Breakdown of the nuclear envelope (NE) was analyzed in live starfish oocytes using a size series of fluorescently labeled dextrans, membrane dyes, and GFP-tagged proteins of the nuclear pore complex (NPC) and the nuclear lamina. Permeabilization of the nucleus occurred in two sequential phases. In phase I the NE became increasingly permeable for molecules up to approximately 40 nm in diameter, concurrent with a loss of peripheral nuclear pore components over a time course of 10 min. The NE remained intact on the ultrastructural level during this time. In phase II the NE was completely permeabilized within 35 s. This rapid permeabilization spread as a wave from one epicenter on the animal half across the nuclear surface and allowed free diffusion of particles up to approximately 100 nm in diameter into the nucleus. While the lamina and nuclear membranes appeared intact at the light microscopic level, a fenestration of the NE was clearly visible by electron microscopy in phase II. We conclude that NE breakdown in starfish oocytes is triggered by slow sequential disassembly of the NPCs followed by a rapidly spreading fenestration of the NE caused by the removal of nuclear pores from nuclear membranes still attached to the lamina.