Aug 7 (Reuters) - U.S. regulators on Tuesday suspended issuing final decisions on new licenses and on license renewals for nuclear power plants until the agency decides how to deal with the thorny issue of spent nuclear fuel.

The order from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission - headed by Allison Macfarlane, a nuclear waste expert - will not stop hearings or other work on licensing activity and no license decisions are imminent, an NRC spokesman said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in June struck down the NRC's so-called "waste confidence" provisions, saying the NRC violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in issuing its 2010 update to the Waste Confidence Decision and accompanying Temporary Storage Rule. The court remanded the case for further consideration.

"Waste confidence undergirds certain agency licensing decisions, in particular new reactor licensing and reactor license renewal," the NRC commissioners said in the order.

"In recognition of our duties under the law, we will not issue licenses dependent upon the Waste Confidence Decision or the Temporary Storage Rule until the court's remand is appropriately addressed," the order said.

Licensing reviews and proceedings will continue to move forward, the NRC said.

The NRC staff is expected to provide the commission with options on the waste confidence issue within weeks, but there is no timetable for commission action, the spokesman said.

Nuclear critics hailed the action, which they said would affect eight plant license renewals, nine applications to build new reactors, one operating license and one early site permit.

Diane Curran, an attorney representing parties in the court appeal, said the need for a thorough study of the environmental impact of storing and disposing of spent nuclear fuel was long overdue.

"That study should have been done years ago, but NRC just kept kicking the can down the road," Curran said in a statement.


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