How easy is it to steal a nuclear bomb?


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Josh Clark

Hey, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark. Sitting across from me is the always likable Charles W. "Chuck" Bryant.

Chuck Bryant

Not so. Not so.

Josh Clark

It's true, Chuck. Everybody likes you. You're the most affable fellow I know.

Chuck Bryant

I used to think so.

Josh Clark

You are. Believe me, buddy.

Chuck Bryant

Thanks, man.

Josh Clark

Chuck's a little down today, so we're going to talk about stealing nuclear bombs.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah. That'll perk me up.

Josh Clark

That'll brighten your day, won't it? Chuck, of course you've seen the 1985 Robert Zemeckis classic, "Back to the Future."

Chuck Bryant

I knew you were going to bring that up.

Josh Clark

You know me pretty well.

Chuck Bryant

I even wrote down "Back to the Future" somewhere in here.

Josh Clark

We're in synch, my friend.

Chuck Bryant

Yes.

Josh Clark

Arguably, that was Thomas F. Wilson's greatest role.

Chuck Bryant

Who was that?

Josh Clark

The guy who played Biff.

Chuck Bryant

Oh. His only role!

Josh Clark

Actually, I was looking at him Internet Movie Database. That guy has been in a lot of stuff.

Chuck Bryant

Really? Well, he's Biff.

Josh Clark

He was also in "Action Jackson."

Chuck Bryant

He's Biff. Did he play Biff?

Josh Clark

He had a cameo as Biff. It's like Frank Oz in "The Blues Brothers."

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

If you remember, as I'm sure you do since you wrote down "Back to the Future" on your notes, there was kind of a subplot going on with Doc and his dealings with Middle Eastern terrorists.

Chuck Bryant

I didn't remember that. I thought this was a podcast on gigawatts. Get it?

Josh Clark

Yeah. Well, then you do remember that Doc was selling some plutonium to these terrorists, or they wanted plutonium from him.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

The reason, of course, that they wanted plutonium - he kept it for the Delorean, by the way.

Chuck Bryant

Of course.

Josh Clark

But the reason they wanted the plutonium is because ostensibly, they were going to manufacture a nuclear weapon.

Chuck Bryant

Right. And that is not outside the realm of possibilities.

Josh Clark

Scarily enough, it's not, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant

You know there was another movie too.

Josh Clark

"Back to the Future 2 and 3."

Chuck Bryant

No. In 1986 there was a movie called "The Manhattan Project" where a teenager steals enriched uranium to make an atomic bomb for his science project.

Josh Clark

I remember that.

Chuck Bryant

John Lithgow. Bad movie! I haven't seen it though.

Josh Clark

It wasn't bad, if I remember correctly. As you would say, that was right in my wheelhouse. I was ten at the time and thinking of making my own nuclear weapons.

Chuck Bryant

Right, at the same time as "War Games," which we'll get to in a minute.

Josh Clark

Oh, we will?

Chuck Bryant

Yes.

Josh Clark

All right. Oh, I see on the agenda that you have "War Games" written down as well.

Chuck Bryant

This one is rife with movie and TV references.

Josh Clark

Let's talk about stealing a nuclear weapon. How easy is it?

Chuck Bryant

First of all, we should go ahead and say it's probably impossible to steal a nuclear warhead.

Josh Clark

Okay. I'm not going to go along with that.

Chuck Bryant

Really? It'd be really, really difficult.

Josh Clark

It would not be difficult. Let's say you're Iran, and it's 1991, and you're in contact with a bunch of KGB officers, or maybe some Soviet military generals. The coups just happened. There's no longer a U.S.S.R. Maybe you're friends with somebody in Kazakhstan.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

All of these people had access to strategic and tactical nuclear arms. Actually, there was a huge question over what was going to happen with the former Soviet Union's 27,000 tactical and strategic nuclear weapons when the Soviet Union dissolved.

Chuck Bryant

What happened to them?

Josh Clark

Actually, there was a really good effort that was made by the former Soviet Republic, like Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, and all these groups that actually were already in fighting with Russia and the Russian government to move all these nukes to Russia. I think they did it with pretty amazing speed.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

There were U.N. resolutions. There were talks between the U.S. and Russia and the former Soviet Republics. Everybody got their nukes back into Russian borders in Russian control.

Chuck Bryant

I read a Reuter's article when I was researching this, and that is one of the scenarios they pose. One way it could happen is during transport. That's when they're probably most vulnerable.

Josh Clark

You would think so, wouldn't you?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah.

Josh Clark

Let's say you're an Iranian official. You've got the money. You've got the means. Not to pick on Iran here - maybe we should go with Jamaica. I don't want to tick off anyone in Iran. Let's say you're a Jamaican official. You've got tons of cash, and you want a nuke. There's a huge coup going on. There's the disillusion of a former superpower, and there's 27,000 nukes out there. If you've got the money to purchase one and the means of getting it out of the country and back to Jamaica, my friend, you've got a nuke.

Chuck Bryant

I guess I was thinking in terms of these days, it's a lot more difficult than it would've been in 1991.

Josh Clark

How so?

Chuck Bryant

I think security has been tightened down somewhat since 1991.

Josh Clark

You think?

Chuck Bryant

You're about to shoot me down, aren't you?

Josh Clark

No, I'm not.

Chuck Bryant

From what I could tell on reading up on this, it's more likely that someone could steal the components of a nuclear weapon and assemble it themselves rather than load a 30-foot bomb on the back of their truck and drive it through borders.

Josh Clark

Right, Chuck, which makes people with information in their heads of how to assemble a nuclear bomb from all these various parts - or more to the point, what parts you'd need to make a nuclear bomb - incredibly valuable.

Chuck Bryant

Absolutely.

Josh Clark

Have you heard of A.Q. Khan?

Chuck Bryant

I have, but I know you're the Khan man.

Josh Clark

Nice one. Khan actually is the father of Pakistani Nuclear Proliferation.

Chuck Bryant

Right, which is a country's program that we're pretty worried about?

Josh Clark

Well, yeah. They have the bomb. India has the bomb.

Chuck Bryant

They do.

Josh Clark

He also was under house arrest for five years from 2004 until February of 2009 because he admitted to being involved in nuclear proliferation, illegal nuclear proliferation, in other countries like Libya, Iran. He was basically selling his knowledge to the highest bidder for their own nuclear programs.

Chuck Bryant

Doesn't surprise me.

Josh Clark

It's incredibly hard to put together a nuclear bomb. It's very hard to steal one, but if you really look at it using maybe Ockham's razor, it would probably be the easiest thing to do, to just go in and steal a nuclear bomb rather than stealing the parts.What's the easiest part to steal when you want to assemble a nuclear bomb?

Chuck Bryant

The easiest part would be the explosive mechanisms, the TNT, which you need a lot of it. Enriched uranium doesn't do much on its own. You need to explode it, as they say. That would be the easiest part. You would have to build a casing for it, which wouldn't be super easy, but it's at least something you could manufacture yourself. The hardest thing would probably be to get the enriched, highly enriched, uranium.

Josh Clark

Or plutonium, if you could find Doc.

Chuck Bryant

That would be tough.

Josh Clark

Do you know why you would want plutonium or highly enriched uranium, what kind of bomb, or why?

Chuck Bryant

I would say to go back to the future or to build a bomb.

Josh Clark

Yes. Specifically, a fission bomb!

Chuck Bryant

I know you know the difference between fission and fusion.

Josh Clark

How do you know I know that?

Chuck Bryant

Well, I'm a smart guy. I don't know, and I hope one of us does.

Josh Clark

I do. Would you like to know?

Chuck Bryant

Yes.

Josh Clark

Okay. A fission bomb is where you're taking a really heavy, dense material. The nuclei are heavy. Their atomic weight is heavy. What you're doing is stripping the nuclei of neutrons.

Chuck Bryant

Okay. I'm with you.

Josh Clark

Which in turn releases more neutrons, and so on.

Chuck Bryant

Like a chain reaction.

Josh Clark

So you have a chain reaction. Once it's highly sustained, it's called...

Chuck Bryant

Super critical mass.

Josh Clark

Right. You've reached super critical mass because neutron is knocking neutrons from nuclides and so on and so on, and it's happening really quickly, and it releases this huge amount of energy.

Chuck Bryant

No going back at that point.

Josh Clark

No. Like you were saying, you need TNT to start this chain reaction.

Chuck Bryant

A lot of it.

Josh Clark

With a fusion bomb, you're actually doing the opposite. You take a very light substance like hydrogen, and you take a tremendous amount of heat, from an explosion of TNT, and you smash the stuff together, and that creates another very big explosion.

Chuck Bryant

Which one is a more likely scenario for stealing one?

Josh Clark

I would imagine a fission bomb because it's the easiest to make, but the problem is getting highly enriched uranium or plutonium is very difficult.

Chuck Bryant

Exactly.

Josh Clark

Although, you can find a lot of it in Russia and the U.S.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah. There's a lot of it that's unaccounted for, which is kind of scary - or leftover.

Josh Clark

Yeah. Did you read that thing about Robert Gates from 2008?

Chuck Bryant

No.

Josh Clark

He basically came out and accused Moscow of not knowing where a lot of their plutonium and highly enriched uranium was.

Chuck Bryant

I could see that, because when the Soviet Union dissolved, there was a lot of chaos and disorganization going on, and a lot of this excess nuclear material floating around. There's no way they could account for all of it.

Josh Clark

He was saying, "We have no problem with the tactical nukes or the strategic nukes" - do you want to know the difference between those two?

Chuck Bryant

Sure. I'm impressed.

Josh Clark

This is right up my alley. A strategic nuke is like a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile. A tactical nuke would be attached to maybe a missile on a bomber. The real distinction, I read someone put it, was a strategic nuke is meant to prevent war. A tactical nuke is meant to win a war. So you have nukes for destruction, those are strategic nukes. If somebody goes in and drops a bomb on Hiroshima, that would be a tactical nuke.

Chuck Bryant

Look at you. You're a regular Philip Oppenheimer.

Josh Clark

Oh, my head hurts.

Chuck Bryant

Robert Oppenheimer, by the way, for those of you who were paying attention, was the father of the atom bomb, not Philip.

Josh Clark

He was the director of "The Manhattan Project."

Chuck Bryant

Right. And Philip was his brother who, from what I understand, didn't do much with his life.

Josh Clark

No. Philip was played by John Lithgow.

Chuck Bryant

Okay. That's good. Do you want to talk about security a little bit?

Josh Clark

I do.

Josh Clark

Seem like enough to you?

Chuck Bryant

No, because that Reuter's article I read was talking about the other scenario I talked about besides being hijacked in transport was that potentially, a Taliban or Al Qaida member could gain employment at a nuclear facility despite background checks.

Josh Clark

Sure. Well, very few of them have "Member of Taliban: 2002 to present" on their resume.

Chuck Bryant

Right. You wouldn't think someone could get in there, but you also wouldn't think that someone could take lessons on how to fly a plane here in the United States and fly them into buildings. That didn't seem likely either. So it is likely - or not likely, but possible.

Josh Clark

It is possible. Agreed. There's also another real threat that's probably the most prominent. I guess we should probably say here - it may be a little too late - we don't mean to stir up any paranoia among anybody. It's just an interesting question. We meant to stir up paranoia about fluoride, but not this one.Probably the most realistic threat would be a dirty bomb, right?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, which is made from what they call nuclear junk, which is not highly enriched uranium and plutonium, correct? It's a lesser quality.

Josh Clark

No, I think it's a nuclear bomb lacking a device to properly detonate it.

Chuck Bryant

Is that what it is?

Josh Clark

So you don't have the energy needed to create a super critical mass, but let's say you blew it up with a bunch of TNT that was less than super critical. You're still spreading radioactivity.

Chuck Bryant

Okay. I didn't know if you were talking about depleted uranium. Did you hear about the Russian guy that was caught?

Josh Clark

The guy who poisoned Luke Chenko?

Chuck Bryant

No. This was in 2002. This is one of those deals where I couldn't find a lot following up. In 2002, a Russian man was busted smuggling 27 tons of enriched uranium at a Siberian border checkpoint.

Josh Clark

Holy cow.

Chuck Bryant

I did a little follow up. They said at first, "Oh, no. This was just a regular shipment because we send depleted uranium to Kazakhstan so it can be made into nuclear fuel to be sent back to Russia." That's all it was.Then they came out with a second statement that said, "Oh, I'm sorry. It wasn't enriched. It was depleted uranium, so it wasn't really a big deal." I couldn't find anything else after that. Twenty-seven tons though.

Josh Clark

That's scary.

Chuck Bryant

This proves there's a black market for it.

Josh Clark

Definitely. You know we're using depleted uranium as tank-piecing artillery, right?

Chuck Bryant

Oh, really?

Josh Clark

Apparently, there's a real growing concern among Iraq veterans and Afghanistan veterans that they're around this and handling this ammunition. They're like, "What's going to happen? Am I radioactive? Am I going to be able to have kids?" It's probably going to be the next Agent Orange, is depleted uranium shells.

Chuck Bryant

Wow.

Josh Clark

Apparently, they go right through a tank.

Chuck Bryant

I would imagine so. Do you want to talk about Los Alamos?

Josh Clark

Sure.

Chuck Bryant

Go ahead.

Josh Clark

You go ahead.

Chuck Bryant

November, 2006, Los Alamos National Laboratory, there was a security breach, and officials were worried that an employee passed information concerning special access controls that would detonate a bomb. It wasn't a whole device, but important, valuable information and secrets were being sold.

Josh Clark

Using PALS, right?

Chuck Bryant

Yes.

Josh Clark

So a PAL, I checked out, it can be what John Fuller, who wrote this fine article, mentions. It takes two people to enter a code at the same time.

Chuck Bryant

"War Games."

Josh Clark

Exactly. Go ahead.

Chuck Bryant

What's that called?

Josh Clark

Permissive Action Link.

Chuck Bryant

Yes. If you remember the very first scene of the movie "War Games," a young Michael Madsen was actually one of the security guards.

Josh Clark

"You gonna bark all day, little doggie?"

Chuck Bryant

That was excellent.

Josh Clark

Thank you.

Chuck Bryant

Wow. Michael Madsen was one of the two security personnel in the silo that was supposed to turn the key at the same time, so it was a two-man operation. One person cannot set off the bomb. It's a pretty good measure.

Josh Clark

That's one. That's one type of PAL. There's also quantum encryption to create all sorts of different codes. Basically, you can't just press a button. Any barrier between you and pressing that button, any step you have to take to launch a nuclear weapon is a permissive action link.

Chuck Bryant

Okay. So when you hear the finger's on the button, it's really two fingers on two buttons.

Josh Clark

And it took several steps to get to that point.

Chuck Bryant

Thankfully.

Josh Clark

There's another way you can get a bomb. I realize, Chuck, I never finished a sentence earlier. I went off on a tangent about the difference between tactical and strategic. I'm so smart.What Gates was talking about when he said he was accusing Moscow of not knowing where all their stuff was, there's a whole bunch of nuclear mines, nuclear artillery shells, basically nuclear junk, that he suspects Moscow has no idea where it is. That's the stuff that would likeliest make its way into a dirty bomb.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

Which is why it's a bigger threat?

Chuck Bryant

I could see that for sure.

Josh Clark

I'm glad I got that off my chest.

Chuck Bryant

You know, we were talking about Pakistan earlier. One U.S. official said if they can smuggle out the amount of heroin they smuggle out, then they could smuggle out nuclear materials, pretty much.

Josh Clark

Although I suspect that there is a tacit approval of heroin smuggling in Afghanistan, as far as the U.S. goes. I've read articles on it. U.S. generals are just like, "We're not even paying attention to that. That has nothing to do with what we're here for."

Chuck Bryant

I could see that.

Josh Clark

The DEA is over there pulling out their hair.

Chuck Bryant

Thanks a lot. One thing I was going to mention, too, was if this weren't a legitimate concern, there probably wouldn't be an official name for this by the U.S.

Josh Clark

The Navy, right?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah. The Navy calls it a broken arrow, which is from the John Woo movie - not from John Woo movie. John Woo I think got it from the Navy. That is the name for the seizure, theft, or loss of a nuclear weapon or component. Component is kind of the key component.

Josh Clark

Or if you steal the whole thing, if Jamaica stole one or bought one, that would be bad.

Chuck Bryant

I love your idea here. I want to see this, a Jamaican guy on a flatbed with a nuclear bomb on the back of it.

Josh Clark

Chuck, there's another way you could get a nuclear weapon if you wanted to.

Chuck Bryant

Let's hear it.

Josh Clark

You could travel to Tybee Island, Georgia.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah.

Josh Clark

There is a 51-year-old nuclear bomb, thermonuclear weapon, somewhere off the coast of Tybee - not too far off of it. They're thinking right off the coast. They have no idea where it is.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah. So close that they can't find it.

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

Distressing. You know what else is distressing?

Josh Clark

What?

Chuck Bryant

The Department of Defense recognizes that at least one serious nuclear accident has occurred every single year since the atomic age began. Distressing!

Josh Clark

I don't know what's more unsettling, that one's happened every year or they qualified it with "at least."

Chuck Bryant

True. One or more! Should we talk about some of these accidents?

Josh Clark

Yeah, totally.

Chuck Bryant

Purported accidents?

Josh Clark

Yeah. There's been a bunch of them.

Chuck Bryant

There have. This one's good. In 1958, a B-47 bomber flying over Mars Bluff, South Carolina, accidently dropped an atomic bomb, which left a crater 75 feet wide and 30 feet deep.

Josh Clark

We've talked about that one. That was the one that they abandoned searching for that nuke off the coast of Savannah to go deal with.

Chuck Bryant

Is that what happened?

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

Okay.

Josh Clark

They were looking for this nuke for about a month. Couldn't find it! Then one goes off, or the TNT went off.

Chuck Bryant

Bigger problem.

Josh Clark

And they all evacuated to South Carolina.

Chuck Bryant

That's a good one. You got another one for me?

Josh Clark

Yeah, this one is kind of unsettling. In 1965, some guys were basically, I guess, docking an airplane that had nuclear weapons aboard on the U.S.S. Ticonderoga. I guess they hit a wave, and the airplane and its nukes rolled off into the Sea of Japan.

Chuck Bryant

Transport, dude.

Josh Clark

Sixteen-thousand feet, luckily.

Chuck Bryant

that's the problem it seems like all the accidents and security threats deal with transport.

Josh Clark

Yeah. What about the transfer from a submarine onto the U.S.S. Holland in 1981?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah. Go ahead.

Josh Clark

That's pretty much it, except for while they were moving the nuke from the submarine to the U.S.S. Holland, it started to fall 17 feet, and somebody very quickly pulled the emergency brake, and it stopped right above the deck. That was close.

Chuck Bryant

The hand brake. I'd like to see that. Did the guy literally yank it up?

Josh Clark

Yeah. I bet he was treated to a round that night.

Chuck Bryant

I bet more than one. You know, there's a U.N. agency that's entrusted with pre-empting this kind of thing, illegal proliferation. They said in 2007 that the theft and loss of nuclear and radioactive materials remains a persistent problem.

Josh Clark

Is it the IAEA?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah. Everyone is on record basically saying, "This happens all the time." there are hundreds of cases in Russia of people stealing or trying to steal this stuff.

Josh Clark

What was it J.Phillip Oppenheimer said when he saw the first nuclear bomb explode?

Chuck Bryant

"I am become death -"

Josh Clark

"Destroyer of worlds." Talk about Pandora's Box.

Chuck Bryant

No kidding. I've got some more stats if you're interested, or do we need to wrap this puppy up?

Josh Clark

No, that's okay.

Chuck Bryant

There were 150 incidents of such action of loss or theft in 2006 alone. Josh, the majority of these involve sealed, radioactive sources. In 73 percent of these cases, the lost or stolen materials have not been recovered.

Josh Clark

That's fantastic. Basically, what you're saying here is that there is a lot of unaccounted-for nuclear material on the world market.

Chuck Bryant

Right. Well, there's no international treaty for this, I found out. There's the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material Treaty of 1980, but it's all for domestic use, storage, and transport. There's no international work going on here.

Josh Clark

The problem is in the post-911 world as well, Chuck, we're not fighting people who honor treaties. We're still looking at nuclear nonproliferation through the paradigm of the Cold War, which is long over. It used to be we had, like I said earlier, mutual assured destruction where the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. had so many nukes they could wipe out the world within seconds of one another launching. It kept anybody from doing anything.

Chuck Bryant

How about a nice game of Tic-Tac-Toe?

Josh Clark

Exactly. That doesn't exist anymore. There's no polarization. We have to rethink this, especially if there's no accountability, or not enough accountability.

Chuck Bryant

It's almost less safe now than during the arms race.

Josh Clark

Yeah, and how do you take something out of existence when it's already been created?

Chuck Bryant

I don't know. Can't it happen?

Josh Clark

I think it could happen, but you'd have to be readily dedicated, and you'd also have to be cold-blooded because guys like A.Q. Khan would have to get shot in the back of the head.

Chuck Bryant

That's true.

Josh Clark

And not just A.Q. Khan, but all of our guys too. Basically anybody who knows how to make a nuclear bomb would have to be executed.

Chuck Bryant

Right. Wow.

Josh Clark

So thanks for joining us. If you want to know more about nuclear anything, we've got a bunch of it on the site. That's www.HowStuffWorks.com. We have a handy search bar for your convenience so you don't have to troll from channel to channel page by page.Since I said that and Jeri's eyes are crossed because she's so bored, I think that means it's time for listener mail.

Chuck Bryant

Josh, I'm just going to call this "An Eerie, Pennsylvania Email." Get it?

Josh Clark

I do.

Chuck Bryant

This is from Sarah. She's a student there at Collegiate Academy. "In your Are Stupid People Happier podcast, you talked a lot about the subjective-ness of happiness as well as all the references you made to your Super Stuffed Guide to the Economy," now on sale in iTunes."It reminded me of a project my AP macroeconomics class conducted at the end of last year. Most nations measure their economic success in increments of GDP and the like, but the nation of Bhutan created a similar scale called Gross National Happiness."

Josh Clark

I've written on that!

Chuck Bryant

Really?

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

Okay. I believe you. Basically, it's an extensive survey that they did. She and her classmates decided to, for a project, do the same thing at her high school to find out what the happiness scale was at Collegiate Academy.She wrote in and told me this. I was like, "That's cool, but you didn't tell me any of the results or anything. So how about it?" She emailed me back and said, "Here we go." Twelve statements in four categories is what they were rating, as well as male and female and grade level to define the Gross Collegiate Happiness scale. Each was rated on a scale of zero to five with one being the least agreeable to our statement."I predicted that we would've achieved an overall happiness index of about 2.5, but surprisingly, we scored significantly higher, and our happiness scale was a 3.58." That's pretty good. "On an economic scale, and including outliers, that's pretty great," she says."The most agreeable statement and positive quality that made students feel happy was the stamen, 'I feel accepted at Collegiate Academy,' which received an average of 4.29. The principal was satisfied with it, though you could tell she wanted a perfect 5.0. She obviously hasn't studied economics or statistics recently."So that was from Sarah in Eerie, Pennsylvania.

Josh Clark

That is why Sarah is headed to Yale this fall.

Chuck Bryant

Yes. Sarah is a very bright student. It sounds like her classmates are pretty happy there at Collegiate Academy. Good for them.

Josh Clark

Yeah. Gross National Happiness is pretty cool. Bhutan is very serious about it. The king abdicated his throne to establish a democracy because they determined that a democracy made for happier people.

Chuck Bryant

Wow. That's pretty cool.

Josh Clark

Yeah. Thanks a lot, Sarah. If you're Yale bound like Sarah, or don't know where you're headed yet, you can send us an email detailing anything you like. Do we have anything we want to ask for, Chuck?

Chuck Bryant

No. We've been getting good feedback lately. Thanks for that. Keep it up.

Josh Clark

If you want to just send us an email is what we're trying to say, you can send that to StuffPodcast@HowStuffWorks.com.

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