Hanford: The Largest Environmental Cleanup Operation in US History

Eric Nusbaum | The Daily Beast

This month, the Department of Energy announced that a tank at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State is leaking up to 300 gallons of radioactive waste a year. Then last week, Washington governor Jay Inslee corrected that figure: a total of six tanks are leaking. To people unfamiliar with Hanford, this might sound mildly apocalyptic. Nuclear sludge left over from Cold War plutonium production is drip drip dripping into American soil, infiltrating the groundwater, slowly making its way into our rivers. But to Washington residents and Hanford observers, the leak is just another in a long line of mild disasters at America’s most contaminated nuclear waste site, a radioactive drop in the already-polluted Columbia River.

Barrels of low-level Class A commercial nuclear waste are checked with a Geiger counter in a trench at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state on October 18, 1988. (Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis)

Barrels of low-level Class A commercial nuclear waste are checked with a Geiger counter in a trench at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state on October 18, 1988. (Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis)

The reactions by politicians to this news have come off like bad attempts at satire. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Commission, has said that he will make Hanford cleanup a priority during upcoming confirmation hearings for the next energy secretary. Washington governor Inslee assured residents that the leaks posed no immediate danger. “We were told this problem was dealt with years ago, and was under control,” Inslee said after the initial announcement. There is so much impotence behind those words that you can almost see the governor shrugging his shoulders. After all, Inslee knows as well as anybody that the larger problem of Hanford was not dealt with years ago. Nor is it adequately being dealt with now.

Hanford is the worst kind of mess: the kind that humanity is capable of making, but not capable of cleaning up. It was the home of the world’s first full-scale plutonium reactor and the epicenter of American nuclear production during the Cold War. Now the 586-square mile campus is the subject of the largest environmental cleanup operation the United States government has ever undertaken. There are other sites in America with long nuclear histories – places like Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Yucca Mountain. But none have become sprawling disasters with quite as much panache as Hanford.

The entire city of Los Angeles could fit rather comfortably within Hanford’s borders in southeastern Washington, but the human and environmental consequences of Hanford have spread beyond those borders, across Washington and Oregon. A decade ago a rash of radioactive tumbleweeds blew across the nearby plains. In the early 1960s, an irradiated whale was killed off the Oregon coast, having apparently been contaminated by nuclear waste flowing down the Columbia River. Hanford does not have the feel of a seeping hellscape – the problems there are slow-developing and spread out – but it does have a real effect on the environment and people around it.

Over the last twenty years, Hanford has also become something else: a tourist destination. If you want to see just how big the reservation is, or get an idea of how much work remains to be done there, you can sign up for an official government tour of the site. About sixty public tours are offered per year. The tours are free, but highly sought after. Last year, registration opened at midnight on March 6, and closed by 5 a.m. As American citizens over the age of 18, my girlfriend Janelle and I were eligible. We managed to land a couple of tickets for an afternoon in May.

The night before our tour, we drove the three hours from Seattle, east through the Cascade Mountains and south across the deserts of Eastern Washington, to Richland, a city that along with neighboring Pasco and Kennewick, forms the Tri-Cities metro area. Tri-Cities, which grew out of Hanford, has a combined population of about 200,000. Even today, ten perfect of the workforce is employed, one way or another, by Hanford. Janelle’s father grew up here in a house on the Columbia River during the height of the Cold War, back when you had to have an official reason to move to Richland. He tells stories about metal boxes outside neighborhood homes, inside which Hanford employees would leave urine samples to be collected overnight by the government like mail. He went to Richland High School, whose mascot was the Bombers and whose logo was, and remains, a mushroom cloud. We ate dinner in a brewpub called Atomic Ale. I drank an International Proton Pale Ale and opted not to follow it up with a Plutonium Porter.

Our tour of the most contaminated nuclear waste site in the United States began at a strip mall off a two-lane highway leading out of Richland. The tour headquarters was nestled among nondescript office spaces, a coffee shop, and a jewelry store called Indian Eyes. Inside tour headquarters, we were greeted by a pair of smiling women in polo shirts. They reminded us that cell phones, cameras, and other recording devices would not be permitted on tour. They handed us paper badges with our names printed over a landscape of sagebrush and blue skies, and directed us into a fluorescent-lit room with museum style posters on the walls and chairs aligned before a television screen where an introductory video was playing on loop. “Hanford offers everything a storyteller could want,” said the narrator, including “intrigue” and “patriotism.” The term science faction was used to describe something – perhaps everything – about the site.

Before December, 1942, Hanford was just the name of a town on the Columbia River with a population in the hundreds.That’s when a team of military officers and Du Pont company engineers canvassed the entire country looking for the perfect place to secretly produce uranium on a large scale for the next phase of the Manhattan Project. They settled on the Hanford site because the nearby Grand Coulee Dam would meet high electricity needs, because the Columbia River rushed with the freezing, fast water needed to cool potential reactors, and because there weren’t any population centers for miles in any direction (in case something went wrong; there was always the looming specter of something going wrong). The government gave the residents of the town of Hanford and neighboring White Bluffs, along with members of the Wanapum, Nez Perce, and other local tribes, a month to pack their things and say goodbye to home forever. Soon afterwards, Hanford became the third-largest city in Washington. Almost none of the 50,000 people who lived and worked on the site knew what they were building.

I noticed a blown-up black and white photograph on the wall beside where we were sitting. The image showed some of those early Hanford workers standing under a poster that read “A Physically Fit Worker is a SAFE Worker.” The workers, who were brought to Hanford from all over the country, looked happy in whatever giant high-ceilinged room they were standing in. Maybe it was the 10,000 capacity dancehall. And maybe they are simply happy to be indoors, out of the high, dust-blowing winds that drove so many of their ranks to quit. But there were also reasons to stay at Hanford. The pay was good, and so was the sense of doing something important for one’s country during wartime. Plus there was a baseball field, a bowling alley, two movie theaters, and – more discretely – gambling and prostitution.

The first loop of the introductory video concluded with a series of nature scenes. Eagles soared over the low mountains and salmon rushed proudly through the Columbia River. Today Hanford is “making a new kind of history,” the narrator proclaimed. The implication of this statement was that cleaning up the sprawling radioactive mess at Hanford is in itself a triumphant endeavor. Possibly as triumphant as ending World War II with a bomb made from plutonium developed here. Viewing Hanford’s cleanup as the next phase in its history is a way of reframing the narrative: Instead of undoing a man-made disaster, we are merely continuing a man-made triumph. We conquered nature by splitting the atom, then conquered it some more by splitting many more atoms. Finally we can assert our dominance over nature once and for all by undoing the consequences of those actions. This is the glory of man.

There are a couple problems with this story. One is that a great many people do not regard nuclear weapons as quite so triumphant. Another is that nuclear waste can not be willed out of existence as easily as it is created. The first problem was not touched upon at all in my time at Hanford. As the people there would have it, the Manhattan Project saved America in World War II, consequences be damned or at the very least, consequences be worth it. The second problem is why we were there. Not only does nuclear waste not go away, but it takes on a variety of forms – it gets sludgey and turns solid and seeps into the ground. This was something made clear to us over and over and over again at all stops on the tour. However triumphantly Hanford wants to portray itself outwardly, and however massive and ambitious an undertaking the cleanup project actually is, it will always feel temporary and insufficient. That’s because compared to plutonium, it is.

Slowly, the room filled up. Most of the folks on our tour were from around the Northwest. Some were even Hanford employees who had never seen the parts of the site that they don’t work on. It was a sunny day. As we got on the bus, our tour guide asked if anybody was coming from Seattle and about half of us raised our hands. “You might get a tan,” he said. “You might get an even better tan when we get to Hanford.”

There are 200 square miles of contaminated groundwater under Hanford. Every day that water moves closer to the Columbia River. Not coincidentally, there are also 177 massive storage tanks on the site, each built to hold between 55,000 and more than 100,000 gallons of nuclear waste. Our first stop was at one of these tanks, which, even in the middle distance, was ominous and metallic and looked sort of like a giant industrial-sized swimming pool. Next to the tank were some scattered pieces of construction equipment and an unglamorous temporary building. We were met at a landing above the tank by a man who said he first came to Hanford as a TV news reporter, but eventually took a job for one of the many contractors at the site. According to the Hanford website, his company is tasked with “retrieving, treating, storing, and ultimately disposing of the approximately 53,000,000 gallons of nuclear and chemical waste stored in these tanks at the Site.” The company is innocuously and indirectly but also somehow reasonably called Washington River Protection Solutions.

Standing before an info-crammed poster, the Washington River Protection Solutions man walked us through the three kinds of radioactive waste that might be found in the tanks: solid, liquid, and a sludge that everybody insisted on always describing as “peanut-butter like.” Then he got into the history of the tanks. They are divided into two classes: “single-shell” and “double-shell,” and grouped into large sections called “tank farms.” The first set of 149 “single-shell” tanks was constructed between 1943 and 1964. Hanford estimated that 67 of those have leaked. Last week’s announcement makes 73. But a little leakage is nothing, really, when you consider the fact that during those years, Hanford actually produced more waste than the tanks could hold anyway. The leftovers were either sent to “holding facilities,” or dumped into massive trenches.

Between 1968 and 1986, Hanford added 28 “double-shell” tanks to the site. These are considered a great deal safer (none of them have leaked). Crews are in the process of transferring all the waste from single-shell tanks into double-shell tanks, starting with the most accessible waste in the most vulnerable tanks, then moving onto the lower priority and more highly challenging waste. The man said all of the liquid waste had been removed. But the peanut butter waste and solid waste are great deal more challenging and require the use of chemicals, robots, and other fancy technologies. He pointed to the little temporary building outside the tank. That’s where experts control the robots from, he said.

The ultimate goal of all this, as determined by a legal contract known as the Tri-Party Agreement (the parties are the Department of Energy, the EPA, and the state of Washington) is to turn all the highly radioactive waste at Hanford, whether liquid or solid or sludge, into a more stable glass form by the year 2052. This will be done through a process called vitrification. And don’t worry, a vitrification plant is under construction now, and you will see it later on your tour and it will be fully operational by 2022. But the PR man’s tone was hardly certain. Nothing is certain, he openly declared. He had a goatee and his hair was carefully gelled and even his smile seemed to belie a sort of grand humility at the scope of how much remained to be done.

Things change. Millions of dollars and labor hours are being spent moving nuclear waste from bad tanks into good tanks. Then millions more will be spent on vitrification. But single-shell or double shell, peanut butter or glass, it will still be nuclear waste. There is no getting rid of it. There is only finding more convenient, less uncomfortable ways to deal. It’s like if instead of boulders, Sisyphus was carrying buckets full of irradiated mud. When construction on the vitrification plant began, it was widely assumed and legally required that the resulting stabilized glass-waste would be transported from Hanford to Yucca Mountain in Nevada for relatively safe storage. But the Obama administration put a hold on construction at Yucca Mountain in 2009. On one hand, this was a disaster for Hanford – yet another obstacle placed in front of cleanup. On the other hand, bureaucratic holds and legal battles (protracted as they may be), feel small compared to the scope of a problem that only begins with 50 million gallons of nuclear and chemical waste.

The desert inside of Hanford was just like the desert outside of Hanford. The clouds above were enormous and white, giving the sky a cinematic look. The low mountains sloped up easily from the dirt and the Columbia River rolled in and out of site to the north of the highway. Every once in awhile somebody spotted a coyote scurrying past along the side of the road, and the whole bus leaped in its seat. But I never managed to catch a glimpse of one. I was either looking down at my notebook or out at the vastness of the site, which itself felt completely arbitrary. We could have been anywhere. This could have been be anywhere.

Our bus plodded along until all of a sudden the road before us was divided by a guard tower. We were now somewhere: entering the 300 Area, which, like most of Hanford, is highly secured. A few people in hard hats milled about, and there were some low buildings and chain link fences. As we pulled up to the guard tower, I got the sense of being in an alien movie, and not just because Hanford is divided into numbered “areas.” Everything was simultaneously ominous and banal, surreal and familiar. Here we were in a vast expanse of desert, nothing significant visible in any direction, except these minor defenses and nondescript governmental trappings. Our tour guide warned us that bomb-sniffing dogs might board the bus soon. I couldn’t tell whether that was meant to be a real warning or just a bit of atmospheric fun. In any case, the dogs were not called in. We were waved through as easily as if we were entering a parking garage.

Occasionally we saw little patches of desert marked with caution tape and tarps and other indications of work in progress. From the highway, they almost looked like miniature architectural digs sprung up at random from the dirt. In the early days of Hanford, workers would simply haul what they perceived as low-level waste – stuff like contaminated tools or uniforms – out into the desert and bury it. Recordkeeping was less than rigorous, and pollution was not a concern whatsoever, so long as everything seemed like it was a safe distance from where people were gathering. Now, because nobody bothered to write down where anything was, Hanford crews are engaged in the ongoing and seemingly never-ending task of finding all this stuff, combing all 586 square miles of the site in search of buried toxic treasures.

Hearing all this from my comfortable seat on the bus, I kept coming back to the idea that Hanford is more than simply a mess to clean up; that the nuclear project cannot be undone with the same speed and triumphalism with which it was initially carried out. Really it can never be completely undone. We talk about stabilizing waste and vitrification and Yucca Mountain. Twenty, and thirty, and forty year timelines. But the scope of the current damage at the site can only be guessed at. The long-term implications are even less predictable. Uniforms buried at random in the desert make a pretty good metaphor for the fact that Hanford is an essentially dynamic problem, in other words a human problem. The consequences of minimally regulated plutonium production aren’t just long-lasting, they are long-evolving.

Late in 2010, crews with the contractor Washington Closure Hanford were set to begin demolition on what had once been the most radioactive structure on the site: Building 324. Located less than half a mile from both the city of Richland and the Columbia River, Building 324 housed a pair of “hot cells,” which are three-story enclosures that scientists use to perform remotely-operated tests of highly unstable materials. One of those cells, B-Cell, was so radioactive in the 1990s that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that “an unprotected person standing inside could have received a fatal dose in less than two seconds.” By 2010, the building’s worst radioactive material had been removed. But when Washington Closure Hanford tested the ground under the site, it found radiation levels significantly higher than surrounding soil, which itself was already contaminated. Needless to say, demolition on Building 324 has not resumed. The site is “currently being deactivated,” says the Hanford website.

There are similar stories to tell about buildings all over the site, messy stories about government bureaucracy and highly radioactive equipment and the troublesome permanence of nuclear waste. The process of producing plutonium at Hanford required the constant transport of highly unstable materials from one facility to another to another, which made containing the mess basically impossible.

The plutonium production process began in the reactor cores, where uranium rods were overwhelmed with neutrons so that their chemical composition changed, creating, on each rod, a trace amount of plutonium. The rods were then dumped into giant pools of water, which caused some of the radiation to decay away, further isolating that plutonium. Next, the irradiated rods were hauled by train to a place called the T-Plant, where they were exposed to a chemical cocktail that caused them to dissolve, and which allowed scientists to extract the plutonium. The gallons upon gallons of highly toxic chemicals left over from this process were stored in massive single-shell tanks. The plutonium was sent to a place called the Plutonium Finishing Plant.

When Hanford stopped producing plutonium for good in the late 1980s, it was left with more than 100,000 irradiated rods that had yet to be dissolved at the T-Plant. With nowhere to put them – Hanford’s last working reactor shut down rather abruptly after the Chernobyl incident – officials settled on the K Basins, a pair of million-gallon, water-filled tanks that were built in the 1950s. The K-Basins are located about 400 yards from the Columbia River. By the 1980s they were already in decay – not built to last more than 20 years, and not built to store such high level nuclear waste. It didn’t take long for crews to discover that the basins were leaking. Further, the rods inside were dissolving into the water, resulting in yet another variety of nuclear sludge. Crews spent a decade removing the 2,100 tons of as-yet-un-dissolved rods, and then three more years vacuuming 47 cubic yards of sludge out of the more damaged East Basin, and dumping it in the less damaged, and now retrofitted, West Basin. Today, the rods are sitting in a building at Hanford, awaiting vitrification and eventual storage at a national repository to be determined.

The first nuclear reactors came into view at a point where the Columbia River bent gently, the way a child might have drawn a river winding across a sheet of construction paper. The buildings were so unassuming that at first I didn’t realize what I was seeing. They looked like little factories, or maybe granaries spaced out along the riverfront. Spaced out, we learned, in order to minimize the risk in a potential air attack on Hanford.

The reactors had silver roofs that glistened in the sun. But these were not their real roofs. These were cocoons – heavy metallic seals that served the dual purpose of guarding the decommissioned reactors from the elements, and guarding the elements from the bad stuff inside the reactors. When a reactor was totally sealed, it was referred to as “fully cocooned.” The technology has been reproduced for use at Chernobyl. This was what the man in the video meant by science faction.

We were on our way to the historic B-Reactor, which our tour guide described as “pretty much the beginning of the atomic age on this planet.” This was the world’s first large-scale plutonium processing site, the heart of Hanford’s early operations, built in just 13 months. It was, we were told, Fermi’s atom-splitting feat in Chicago replicated at a scale of 200 million. The plutonium used in the world’s first nuclear explosion was processed in the B-Reactor. So was the plutonium that went into the construction of the nuclear bomb Fat Man, which was detonated over Nagasaki.

Where most of Hanford had the air of a massive construction project, the B-Reactor felt more like a time capsule – a living museum full of lead, asbestos, and mercury. There were high ceilings crossed by catwalks, flashing red lights, and massive control panels with dozens of unmarked knobs and buttons. The walls were painted seafoam green, and men in blue shirts and khaki pants stood around to ask questions. Wandering around the B Reactor felt a bit like wandering around the industrial lair of a James Bond villain from one of the early Sean Connery movies. Long hallways with mysteriously closed-off sections marked by signs that said “Caution: Radioactive Activity.” Giant pipes and tubes everywhere. The reactor itself, a massive grid-like metal and graphite structure, 36 feet high. It was more science faction, a monument to human potential – including the latent potential for self-destruction.

Modern Hanford is not as quaint or as permanent as the B-Reactor. Most of the new buildings are low-slung bungalows and trailers, put in place with the optimistic notion that one day they will no longer be necessary. After the B-Reactor, we visited a bungalow on the outskirts of the Plutonium Finishing Plant, which operated as the last stop in production until 1989 – and which since then has been considered one of Hanford’s most contaminated sites. It was here that the plutonium produced in Hanford’s reactors was isolated and converted into hockey-puck sized discs ready for transport.

Now the main task at the Plutonium Finishing Plant is erasing the Plutonium Finishing Plant – the Tri-Party Agreement states that it must be completely leveled by 2016. When production ceased, twenty tons of corrupted material were left behind. Before the plant is demolished, the radioactive equipment inside must be removed and stored safely. Some of that material has been shipped to various nuclear waste disposal sites in South Carolina, Nevada, and New Mexico. Much of it still remains at Hanford.

We learned about all this from inside the bungalow, where the walls were lined with posters that all made excessive use of the words SAFE, SAFELY, SAFETY. Jargon-heavy P.A. announcements were piped into the room for effect from the Plutonium Finishing Plant, which we could see out the window through a tangle of chain link fences and barbed wire. Despite the official language used on the tour, the de-nuclearization of the plant and other similar tasks around Hanford came off more like industrial projects than patriotic missions. The very blandness of the various modern Hanford facilities we entered confirmed this. If we couldn’t truly grasp the scope of the cleanup effort, at least we could make it mundane enough to deal with on a daily basis.

This attitude was especially visible in the manner of the government contractors who were carrying out the actual work. There was no mystique surrounding nuclear waste, just respect for the physical threat it posed. You got the sense that Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco were just ordinary American industry towns where people talked about half-lives as casually as Detroiters might talk about internal combustion.

Author Paul Loeb said as much in his 1984 book Nuclear Culture: Living and Working in the World’s Largest Atomic Complex. Loeb, who researched and wrote his book when Hanford was still fully operational, called the phenomenon “atomic banality.” He interviewed one early Hanford employee who said that he could “just as easily have been working in a coal plant.” High level chemistry and physics went hand in hand with blue jeans and hard hats. Our tour guide began his career at Hanford as a union pipefitter.

The banality of Hanford is part of what makes it a uniquely American place. Hanford is a historic triumph – a testament to American ingenuity and determination on the level of NASA’s greatest achievements. One could even call it the ultimate step toward manifest destiny. Here in the American West, we conquered the most powerful forces in the universe – the very forces that set off the Big Bang – and turned them into an industry not so different from coal or steel. And just like coal and steel, plutonium was produced by decent hardworking people who put their heads down and didn’t ask too many questions about the physical dangers of their jobs.

The problem was that the government leaders who conceived of Hanford and then ran the place, did not ask questions either. The assumption was that America would always be smart enough to outpace nature. If we could split the atom and build the bomb, we could certainly mitigate the consequences at home. But hubris is also an American phenomenon. We are just as stupid as we are powerful. Our failings are at least as great as our strengths.

In his Harper’s essay Buried Suns, David Samuels interviewed longtime employees of the Nevada Test Site, where America detonated 928 nuclear bombs over 40 years. Samuels wrote this about the workers: “Their literal, factual accounts of stemming procedures and postshot operations were often delivered with a deadpan humor that suggested a shared cosmic joke burbling just below the surface,” You get a similar sense at Hanford. You can have a sense of humor, and you can act like Hanford is no different from any other industrial workplace, but you can’t really escape the cosmic burbling, the creeping sense of your own smallness.

After the Plutonium Finishing Plant, we were driven to a massive and highly elaborate landfill officially known as the Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility or ERDF. The ERDF, contains more than 10 million tons of low level nuclear waste, ranging from contaminated soil dug up around the decommissioned reactors to building materials from torn-down structures on the site. Standing on a low cliff, we watched lines of bulldozers push dirt over discarded equipment in a massive pit. We learned that eventually, all of the bulldozers themselves would be buried in pits like this too, because radiation contaminates everything it touches. But what about the bulldozers used to bury the bulldozers, I wanted to ask. Doesn’t this go on forever?

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like despite the names of the contractors working there – Washington River Protection Solutions, Washington Closure Hanford, etc. – Hanford was not a problem to be solved, or a site that could ever truly be closed. The best you could hope for was maintenance and coping. The mess was too sprawling, too permanent. After the ERDF we drove past a yard filled with huge unfamiliar metallic objects. They were the spent reactor cores from nuclear submarines. The Navy sent them up the Columbia River to Hanford from its base in Bremerton, Washington for lack of a better place to store them.

The last thing thing we saw on our tour was the beginning of the vitrification plant, which has been under construction for more than a decade and is not even fully designed yet. This is the crown jewel and the cornerstone of Hanford cleanup, but it has also been a subject to various missteps and cost overruns. The plant, officially called the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant, will cost more than $12 billion to complete – and when that day comes (ideally in 2017), will be the world’s largest chemical treatment facility, consisting of four nuclear facilities spread over 65 acres. The vitrification plant will be expected to process more than 50 billion gallons of hazardous waste at a cost of more than $70 billion dollars.

Ideally, the resulting glass form of waste will be stable enough to sit for the next few thousand years without doing things like leaking into the ground and contaminating the surrounding environment. This would be a far better reality for Hanford than its current state of carefully supervising tanks full of nuclear stew. But the glass product is a long ways and a lot of money away from existence, and when it does exist, it will still be nuclear waste. You can fold a piece of paper in half so many times until it just won’t budge. The result might be be a little bit sturdier and cover a little less surface area – but it will still be the same piece of paper. It will still have to go somewhere.

The bus ride from the Vitrification Plant back to tour headquarters was long. I looked out across the desert, which felt far away from everything, and wondered what would come of this place in thousands of years. Hanford was built and operated in a time when existential fear of a nuclear apocalypse was a relatively normal feeling. But that kind of ending for humanity did not seem viable anymore. The sludge sitting in those tanks, and the slow decay it wrought seeping deeper and deeper into the ground, seemed far more ominous.

We watched a movie about scientific research being done on the Hanford reservation and filled out a survey about the tour experience. All of the questions felt like filler except for one. The question reminded me of why Hanford began offering tours in the first place: to answer criticisms about lack of transparency at the site. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,100 years. The ongoing work at Hanford was not intended to be a solution. There would be no solution. There would only be maintenance; there would only be the gradual arrival at a workable compromise with nature as we unleashed it.

The survey asked: “How would you rate the progress of Hanford’s cleanup efforts from what you saw today?”

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