Nuclear Energy and Capitalism

The scale of the catastrophe that has taken place at the nuclear power plant at Fukushima in Japan has once again revealed the predatory exploitation of nature by capitalism. The human species has always lived by transforming nature. But capital today poses a new problem: this system doesn’t produce for the needs of humanity but for profit alone, and it is ready to do anything necessary to ensure its profits. Left to its own logic, this system will end up destroying the planet. The article that follows looks at nuclear energy within a broad historical context, with the aim of developing a communist point of view on the problem.

New debates about nuclear energy

The disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power reactor in Japan this March has reopened the debate about the role of nuclear power in meeting world energy needs. A number of countries, including China, have announced reviews or temporary halts to their building programmes while Switzerland and Germany have gone further and pledged to replace their nuclear capacity. In the case of the latter, 8 of the country’s 17 plants will be closed this year with all shut down by 2022 and replaced by renewable energy sources. This move has brought forth warnings from the nuclear industry and some big energy users of problems with supply, and large price increases. Over recent years there have been reports of a renaissance of the nuclear industry with 60 plants under construction and another 493 planned according to the industry group the World Nuclear Association.[1] In Britain there has been a debate about the risks and benefits of nuclear power with one of the most high profile greens in the country, George Monbiot, not only announcing his conversion to nuclear power as the only realistic way to prevent global warming[2] but also going on to attack former colleagues in the anti-nuclear movement for ignoring scientific data about the real risk of nuclear power.[3]

In reality the issue of nuclear power cannot be understood as a purely technical question or as an equation determined by the various costs and benefits of nuclear power, fossil fuels and renewable energies. It is necessary to step back and look at the whole question of energy use in the historical perspective of the evolution of human society and differing modes of production that have existed. What follows is a necessarily brief outline of such an approach.

Energy Use and Human Development

The history of humanity and of the different modes of production is also a history of the use of energy. Early hunter-gatherer societies relied principally on human energy and lived from the animals and plants produced by nature with fairly minimal intervention, although some use was made of fire to clear the ground to allow regrowth or to bring down trees. The development of farming in the Neolithic period marked a fundamental change in humanity’s use of energy and its relationship with nature. Human labour was organised on a systematic basis to transform the land, with forests cleared and walls erected to manage domesticated animals. Animals began to be used to assist in farming and subsequently in some productive processes such as powering mills. Fire was used for heating and cooking and for industrial processes such as the making of pottery and the smelting of metals. Trade also developed, again relying on human and animal muscle power but also harnessing wind power to traverse oceans.

The Neolithic revolution transformed human society. The increased food supply that resulted led to significant population growth and to a greater complexity of human society, with part of the population gradually moving from direct production of food to more specialised roles linked to the new productive techniques. Some groups also became freed from production and took on religious and military roles. Thus the primitive communism of the hunter-gatherer societies became transformed into class societies, with the religious and military elites supported by the labour of others.

These societies’ achievements in agriculture, architecture and religion all required the concentrated and organised use of human labour. In the first civilisations this resulted in the coercion of a mass of human labour, which found its typical form in slavery. The enforced expenditure of energy by a subject class allowed a minority to be freed from labour and live a life that required the mobilisation of a level of resources far beyond that which any individual could achieve for himself or herself. To give one example: one of the glories of Roman civilisation was the heating systems in villas that circulated hot air below floors and inside walls; nothing comparable was seen for centuries afterwards where even kings lived in buildings that were so cold that the wine and water was reported to freeze on the table in winter.[4] These systems were often built and run by slave labour and used large quantities of wood or charcoal. The warmth enjoyed by the ruling class came from the appropriation of both natural and human energy.

The relationship between humanity and Nature

The development of the productive forces and the class societies that were both the consequence and spur of the latter changed the relationship between humanity and nature as it changed the relationship between people. The hunter-gatherer societies were immersed in and dominated by nature. The agricultural revolution sought to control nature with the domestication of crops and animals, the clearing of forests, the alteration of soils through the use of natural fertilisers and control of water supplies.

Thus the natural world and human labour became resources to be exploited but also threats to be dominated. The result was that humans – both the exploited and the exploiters – became distant from nature and from each other. Writing in the mid 19th century Marx pointed to the intimate inter-relationship between humanity and nature that he saw as the “life of the species”: “Physically man lives only on these products of nature, whether they appear in the form of food, heating, clothes, a dwelling etc. The universality of man appears in practice precisely in the universality which makes all nature his inorganic body – both inasmuch as nature is (1) his direct means of life, and (2) the material, the object and the instrument of his life activity. Nature is man’s inorganic body – nature, that is, insofar as it is not his human body. Man lives on nature – means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is part of nature.[5] Capitalism, wage labour and private property tore this apart, turning the product of the worker’s labour into “an alien object exercising power over him” and transforming nature into “an alien world, inimically opposed to him.[6] The alienation that Marx saw as characteristic of capitalism, and experienced most sharply by the working class, actually emerged with the appearance of class society but accelerated with the transition to capitalism. While all of humanity is affected by alienation the impact of it and their role in it is not the same for the exploiting and the exploited classes. The former, as the class that dominates society, drives forward the process of alienation as it animates the process of exploitation and rarely senses what its does, even though it cannot escape the consequences. The latter feels the impact of alienation in its daily life as a lack of control over what it does and is but it also absorbs the ideological form that alienation takes and repeats part of it in its human relationships and its relationship with the natural world.

The process has continued since Marx described it. In the last century alienated humanity has devoured itself in two global wars and has seen the systematic effort to annihilate parts of itself in the holocaust of the Second World War and the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of recent years. It has also ruthlessly exploited and destroyed nature to the point where the natural world and all life faces extinction. However, it is not humanity in the abstract that has done this but the particular form of class society that has come to dominate and threaten the earth: capitalism. Nor is it all who live within this class society who bear responsibility: between the exploiters and the exploited, between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, there is no equality of responsibility just as there is no equality of power. It is capitalism and the bourgeois class that has created this world and that bears responsibility. This may upset those who want us all to pull together for the ‘common good’ but history shows this conclusion is correct.

Energy and the Dawn of Capitalism

The industrial revolution was also a revolution in energy, in the utilisation of energy sources that allowed society to go beyond the boundaries imposed by the ‘organic economy’ that relied on the seasonal growth of natural sources of energy to meet most of its needs. However, the industrial revolution predates the large scale use of coal that is synonymous with it and it is in the changed relations of production, in the emergence of the bourgeoisie as a class, that the impetus for the development of the technology to extract and utilise the latter lies.[7] Just as the first days of capitalism saw a more systematic and extensive use of the existing means of production, so it made use of the existing sources of energy and pushed them to their limits.

In the organic economy that existed from the Neolithic revolution until the widespread adoption of coal during the industrial revolution, human power, animal power and wood were the main sources of energy. In 1561- 70 they made up 22.8%, 32.4% and 33.0% respectively of the energy consumed in England and Wales. Wind and water power made up scarcely more than 1% combined while coal accounted for 10.6%.[8] The abundance of wood in Europe gave it an advantage over societies where it was scarce, but the development of production drained these supplies and impeded growth. Thus in 1717 a blast furnace in Wales was not fired until four years after construction when enough wood and charcoal had been accumulated and subsequently could only operate for an average of fifteen weeks a year for the same reason.[9] Before the 18th century it has been calculated that an average blast furnace working two years on and two years off required 2,000 hectares of forest.[10] In South Wales, subsequently famous of its coal mining, the first stages of the industrial revolution witnessed the development of ironworks and led to the deforestation of the valleys that had once been densely wooded. The growth of demand for wood led to price increases and shortages that affected the poor most of all. In parts of France there was insufficient wood to fire the bread ovens and in others it was reported that “the poor do without fires.”[11]

The limits to production imposed by the organic economy can also be seen by calculating the amount of timber that would have been required to match subsequent consumption of energy from coal. Wood is not as efficient a source of energy as coal: two tons of wood are required to produce the same energy as a ton of coal and 30 tons to produce a ton of iron. An acre of managed woodland can produce about the equivalent energy to one ton of coal in a year. In 1750 4,515,000 tons of coal were produced in England and Wales. To produce the equivalent amount of energy using timber would have taken 4.3 million acres, or 13% of the land surface of the two countries. In 1800 coal production was 13,045,000 tons requiring 35% of the land surface (11.2 million acres). Half a century later production had risen to 65,050,000 tons, requiring no less than 150% of the land (48.1 million acres).[12] One of the keys to Britain’s rise to world dominance was that it had coal reserves that were accessible using the existing technology. This created the momentum to develop the means of production to allow the extraction of coal from deeper levels.

Coal and Oil: The foundations of Industrial Capitalism

Prior to the widespread use of coal the energy available was essentially determined by the amount of the sun’s energy that was converted to plant growth through photosynthesis. This included the production of foodstuffs for animals and humans and of timber. This natural cycle seemed to impose an insurmountable limit to the amount of muscular and thermal energy that could be utilised and thus to the level of production and the wealth of society. Poverty and widespread misery seemed eternal, unalterable, facts of life. The large scale extraction of coal and subsequently oil broke this barrier by allowing access to the earth’s energy stores, to the product of the photosynthesis of past millennia.[13]

The 19th century and the first part of the 20th were dominated by the use of coal. The advance of the industrial revolution is often measured in the tons of coal mined, the tons of iron produced and the miles of railway line laid. We have given some indication of the first of these above, but It can also be measured in the changing patterns of energy use and in the amount of energy used per head. We noted above that in 1560 coal accounted for just over 10.6% of the energy consumed in England and Wales. By 1850 this figure had increased to 92%.[14] Coal was initially used to replace wood in industries such as smelting, pottery and brewing that required large amounts of heat, and it only gradually affected the actual organisation of production and directly increased productivity. Static steam engines were initially developed to pump water from mines, which, although inefficient, allowed coal and other resources, such as tin in Cornwall, to be mined from previously inaccessible depths. Subsequently engines were adapted to drive machines, notably in the cotton industry, and as means of transport.

Total energy consumption increased progressively throughout the industrial revolution. Total consumption in England and Wales in 1850 was 28 times as great as in 1560. In part this was accounted for by the substantial growth in population that took place during this period but the real scale of the increase is shown by the fact that consumption per head went up fivefold.[15]

The oil industry gradually developed during the 20th century, with significant developments in production techniques and the scale of production taking place in the inter-war years. By 1929 the trade in oil had grown to $1,170m, with the main exporters being the US Venezuela and the Netherlands Antilles, although refineries were also established during this period in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia by the US and in Iraq and Lebanon by British and European enterprises.[16] However, it was only after the Second World War that oil came to dominate energy production, accounting for 46.1% of total world energy production in 1973, although by 2008 this had fallen to 33.2%.[17]

The increasing use of energy has been a feature of industrialisation around the world. It expresses not only the increase in scale of production and the impact of rising population, but also the development of productivity with the increase in the quantity of the means of production, including energy, that each worker is able to set in motion. This trend has continued today: between 1973 and 2008 total energy consumption increased by 80%.[18]

The revolution in the form and quantity of energy available to humanity underpinned the industrial revolution and opened the door from the realm of want to that of plenty. But this revolution was driven by the development of capitalism whose purpose is not the satisfaction of human needs but the increase of capital based on the appropriation of surplus value produced by an exploited working class. Energy is used to drive the development of productivity but it is also a cost of production. It is part of the constant capital alongside raw materials, machines and factories and, as such, tends to increase in relation to the variable capital that is the source of capitalism’s profits. It is this that dictates capitalism’s attitude to energy.

Capitalism has no regard for the use of energy, for the destruction of finite resources, other than as a cost of production. Increased productivity tends to require increased energy, so the capitalists (other than those in the oil industry) are driven to try and reduce the cost of this energy. On the one hand this results in the profligate use of energy for irrational ends, such as transporting similar commodities back and forth across the world and the ceaseless multiplication of commodities that meet no real human need but serve only as a means to extract and realise surplus value. On the other, it leads to the denial of access to energy and to the products of energy for millions of humans who lack the money to be of interest to the capitalists. This is illustrated in Nigeria where Shell pumps out billions of dollars worth of oil while the local people go without or risk their lives by trying to illegally tap the oil from the pipeline. The price is also paid by those working in the energy industries in lives lost and bodies maimed or poisoned and by the environment and all that lives in it, from the polluted, toxic waters of the Thames that characterised 19th century London to the warming of the globe that threatens the future of humanity today.

Nuclear Energy

The potential to use nuclear fission or fusion to produce power has been known about for around a century but it was only after the Second World War that it was actually realised. Thus, while its general context is that outlined above, the specific context is the post-war situation dominated by the rivalry between the USA and USSR and the nuclear arms race that resulted. The development of nuclear power is thus not only inextricably linked to that of nuclear weapons but was arguably a smokescreen for the latter.

In the early 1950s the American government was concerned about the public’s response to the danger of the nuclear arsenal it was assembling and the strategy of first strike that was being propounded. It’s response was to organise a campaign known as Operation Candor to win the public over through adverts across the media (including comic books) and a series of speeches by President Eisenhower that culminated in the announcement at the UN General Assembly of the ‘Atoms for Peace’ programme to “encourage world-wide investigation into the most effective peacetime uses of fissionable materials.[19] The plan included sharing information and resources, and the US and USSR jointly creating an international stockpile of fissionable material. In the years that followed the arms race went on unabated and nuclear weapons spread to other powers, often under the guise of a civilian nuclear power programme, as in Israel and India. The initial reactors produced large quantities of material for nuclear weapons and small amounts of very expensive electricity. The sharing of nuclear knowledge became part of global imperialist struggles; thus in the late 1950s Britain secretly supplied Israel with heavy water for the reactor it was building with French assistance.[20]

Despite talk about energy too cheap to meter, nuclear power has never fulfilled this promise and has relied on state support to cover its real cost. Even where private companies build and run plants there are usually large open or hidden subsidies. For example privatisation of the nuclear industry in Britain failed when Thatcher attempted it in the 1980s because private capital identified there were unquantifiable costs and risks. It was only in 1996, when the ageing Magnox reactors that would soon need decommissioning were excluded from the deal that private investors were prepared to buy British Energy at a knockdown price of £2bn. Six years later the company had to be bailed out with a £10bn government loan.[21]

While advocates of nuclear energy today argue that it is cheaper than other sources this remains a questionable assertion. In 2005 the World Nuclear Association, stated that “In most industrialized countries today, new nuclear power plants offer the most economical way to generate base-load electricity even without consideration of the geopolitical and environmental advantages that nuclear energy confers” and published a range of data to support the claim that construction, financing, operating and waste and decommissioning costs have all reduced.[22] Between 1973 and 2008 the proportion of energy from nuclear reactors grew from 0.9% of the global total to 5.8%.[23]

A report published in 2009, commissioned by the German Federal Government,[24] makes a far more critical evaluation of the economics of nuclear power and questions the idea that there is a nuclear renaissance underway. The report points out that the number of reactors has fallen over the last few years in contrast to the widespread forecasts of increases in both reactors and the power produced. The increase in the amount of power generated that has taken place during this period is the result of upgrading the existing reactors and extending their operational life. It goes on to argue that there is a lot of uncertainty about the reactors currently described as being ‘under construction’, with a number having been in this position for over 20 years. The number under construction has fallen from the peak of over 200 in 1980 to below 50 in 2006.

As regards the economics of nuclear power, the report points to the high level of uncertainty in all areas including financing, construction, operation and decommissioning. It shows that the state remains central to all nuclear projects, regardless of who they are formally owned and operated by. One aspect of this is the various forms of subsidy provided by the state to support capital costs, waste management and plant closure and price support. Another has been the necessity for the state to limit the liability of the industry in order for the private sector to accept the risks. Thus in 1957 the US government stepped in when insurance companies refused to agree insurance because they were unable to quantify the risk.[25] Today it is estimated that “In general national limits are in the order of a few hundred million Euro, less than 10% of the cost of building a plant and far less than the cost of the Chernobyl accident.”[26]

The dangers of nuclear energy are as fiercely debated as the costs and the scientific evidence seems to be very variable. This is particularly the case with the Chernobyl disaster where the estimates of the deaths that resulted vary widely. A World Health Organisation Report found that 47 the 134 emergency workers initially involved had died as a result of contamination by 2004[27] and estimated that there would be just under 9,000 excess deaths from cancer as a result of the disaster.[28] A report by Russian scientists published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences estimated that from the date of the accident until 2006 some 985,000 additional deaths had resulted from the accident from cancer and a range of other diseases.[29]

For those without specialist medical and scientific knowledge this is difficult to unravel, but what is less questionable is the massive level of secrecy and falsification that runs from the decision by the British government to withhold publication of the report into one of the first accidents in the industry at Windscale in 1957 to Fukishima today where the true scale of the disaster only emerged slowly. Returning to Chernobyl, the Russian government did not report the accident for several days, leaving the local population to continue living and working amidst the radiation. But it was not only Russia. The French government minimised the radiation levels reaching the country[30] and told its population that the radiation cloud that spread across the whole of Europe had not passed over France![31] Meanwhile the British government reassured the country that there was no risk to health, reporting levels of radiation that were forty times lower than they actually were[32], and then quarantined hundreds of farms. As late as 2007 374 farms in Britain still remained under the special control scheme.[33]

Nuclear energy is being pushed by various governments as a ‘green’ solution to the problems associated with fossil fuels. This is largely a smokescreen to hide the real motives, which are concerns about the possible exhaustion of oil, the increasing price of oil and the risks associated with a dependence on energy resources outside the state’s control. This green facade is slipping as the economic crisis leads states to return to coal[34] and to push down the costs of exploiting new sources of oil, much of which is physically hard to access, or requires processes that pollute and despoil the environment, such as coal-tar sands. Energy supplies have also been a factor in the imperialist struggles over recent years and it seems likely that this may increase in the period ahead. Nuclear energy then comes back to where it started as a source of fissile material and a cover for weapons programmes.

Communism and Energy

The Stalinist regimes that appropriated and besmirched the name of communism shared all of capitalism’s attitudes to energy use and acted with complete disregard  for the health of the people or the damage to the environment. This was true of the former USSR yesterday and is true of China today. This feeds the widespread confusion that communism is about enforced industrialisation and disregard for nature.

In contrast Marx had a strong concern for nature, both at the theoretical level of the relationship between humanity and nature as we have already seen, and at the practical level where he wrote about the danger of the exhaustion of soils by capitalist farming and about the impact of industrialisation on the health of the working class: “Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility…Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the labourer.[35]

We cannot set out the ‘energy policy’ of communism in advance but starting from the fundamental fact that production will be for human need rather than profit we can predict that the pattern of energy use will change significantly and can set out some aspects of this:

–         we can anticipate a vast reduction in the production of unnecessary commodities and in the transportation of other commodities whose only purpose is to increase the profits of the capitalists;[36]

–         similarly there may be a reduction in unnecessary travel to and from places of work as communities take on more human proportions, as the boundary between work and non-work activities blur, as the divorce between town and country is overcome;

–         creativity and intellect will be devoted to meeting human needs so we can anticipate significant developments in energy sources,[37] especially renewables, as well as in the design of means of production, transport and other equipment and machinery to make them more energy efficient and long-lasting;

Since a communist society will have a concern for the long term this implies vastly reducing the use of non-renewable sources of energy so that they remain available for future generations. It should be noted that even the uranium required by nuclear power is a non-renewable resource so it does not break the reliance on finite resources. This implies that renewable energy will be fundamental to communist society, but because the creativity and intelligence of humanity will be freed from its current shackles this does not imply a return to the privations of previous organic economies.

Alternative lies with us

It is not for us to dictate to the future the decisions it will take on this question. But the above implies a significant reduction in the use of energy and changes in the forms of energy informed by increased scientific understanding. The potential dangers of nuclear power and the fact that spent fuel and contaminated waste remains a risk for hundreds of thousands of years suggest that nuclear power may not have a place in a society that is concerned with the common good of this generation, of future generations and of the planet that we all depend on.

In contrast, capitalism today is stepping back from the pretence to be ‘green’. Green energy today is largely peripheral, although may expand if it is economic to do so. However, the way that capitalism uses all sources of energy exposes humanity to dangers because the threat it poses does not spring from this or that policy and element of production but from the laws that govern capitalism and from the historic legacy of societies based on exploitation.

North 19/06/11

Courtesy: ICC Online



[1] Financial Times 06/06/11 “Nuclear power: atomised approach”.

[2] Guardian 22/03/11 “Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power”.

[3] Guardian 05/04/11 “The unpalatable truth is that the anti-nuclear lobby has misled us all”.

[4] Fernand Braudel, Civilisation and Capitalism 15th – 18th Century, Volume one: The Structures of Everyday Life, p.299. William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd, London.

[5] Marx Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, “Estranged Labour”.

[6] Ibid.

[7] This finds additional support in the case of China “Coal was mined and consumed on a substantial scale in parts of China from the fourth century onwards and may have reached a peak in the eleventh century, but it did not lead to a transformation of the economy.” E. A. Wrigley, Energy and the English Industrial Revolution, p. 174, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

[8] Wrigley, op.cit., p.92.

[9] Braudel, op. cit., p.366-7

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Wrigley, op. cit, p.37 and p.99

[13] In this and other parts of the text the author has drawn on the analysis in Energy and the English Industrial Revolution by E. A. Wrigley that has already been cited several times in this text.

[14] Wrigley, op. cit. P.37.

[15] Ibid., p.94. Total consumption went from 65,130 to 1,835.300 terrajoules and consumption per head from 19,167 to 96,462 megajoules.

[16] Kenwood and Lougheed, The growth of the international economy 1820-1990. Routledge, 1992 (3rd Edition).

[17] International Energy Agency, Key World Energy Statistics 2010, p.6. The same report shows that measured by consumption oil accounts for a greater proportion of the total, dropping from 48.1% of the total in 1973 to 41.6% in 2008 (p.28).

[18] International Energy Agency, Key world energy statistics 2010, p.28. The total went from 4,676 Mtoe (Million tonne oil equivalent) to 8,428 Mtoe.

[19] Quoted in S. Cooke, In mortal hands: A cautionary history of the nuclear age, Bloomsbury New York, 2010 (paperback edition), p.110.

[20] Ibid., p.148-9.

[21] Ibid., p. 357-8.

[22] World Nuclear Association, The new economics of nuclear power, p.6.

[23] International Energy Agency, Key world energy statistics 2010, p.6

[24] The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2009 With Particular Emphasis on Economic Issues. Commissioned by German Federal Ministry of Environment, Nature Conservation and Reactor Safety. Paris 2009.

[25] Cooke, op. cit., p.120-5. The government set an arbitrary ceiling of $500m on its liability despite the views of its own experts that the “the size of the risk involved cannot be accurately estimated” (ibid, p. 124).

[26] German Federal Ministry of Environment, Nature Conservation and Reactor Safety, op.cit., p.44.

[27] World Health Organisation, 2006, Health effects of the Chernobyl accident and special health care programmes, p.106.

[28] Ibid., p.108.

[29] Yablokov, Nesterenko and Nesterenko, “Chernobyl: Consequences of the catastrophe for people and the environment.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 1181, 2009, p.210. This study has created a significant amount of controversy with criticisms that it amalgamates incompatible data, disregards studies that do not support its argument and does not follow accepted methodologies. See, for example, the review in Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 118, 11, November 2010.

[30] Cooke, op. cit., p.320.

[31] Yablokov et al, op. cit., p.10

[32] Ibid., p.14

[33] Cooke, op. cit., p.321.

[34] Coal has grown as a proportion of total energy supply from 24.5% of the global total in 1973 to 27% in 2008. Source: International Energy Agency, Key world energy statistics 2010, p.6.

[35] Marx, Capital Vol. I, Chapter XV Machinery and modern industry”, Section 10, “Modern industry and agriculture.”

[36] See “The world on the eve of an environmental catastrophe” in International Review no. 139 for examples of this.

[37] See: Makhijani, A. 2007, Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy for a summary of alternative sources of energy.

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