Madeleine Archer

Sustainability Lead

Sellafield Ltd.

December 15, 2021

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Ep 344: Madeleine Archer - Sustainability Lead, Sellafield Ltd.
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Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Today, we're here with Madeleine Archer, who is the Sustainability Lead at Sellafield Limited in the United Kingdom. Madeline, it's so great to have you here.

Madeleine Archer
Good. I can't wait to talk to you.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Yeah. Well, welcome to Titans. We're at the WNE, World Nuclear Exhibition, conference here in Paris, France. And you're at the UK pavilion representing Cumbria in addition to Sellafield, the Northwest nuclear arc. But we're here to talk about you and get to know your career and your work at Sellafield. I'd love to kind of start with how you got into nuclear or even energy to begin with.

Madeleine Archer
Yep. So I went to university in Aston, which is in Birmingham. There I did chemical engineering and applied chemistry. As part of my degrees, they did like sandwich placements, so a year in industry and-

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
I was also a chemical engineering major, so I know exactly.

Madeleine Archer
So we did a year in industry and Sellafield is one of the companies that advertise quite widely across the UK for doing that program. And they have quite an extensive training program as part of apprenticeships, a year in industry, and then graduate trainees. So I joined Sellafield as part of my degree on an industrial placement year and then went back to university for two years to finish my Master's degree. But as part of my industrial placement, they offered me a full-time position for once I'd graduated.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
And so when you started in chemical engineering, were you thinking about energy? Were you thinking about nuclear? Or you just liked chemistry and math?

Madeleine Archer
At school, I was good at chemistry and math, so it was kind of a natural fit for me. And my dad also was kind of a chemist. So he kind of encouraged me down that pathway. And, yeah, it just- Sellafield was something that was advertised to us and I think it's a place that not many people know an awful lot about. But as soon as I started researching it and understanding what we did, it was kind of- it was a bit of a draw to me. I kind of got into it and then as I was learning more and more, it was definitely something that I wanted to pursue. I think doing the year in industry was really helpful, because it's like a year long interview for them. But it was also a chance for me to say, Is this what I want to do and does it interest me?

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
So let's introduce Sellafield through the way you were introduced to the organization.

Madeleine Archer
I was introduced as a design engineer, so working with different facilities on-site: fixing pumps, designing new pipes, all other kind of very classic chemical engineering topics. But as soon as I got in the door, you got to see a lot more of the business. And what Sellafield does is, fundamentally, waste management and decommissioning. Through history, we've had very various different roles. We've done lots of different things. From the kind of early 1950s, we supported the war effort, so when people were trying to develop atomic weapons. We were a key part of that for the UK. Then we kind of moved into the more reprocessing side of things to commercial reprocessing and commercial power. We have the world's first commercial nuclear power station at Calder Hall.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
That's right.

Madeleine Archer
So we've got this rich history of doing lots and lots of different things. And then the bulk of our history is this reprocessing. We've taken fuel from all over the world on behalf of the UK Government and reprocessed that fuel ready to turn into waste for ultimate storage. And now one- we had two large reprocessing facilities and one of them is closed down now.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
At Sellafield?

Madeleine Archer
Yep, so both on-site.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Is the reprocessing in the UK for the old AGR fleet?

Madeleine Archer
We did Magnox and then AGR, so we had two reprocessing facilities: one for Magnox, one for AGR.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Is one of those the one that was shut down?

Madeleine Archer
AGR is now closed down, but we're still running Magnox, which is one of the oldest- well, it must be the oldest, I think it must be the oldest reprocessing facility still running in the world. But even that's coming to the end of its life now and the UK fleet of Magnox reactors are end of life, kind of final defueling. So when we get through that fuel, or at a point where it doesn't make sense anymore to do that, we'll shut that one down as well. And then we will be kind of entirely a waste management decommissioning kind of business. That being said, we also have huge construction work. So part of the challenge that we have is we have lots of waste leftover from that kind of history of Sellafield that we now need to deal with. For a number of years, some of our facilities were just kind of left with no investment in them or anything like that, so there are quite significant challenges from historic storage and things like that and we need to build the facilities to deal with all that waste. So there are huge construction projects going on. And we've kind of got a pretty good history of construction with building the reprocessing facility, which was, I think, at the time, as big a construction project as the Channel Tunnel. Huge, huge buildings. So moving forward, we're kind of project managing the big construction projects, but also dealing with these nuclear legacy facilities that we have in the UK, from the kind of- the mission we had at the time, which was to support the war effort and develop atomic weapons, when they maybe weren't thinking about the future of how do we get rid of this waste in the future? How do we deal with it? What are we going to do to store it safely? That's the kind of big challenge at the moment.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
That's a really exciting kind of challenge for you to join as a young engineer, just kind of see the entire future of a company, but kind of the future of an industry and of a country's solution to a pretty big challenge. So after you started out and did your kind of apprenticeship and you got to know the sector, where did you first- at the company, where do you first land and kind of move up from there?

Madeleine Archer
I completed my graduate training all pretty much in design engineering, so I focused on that to begin with, but I'm kind of an "every day’s got to be exciting" kind of girl. So design engineering of projects that are going to take 10 years, 15 years wasn't really for me, so I decided to take a step closer to the facilities basically. We have 220 plus nuclear facilities on the site-

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Wow.

Madeleine Archer
-all in about two square miles, so there's plenty of opportunity to kind of get yourself in there and really get in close to the facility. I decided to become what we call a System Engineer, so that was supporting the operations of the facility, reliability, supporting with breakdowns, looking at the future maintenance plans of the facilities and things like that. So I did that in our thermal oxide, or AGR, reprocessing facility. And that was a really fantastic opportunity to be really close. I did some time on shifts with our operators kind of learning how to do it on the control desk, which was really cool. And again, kind of decided it wasn't quite close enough. Literally, I was like- I was in the control room and I was like, This is fun, this is what I want to do. But also, I looked across at the legacy facilities and the huge challenges that we're facing and I really like every day being different. And with those legacy facilities, because we don't know, necessarily - there's no fantastic records of what they did in 1956, or things like that. And you know, if there are records, they're not to the standard that we would expect them today.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
You can't put it in a VR model.

Madeleine Archer
Well, we can talk about that in a bit, but we have done some fantastic stuff now, but not the information we had back then. I thought that was a really interesting area of the business to get into, so I became a Deputy Operations Manager in one of our seriously old legacy facilities: the first generation Magnox storage pond. So this is kind of a huge- basically like a swimming pool where- and it's full of skips of spent Magnox and other kinds of fuel, some of the kind of experimental parts of it, medical isotopes that have been stored in there, all sorts of different things.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
And what kind of timeframe of things being stored in this pool-

Madeleine Archer
Probably late 50s, early 60s kind of time period, all the way through probably to late 80s was stored in there. And then there was a big chunk of time where we didn't really do anything with it. And then, in the late 90s, early noughties, we kind of started getting into it in earnest and said, This is really important, we need to move forward with this and make it safe. At the time, we had four what we call high hazard facilities. And there was a big kind of press thing at the time that they were the most hazardous facilities in Europe and we really needed to crack on. So the UK Government gave us that instruction and said, You need to do this as fast as you possibly can. So that was then the challenge for these four facilities: to get them empty, take the water out, and then start to decommission them as fast as we possibly can to reduce that hazard to the local community. I was Deputy Operations Manager in what we call a sludge packaging plant. At the bottom of the pond, the coating on the fuel and various- it's outdoor, so you kind of get leaves and seagulls and all sorts of things and it kind of forms a sludge layer at the bottom of the pond, which is then radioactive, so it would be intermediate level waste. We designed ROVs and swimmers to go and get the sludge, but we needed to put it somewhere. So I was operations- I managed the operations in the sludge packaging facility. We kind of worked closely retrieving the sludge and then passing it through into a lovely safe kind of modern containment facility. I did that for a number of years and then moved into the Operations Manager position.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Yeah, well, actually just back to the sludge plant. I just think it's so fascinating. What was that like describing to your friends?

Madeleine Archer
I'm now known amongst my close friends as Queen of the Sludge, which is an absolutely fantastic title. It's really stuck with me. So it's a number of years ago now, but it's really stuck.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
But you had to give that up.

Madeleine Archer
Give that up and progress. Moving on up. So I moved into our infrastructure capability. Sellafield is a bit like a small town.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Yeah. I've seen maps of it. It's huge.

Madeleine Archer
12,000 people on any given day. It has its own sewage treatment works. It has its own railway system and canteens. All of that kind of that you would expect. It's got its own medical facility. All of that kind of that you would expect of a small town. And part of the infrastructure capability is to look after the flasks that we use in the UK to transport material, both internally and externally. I became Operations Manager for our flask maintenance facilities.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
When you say a flask, can you describe that? I think that's a different terminology than we use.

Madeleine Archer
Okay, so the kind of outer layer of containment that you would see when we transport nuclear fuel or nuclear waste-

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
New nuclear fuel or used?

Madeleine Archer
Either and so we have a huge range of different containers. And that's part of the challenge of maintaining them is that they're all different. So each commercial company- so EDF will have a different one to Magnox, and the Italians will have a different one to the Finnish. They all have their own. Most people would have seen- if you've ever seen nuclear transport on trains or on wagons or on big boats, for example, they're kind of white - they're usually white, sometimes yellow - big, huge containers. And the most famous video of one is that a train crashes into one and it just bounces and just rolls off nicely. The trains destroyed, but the flask is beautifully preserved. So I looked after the maintenance for those flasks. Repainting them, making sure all the bolts and the seals and everything was secure, so that I'm meeting the transport regulations, both internally and internationally. Because as I mentioned before, we reprocess fuel on behalf of international customers. So the waste that's produced from that reprocessing is returned to the international customer or a proportion of the waste, because it's not practical to return every pair of gloves we've used. We kind of do a high level waste container and that equates to the amount of radioactive material that we've reprocessed for them and send them those highly active containers. So yeah, they're in kind of very thick steel flasks is what we call them. And they can be transported anywhere, so they would go on boats off to Japan or Italy, and then around the UK we bring in fuel in similar flasks.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Fascinating. I'm actually- so nuclear transport is an incredibly, highly regulated industry. I'm kind of curious what that is like on a nuclear licensed site. I imagine it's still obviously very highly regulated, but probably not as restrictive right as once it's out of the facility.

Madeleine Archer
We did we had different requirements for flasks that we used to transport things internally versus externally. And the difficulty that we have is often sometimes you need to leave the site with it, even if it's- so the same package can do multiple jobs, so you effectively have a very similar standard for maintaining the flasks anyway, even if they're going off- or on-site. We do have smaller packages that we can use for internal moves for different things that aren't fuel, because we can reduce the shielding layers and all of that kind of stuff. So it varies, but also a kind of really high safety standard, because we have our staff driving around our site. It's really not that different to the external world. I know a lot of sites don't have personal cars and all that kind of stuff, but we do. Our workforce drives on and they go over the level crossings with the fuel on the same train line. It does need to be to that really high standard, whichever really.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
You mentioned train lines. I'm kind of painting this picture in my mind about the size. As you mentioned, a small city where they have all these different transportation networks. I imagine also have really probably highly technical data management systems as well, right? Because it's not just- it's everything that you're tracking. It's the containers. It's what's in the containers. It's the gloves that were used to touch the containers. That's really fascinating.

Madeleine Archer
The site's grown up in a kind of very evolutionary way. So everything isn't integrated, but within parts of it, you have these kind of comprehensive management systems. We have the package management system, which tells you exactly where are packages on any given day, what's been in it, what's in it now, but also what's been in it through its entire history, what maintenance it's ever had done on it, and whether or not it's approved to go off-site, what content it can hold, and all of that kind of stuff, all just kind of stored in a centralized system. And then if you think about, we have 220 nuclear facilities, so you have different systems for all sorts of different things. Yeah, huge amount of data management and a real big challenge to kind of bring it together. Because the current aspiration, I guess, globally is to bring all that data together, so that you can analyze it and so you can use it in a more productive way and all the separate systems don't really lend themselves to that. So that's one of the challenges that we're working through at Sellafield at the moment is how we bring all of that data together, but make it useful and make it easy to access for us so that we can use it to the best effect.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Right, right. Fascinating. Okay, so this is when you were Operations Manager focusing on flask-

Madeleine Archer
Infrastructure and flasks. And then I did one more Operations Manager job after that. I moved back into our legacy facilities and I went to the power fuel storage pond, which is the oldest pond. We have two kind of main, old outdoor ponds. So I worked on one and then I moved to the other. Now, the other one has quite a different challenge, because it mainly focused on taking fuel from the pile fuel chimneys at Sellafield Ltd, which were originally part of the Windscale site. Those who are a bit older might remember the Windscale fire, which was the UK's biggest nuclear disaster where the reactor at Windscale set on fire. We were saved from mass contamination of the local area by a filter gallery that was installed. The story is told that it was installed a bit on a whim, because one of the team members, Cockroft said, Oh, I think you should put this on. And so they put it on and it ended up saving the day. So they're called Cockroft's Folly, the Filter Gallery. It's a bit of an anecdotal thing. But yeah, so they kind of saved the day. But the reactors ran for a number of years, mainly to support the development of atomic weapons. And they had a direct- it's a really interesting layout on the site. So you've got two kind of huge chimneys with reactors underneath. And then directly in the middle you have the power fuel storage pond. And there are underwater channels that go into each- from each reactor into the pond in the middle so they could directly transfer the fuel without ever having to handle it outside, which is, at the time what they needed to do, because they didn't have MSMs to do remote handling and all of that kind of stuff. So that's how they did it. And then it's full of skips of that - or it was a number of years ago - full of skips of that kind of fuel. Now, when I went into the power fuel storage pond, they were much further along their journey for decommissioning than some of the other facilities, so it was very task by task. There weren't large amounts of fuel to remove anymore. They had done all of that. So there are lots of kind of interesting one-offs to do. But also one of the big challenges was looking at how we start lowering the water level, how we start taking it apart, and how we bring it to ground level, because eventually that's what it has to be. And one of the most interesting things that I was involved with during that time was divers, nuclear divers. Never been done at the Sellafield site. We have a dive team who work on the sea lines that take our effluent out to sea, but never on the nuclear licensed site. So we were looking at using divers to go and do final cleanup of the base layer of the pond, because you can use kind of- the analogy is a Hoover to pick up all the sludge. But there are bits that it just won't pick up.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
And there are areas of metal or like heavier objects?

Madeleine Archer
Well, yeah or you know, tiny things that you can't really see, but are highly radioactive. Things like that that you wouldn't know to go and look for unless you were close, because you can't- you can't identify small objects on the bottom of the pond through water, because you can't do it radioactively. And you can't do it visually, because it's very cloudy and the water shields any radiation really. So the interesting part of that was kind of building a full-scale trial facility for the divers. So we haven't finalized them going in yet or any of that kind of stuff, but being part of that process of the idea of putting divers into that highly hazardous environment was a really interesting thing to be part of.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
This is really fascinating to think about decommissioning kind of on this task basis. So the task is pick up the itty bits at the bottom of the pond. And then it's like okay, how are we going to do that? Well, we don't have an appropriate technology, so we're going to use humans. Okay, so we're gonna have to train divers, hire divers-

Madeleine Archer
We're going to have to put steps in.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
-make it accessible, build a training pond, and then have a whole plan laid out for when this is going to happen. And that's just one piece of one task in the whole decommissioning of this entire facility. That's fascinating. And so I'm actually- what is that process kind of like? It was just, you identify a task, then create plans, then you said, Now, you haven't even done the dives yet. How long do these tasks typically play out?

Madeleine Archer
It really does vary depending on kind of the hazard level, the nuclear safety case involved in doing what you're going to do. I think the challenge with divers has been no one's ever done this before. But also COVID happened. The contractor that we had in place at the time was American, so there were kind of issues with how we were going to travel and all that kind of stuff. There have been a few delays. But I think, mainly, the challenge is around demonstrating that something completely new and never been done before can be made safe. There's an awful lot of kind of safety assessment, building a safety case to do it, radiological testing. One of the things that we did was we did extreme dose monitoring, so finger. How much dose your finger is going to get. How much dose your eyes are going to get. How much dose different parts of your body while you're doing these activities and a lot of that has to be done by modeling and surveying the areas and things like that. There are a lot of kind of practical things that you need to do, but actually the practical stuff for diving anyway. Divers go into the ponds underneath reactors. That's been done before, so that the practicalities of diving in that environment are kind of understood. But it's the context of Sellafield where you can't- in our ponds, you can't see this far in front of your face. So how do you keep them safe? How do you make sure that there's that backup on backup on backup so that, if something happens, you can get these people out and get them safe as quickly as possible? So it is a really big challenge building that case, really, to say, Yeah, we're good to go.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
And so you talking about building the safety case. You're speaking about working with the ONR, the regulatory body in the United Kingdom. Are there regulators that you kind of constantly are assigned to you assigned to this task, but you're working with on a daily basis?

Madeleine Archer
So the regulators are generally assigned to a facility, but with things like divers, that's kind of our main focus in that facility. There are other operations going on, but the main focus would be something like divers. So yeah, we get very regular interaction with them and we have kind of named individuals that are allocated to- at least for the smaller facilities, they might look after one or two. But yeah, the big jobs you kind of get your one named person who's constantly-

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
And they become- this person will become the world expert in the first time. Creating jobs and careers all over the place. Exactly. Okay. So this is kind of where you're at currently? Or you were focused- this hasn't yet fully come to completion, but-

Madeleine Archer
I've moved on. Yeah. So I moved on quite quickly, because when COVID happened, I also am part of emergency management and crisis response at the site. When COVID came on the horizon, there was a kind of discussion that said, Well, Madeline's going to need to be on COVID response if COVID happens. Because at the time, this was what, January 2020? And it was all like, I don't know, we don't know. But we kind of set up a little taskforce to say, What would happen if this becomes a global pandemic and we have to respond to this? And I was part of that task force. There was kind of a discussion that happened at the time that said we need a full-time operations manager. You can't go off and just do COVID and forget about the power fuel storage pond, so we're going to have to come to some sort of agreement. And the agreement was that I moved into a role, a more functional role in enterprise strategy, but spent the majority of my first six months in that job responding to COVID and making the arrangements to keep the site safe during that time when we couldn't get people in and there were all of the restrictions. We have many, many places where people need to work very closely together-

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
And in person, right, a lot of this work is-

Madeleine Archer
Yeah, we can't just- so one of the key things about Sellafield is we can't switch off the lights and send everybody home. We just can't do that. There are loads of facilities on the site that need 24/7 to keep them safe. So we had a huge challenge there, because there was kind of the fear element of it - people not wanting to come into work, not wanting to come into contact with other people - but also putting the arrangements in place that meant we could keep people at a safe distance from each other and try and reduce any possible transmission in the workplace and all of those elements of it.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
It's a really fascinating, I think, position to find yourself in. To be in an industry where safety is just key to every- it's every other word, because the potential danger is very real, but at the same time to then have to kind of find yourself an environment where the people you're trying to protect from radioactive substances can themselves cause harm to the people. It must be a really kind of fascinating-

Madeleine Archer
A very new way to think about things. As you said, a highly regulated, highly safety conscious industry, but not biologically. We weren't expecting Joe Bloggs to bring it in and be the problem, essentially. It was a really different way of looking at things. We had to get very up to speed and technically understanding very, very quickly. We had experts we could call on from the UK government and public health, but we had to learn all of this stuff really quickly, as did every other business. But it was quite unique for us in the way that we can't stop.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
But it probably- anyways, I imagine it might have been easier in this sector. Right? Again, the safety culture is there, but you have scientists talking to scientists, that was very rational.

Madeleine Archer
Yeah, there was an understanding that we would get it, but also the kind of idea that we have to be there was very challenging when the government says, Everybody stay at home and don't leave the house. The idea that we're going, No, actually you have to leave the house, because you have to come to work, was a strange one, because everybody saw the health services and those kind of people going to work. But we did have that kind of weird, psychological thing of do we actually have to be there? So we did a lot of challenging of who do we really need? Who would we need if it was even worse? And identifying those people who we need to rely on.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
So I imagine you came up with kind of classification systems of actually defining the word essential.

Madeleine Archer
Yes, essential has different- you can be essential one and essential two. So yeah, and we did do quite a significant shutdown of the site. Production did really kind of stop in that first phase, maintaining the safety. We chose to stop production so that we could maintain the safety. Because when you start losing people to go and self-isolate or because they've got COVID, it becomes a challenge in terms of making sure you've got enough people to come in. So we did all sorts of things around groupings of shifts. We would create a little bubble of shifts and then we would reduce the shift numbers on one shift so that you've got people sat at home, so that if any of those were taken out or they got to self-isolate, that you could bring them- the other set in and-

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Have the same expertise.

Madeleine Archer
So a lot of work on resilience during that time.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Great. So you mentioned the word resilience, and I'm curious where the word sustainability comes into your title.

Madeleine Archer
So, after COVID, I kind of in earnest got into enterprise strategy. The enterprise strategy is what sets the direction from the business. It's the words that come from our board and our executive and years of experience that say this is where we need to be as a business over the next five years. We do a five-year strategy cycle. And as part of the enterprise strategy that we wrote last year - we were doing a new one last year - there was a discussion around sustainability. And we wanted sustainability to be up there as one of the things that we are expected to do every day. So we changed-

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Define sustainability for me, because it's a big word. Everyone has a definition for it.

Madeleine Archer
Sustainability is doing the right thing now for future generations.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Perfect.

Madeleine Archer
That's the way we talk about it. So we decided that sustainability needed to be there. One of our objectives is safe, secure site stewardship. And last year we changed that to safe, secure, sustainable site stewardship. Now, at Sellafield sustainability is an odd concept, because what we do is inherently sustainable, because we are cleaning up the mess previous generations left to make a better future for the rest of the UK. So that's what we do. A clean and safe environment for future generations. The question is how we do it sustainable and that's where my job kind of comes in. We have a social impact department and an environmental department and there's not necessarily that much linkage between the two. So my job is around coordinating all of that across the business to demonstrate our sustainability credentials, if you will, and say, We are doing this stuff, we have been doing this stuff for years, but what we need to do is focus it in the right places and make sure that we know what we're doing. Because with 12,000 people, you've got people doing all sorts of different things, but you need to know from a sustainability perspective where the gaps are.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
This comes back to that data management point. But I also think it's very- it's kind of that five-year plan, right? Evaluating what everyone's doing and then thinking about how we can shift everything to meet this vision.

Madeleine Archer
One of the things that I've done is set up the kind of forums for people to come together and share ideas, share what they're doing, and get information. Set up the governance so that if we've got decisions that need to come through and be made, then we get those to the right place. Set up a little bit of funding, so that if people have got kind of standalone sustainability ideas to improve the business, then we can look at funding that against the very big challenge of, we don't make any profit. Our funding is allocated every year from government and we have a really big job to do. And what we need to do is not- we don't need to step out of our lane. What we need to do is keep swimming along in our lane, but doing it in the best way we possibly can, so that we have the least impact on future generations, the least impact on the environment. Now, we're never going to have - in the next 30, 50 years - no impact on the environment, because we're dealing with stuff that happened years ago and we have to keep doing that. The most sustainable thing we can do is deliver our purpose, make it clean and safe as quickly as we possibly can. Because inherently, if it's not safe, it's not sustainable.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
Well, that's brilliant. And I think that's a really perfect place to end this conversation on. And I am looking forward to seeing what you do next at Sellafield in your career, which I'm sure it'll be something just as exciting and just as grand. Thank you so much.

Madeleine Archer
Thank you very much.

Michelle Brechtelsbauer
It's been wonderful to meet you.

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