It was the middle of the night when Alexander Kuzminykh, a 19-year-old sailor, attacked a sentry aboard the nuclear submarine Vepr and killed him with a chisel. Grabbing the guard's AK-47 automatic rifle, the sailor then killed seven other crew members and locked himself in a torpedo bay.
For 20 hours, the disturbed seaman held control of the submarine at a naval base near Murmansk last month. He repeatedly threatened to set the warship on fire and blow it up, creating the potential for what one scientist called a "floating Chernobyl."
In the end, Kuzminykh ignored the appeals of his mother and killed himself. But his act of desperation sent a shiver of fear through scientists and anti-nuclear activists already worried about Russia's deteriorating ability, at a time of economic upheaval, to maintain a sufficient level of security at hundreds of nuclear facilities, both military and civilian.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union seven years ago, Russia inherited a vast nuclear empire. Today, its nuclear inventory includes an estimated 10,240 warheads, more than 500 vessels, 29 power plants and hundreds of storage sites for fissile material. Many are in remote and potentially vulnerable areas across Russia's 11 time zones.
Embarrassed Russian officials were quick to discount the nuclear danger of last month's incident: "The submarine and the people (in the vicinity) were absolutely safe," declared Sergei Anufriyev, chief spokesman for the Russian navy's Northern Fleet.
But with the reduced manpower and deterioration of its underfunded military, Russia is relying increasingly on its nuclear weapons as a deterrent to war. This summer, Russian President Boris Yeltsin cited the importance of the nation's nuclear capability and defended the readiness of its nuclear corps.
"Nuclear forces are some of the most important factors ensuring the security of our country," the president said. "The fact that reports appear here and there in the media that we have got weaker on the nuclear front _ first of all, they are seriously mistaken, and second, they do not help the state."
In 1994, the U.S. Senate ratified the START I treaty with Russia, which calls for reducing the number of U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads to 6,000 for each nation by 2001. Since 1992, the United States has spent more than $1.6-billion to help Russia upgrade its nuclear facilities in hopes of preventing a catastrophic accident or seizure of nuclear materials by terrorists.
Efforts to reduce the nuclear threat got a modest boost last month when U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and Russian Nuclear Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov signed two agreements designed to keep Russia's financial plight from driving its nuclear scientists and plutonium stockpiles into the arms of the highest bidder.
Under one pact, the United States will provide $30-million to create jobs in the private sector for Russian nuclear scientists in 10 high-security cities previously closed to the outside world. The second agreement clears the way for each country to dispose of 55 tons of plutonium once intended for making weapons, by breaking it down for use as nuclear fuel.
"I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to us all that economic hardship not drive Russian nuclear weapons scientists into employment in places like Iran and North Korea," Richardson said.
Meanwhile, the quality of military recruits has dropped precipitously for elite forces such as the submarine fleet, which during Soviet times was renowned for its high discipline and morale.
Kuzminykh, officials said, is an example of the kind of sailor who would never have made it into the nuclear fleet of old. They described him as a misfit and a loner who was obsessed with violence, and they questioned how he managed to get past the fleet's psychological screening.
Alexander Nikitin, a former Russian navy captain, said the declining quality of military personnel creates a growing danger of nuclear disaster in Russia.
"It is really scary that one day the use of nuclear arms may depend on the sentiments of someone who is feeling blue, who has gotten out of bed on the wrong side and does not feel like living," he said. "The probability of this today is higher than ever before."
Nikitin said that if Kuzminykh had set a fire on board the Vepr _ which means Wild Boar _ it could have caused an explosion of torpedoes and a meltdown of the nuclear reactor. The reactor would not have exploded, he said, but a large amount of radiation could have escaped.
"It would have been exactly what happened in Chernobyl, but on a smaller scale," he said, referring to the 1986 meltdown of a nuclear reactor in Ukraine. "We are not talking about a global catastrophe here. We are talking about a very grave local catastrophe."
Government officials dismissed the nuclear danger, saying a fire aboard the Vepr would have been extinguished by automatic sprinklers before any harm could come to the submarine's reactor. They also insisted that there were no nuclear weapons on board _ and even if there were, they said, the weapons' casings would have protected them from fire or explosion.