Nuclear Fears Resurface After Seizure of Russia Sub


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 assault rifle, the sailor then killed seven other crew members and locked himself in a torpedo bay.

For 20 hours, the disturbed teenager 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 antinuclear 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 spread 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 A. 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, President Boris N. 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 in televised remarks. “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.”

U.S. Attempts to Help Russia Boost Security

In 1992, 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 Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny O. 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.

Clinton administration officials generally play down the short-term threat posed by the possibility of Russian nuclear arms falling into the wrong hands. And they have discounted reports that arms might soon explode because of poor maintenance.

But the larger process of reducing Russia’s stockpile of nuclear weapons has stalled with the unwillingness of the Russian parliament to ratify START II, which would restrict the number of nuclear warheads to as few as 3,000 for each nation.

Attempting to reassure the West and pave the way for more borrowing, new Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov said on the day of his confirmation--Sept. 11, the same day young Kuzminykh seized the Vepr--that approval of START II would be one of his top priorities.

However, the Russian government is in such a state of paralysis that it cannot afford to pay the salaries of a vast number of people--including soldiers, officers, technicians and scientists--working with nuclear weapons.

“People who have nuclear warheads in their hands have not gotten their salaries for three or four months and are literally hungry,” said Vladimir Orlov, director of the Center for Policy Studies in Moscow. At some military facilities, he said, officers have used their wives’ salaries to buy safety clothing so they would be in compliance with the regulations for handling the weapons.

3,500 Scientists Strike Over Unpaid Wages

The government’s failure to pay salaries has sparked a number of protests, including a strike by 3,500 scientists this summer at Arzamas-16, one of the biggest and most important of Russia’s nuclear cities.

Meanwhile, the quality of 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.

Anufriyev, the Northern Fleet spokesman, called Kuzminykh a “latent schizophrenic.”

“He would derive special inexplicable pleasure from reading crime fiction books or watching movies that contained scenes of violence,” Anufriyev said. “He liked being alone. He did not have any friends.”

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.”

The outspoken Nikitin, who once specialized in inspecting nuclear submarines, was charged with treason after he wrote a report for the Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian environmental group, on radiation contamination by the nuclear fleet in the Murmansk area, above the Arctic Circle. His trial is scheduled for Oct. 20 in St. Petersburg.

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.

There are 400 active and decommissioned submarines at the Murmansk base. Alexei V. Yablokov, a former environmental advisor to Yeltsin, estimated that a submarine reactor meltdown there could release one-tenth the amount of radiation of the Chernobyl accident--large enough to affect Western Europe, depending on the direction of the wind.

“It would be a floating Chernobyl,” he said.

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.

“When someone starts talking about a local or even a global disaster, this makes me laugh,” said Anufriyev, the fleet spokesman. “These people must never have been in a submarine and do not know what they are talking about whatsoever.”

But while government spokesmen were anxious to dispel concern about the possibility of a nuclear disaster after Kuzminykh’s seizure of the submarine, some officials are privately worried.

“When I realized that a maniac armed with an automatic rifle had seized an atomic submarine, this threw me into a cold sweat,” said a Murmansk agent of the Federal Security Service--the main domestic successor to the KGB. “No doubt we were dealing with a crazy person, but the last thing I wanted was to witness a Chernobyl without actually even leaving my office.”


Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.