini, an analyst at the Washington, D.C., based nonprofit, the Institute for Science and International Security, scoured all the available satellite imagery in the summer of 2014. Eventually, with the help of the Bangalore-based environmental group, she zeroed in on the construction site in the kavals. The journal IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review was separately doing the same in London, commissioning Kelley, formerly of the IAEA, to analyse images from the Mysore plant.
What struck both of them was the enormous scale and ambition of the projects as well as the secrecy surrounding them. The military-nuclear park in the kavals, at nearly 20 square miles, has a footprint comparable to the New York state capital, Albany. After analyzing the images and conducting interviews with atomic officials in India, Kelleher-Vergantini concluded that the footprint for enrichment facilities planned in the new complex would enable scientists to produce industrial quantities of uranium, although the institute would only know how much when construction had progressed further. As Kelley examined photos of the second site, he was astonished by the presence of two recently expanded buildings that had been made lofty enough to accommodate a new generation of tall, carbon-fiber centrifuges, capable of working far faster to enrich uranium than any existing versions.
Nuclear experts express the productiveness of these machines in Separative Work Units, abbreviated to SWUs (pronounced swooz). Kelley concluded that at the second site, the government could install up to 1,050 of these new hyper-efficient machines, which together with about 700 older centrifuges could complete 42,000 SWUs a year — or enough, he said, to make roughly 183 kilograms (403 pounds) of weapons-grade uranium. A new H-bomb, with an explosive force exceeding 100,000 tons of TNT, would require just 4 to 7 kilograms of enriched uranium, according to the International Panel on Fissile Materials, a group of nuclear experts from 16 countries that seek to reduce and secure uranium stocks.
Retired Indian nuclear scientists and military officers said in interviews that India’s growing nuclear submarine fleet would be the first beneficiary of the newly-produced enriched uranium.
India presently has one indigenous vessel, the INS Arihant, constructed in a program supervised by the prime minister’s office. Powered by an 80-megawatt uranium reactor developed by BARC that went critical in August 2013, it will formally enter military service in 2016, having undergone sea trials in 2014. A second, INS Aridaman, is already under construction, with at least two more slated to be built, a senior military officer said in an interview. Each would be loaded with up to 12 nuclear-tipped missiles. The officer, who was not authorized to be named, said the fleet’s expansion gained a new sense of urgency after Chinese submarines sailed across the Bay of Bengal to Sri Lanka in October 2014, docking in a port facility in Colombo that had been built by Chinese engineers.
Asked what else the additional uranium would be used for, a senior scientist at the DRDO, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it would mostly be used to fuel civilian nuclear power reactors and contribute to what he called “benign medical and scientific programs.” The government has not made such a promise publicly, however, or provided details. India does not have to report what it does with its indigenous uranium, "especially if it is not in the civilian domain,” said Sunil Chirayath, a research assistant professor at Texas A&M University who is an expert on India’s civilian nuclear program.
A senior Obama administration official in Washington, who was not authorized to be quoted by name, expressed skepticism about the government scientist's private claim. The official said that India’s civilian nuclear programs, including power stations and research establishments, were benefiting from new access to imported nuclear fuel (after the embargo’s removal) and now require almost “no homemade enriched uranium.”
India has already received 4,914 tons of uranium from France, Russia, and Kazakhstan, for example, and it has agreements with Canada, Mongolia, Argentina and Namibia for additional shipments. In September 2014, Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia signed an agreement to make Australia a “long-term, reliable supplier of uranium to India,” a deal that has sparked considerable controversy among Australians.
The International Panel on Fissile Materials estimates that the Arihant class submarine core requires only 65kg of uranium, enriched to 30 per cent. Using this figure and the estimated capacity of the centrifuges India is installing in Mysore alone — not even including Challakere — Kelley concluded that even after fueling its entire submarine fleet there would be 160kg of weapons-grade uranium left over, every year, or enough to fuel at least 22 H-bombs.
His calculation presumes that the plant is run efficiently, and that its excess capacity is purposeful and not driven by bureaucratic inertia – two large uncertainties in India, a senior U.S. official noted. But having a “rainy day” stockpile to deter the Chinese might be the aim, the official added.
Attempting to match China’s nuclear arsenal?
A retired official who served inside the nuclear cell at the Indian prime minister’s office, the apex organization that supervises the military nuclear program, conceded that other uses besides submarines had been anticipated “for many years.” He pointed to a “thermonuclear bomb program” as “a beneficiary,” and suggested India had had no choice but to “develop a new generation of more powerful megaton weapons” if it was to maintain “credible minimum deterrence.” Once this meant the bare minimum required to prevent an attack on India, but a new Indian doctrine adopted in 2003 — in response to Pakistan’s increasingly aggressive nuclear posture — altered this notion: “Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.”
The official said: “China has long had a thermonuclear capability, and if India is to have a strategic defense worth its salt, and become a credible power in the region, we need to develop a similar weapon and in deployable numbers.” U.S. and British officials affirmed that they have been aware of this discussion among Indian scientists and soldiers for years.
Asked for comment, Vikas Swarup, India’s official spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi did not respond to email or calls.
In an interview, General Balraj Singh Nagal, who from 2008 to 2010 ran India’s Strategic Forces Command within its Nuclear Command Authority, declined to discuss specific aspects of the nuclear city in Challakere or the transformation of the Rare Materials Plant close to Mysore. But he said that keeping pace with China and developing a meaningful counter to its arsenal was “the most pressing issue” facing India.
“It’s not Pakistan we are looking at most of the time, like most in the West presume,” General Nagal said. “Beijing has long managed a thermonuclear program, and so this is one of many options India should push forwards with, as well as reconsidering our nuclear defense posture, which is outdated and ineffective. We have to follow the technological curve. And where China took it, several decades before us, with the hydrogen bomb, India has to follow.”
The impact of the U.S.-India deal and India’s fissile production surge on the country’s neighbors can already be seen. “Pakistan recently stepped up a gear,” the recently retired British Foreign Office official said. He pointed to an increase in Pakistan’s plutonium production at four new military reactors in Khushab, a reprocessing plant known as Pinstech, near Islamabad, and a refurbished civilian plutonium reprocessing plant converted to military use in Chashma, as well as “the ramping up of uranium production at a site in Dera Ghazi Khan.”
The retired foreign office official added: “India needs to constantly rethink what deterrence means, as it is not a static notion, and everyone understands that. But the balance of power in the region is so easily upset.” The official said that in choosing to remain publicly silent, the United States was taking a risk, evidently to try and reap financial and strategic rewards.
Avoiding security and stepping through a breach in the wall, a reporter was guided by shepherds into the site allocated to the Defence Research and Development Organization to build a test center. In the distance, a three-mile long runway was being built for a new generation of drones and long distance unmanned reconnaissance vehicles.
Officials at the Pentagon argued before Washington reached its 2008 nuclear deal with India that lifting sanctions would lead to billions of dollars worth of sales in conventional weapons, according to a U.S. official privy to the discussions. That prediction was accurate, with U.S. exports of major weapons to India reaching $5 billion from 2011 to 2014, and edging out Russian sales for the first time.
“But the U.S. is also looking for something intangible: to create a new strategic partner capable of facing down China,” and so India has taken advantage of the situation to overhaul its military nuclear capability, the British official noted. Pushing back China, said the official, who has worked for 30 years in counter terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and nonproliferation, especially in Southern Asia, is regarded as being “in everyone’s interest.”
White House officials declined to comment on this claim on the record. But Robert Einhorn, the State Department’s former top nonproliferation official, told the Carnegie conference in March that some officials in the Bush administration had the ambition, in making a nuclear deal with India, to “work together to counter China, to be a counterweight to an emerging China.” He added that in his view, that ambition has not been realized, due to India’s historic insistence on pursuing an independent foreign policy. He also said the nuclear deal had unfortunate repercussions, because other nations concluded that Washington was playing favorites with India.
In Challakere, construction continues despite a ruling by the National Green Tribunal on August 27, 2014, that called for a stay on all “excavation, construction and operation of projects” until environmental clearances had been secured. Blocked roads were to be re-opened with access given to all religious sites, said Justice M. Chockalingham and Dr. R. Nagendran of the tribunal. But when villagers have attempted to pass over or through the fences and walls, they are met by police officers who hand out photocopied notes in English: “Environmental clearances has (sic) been awarded [to BARC] dated 24 July 2014, which is a secret document and cannot be disclosed.”
Councilor Karianna said: “Still, to this day, no one has come to talk to me, to explain to us, what they are doing to our land,” which he depicted as being at the “epicenter of historic India.”
The kings of Mysore once used the kavals as a crucible for experimental breeding of the muscular cows, known as Amrit Mahal, recognizable by their ebony hump and ape-hanger horns, which hauled chariots and six-ton cannons into four, bone-crushing campaigns against the British Empire fought in the last three decades of the 18th century. The cattle remain, picking their way between towering rough stone walls and barbed wire fences patrolled by private security guards, while weavers like those in Karianna’s village continue to manufacture thick, black kambli or goat-wool blankets that are bought in bulk by the Indian army for its troops facing down Pakistan and China, and stationed in the thin air of the Himalayas to the north.
“Is this what ‘national interest’ means?” Karianna asked, looking out over the rolling pasture, enveloped in the red dust kicked up by diggers. “We sit beneath out ancient trees and watch them tear up the land, wondering what’s in store.”
The story is from The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C. Read more of their reporting on nuclear security or follow them on Twitter.
National security managing editor R. Jeffrey Smith contributed to this article from Washington, D.C.
Adrian Levy is an investigative reporter and filmmaker whose work has appeared in the Guardian, The Observer, The Sunday Times, and other publications. His most recent books are: The Meadow, about a 1995 terrorist kidnapping of Westerners in Kashmir, and The Siege: The Attack on the Taj, about the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
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