The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has decided to disregard complaints about the potential psychological impact of a nuclear reactor unless the plant has already experienced a "catastrophe."

Such a "Catch 22" would appear to preclude considerations of psychological stress in hearings and decisions involving licensing of new power plants.

On May 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals here ruled that the NRC would have to prepare an environmental impact statement on the potential for psychological stress among those who live near the Three Mile Island nuclear plant before it could allow the Pennsylvania reactor to resume operating. But the three-judge panel, divided 2 to 1, left unanswered whether such stress should be considered in decisions involving other nuclear facilities.

In a Federal Register notice published yesterday, the NRC said it had read the court decision as saying that psychological stress can only be considered if:

* The situation involves "post-traumatic anxieties," not simply dissatisfaction with agency proposals or policies.

* The psychological impacts are accompanied by physical effects.

* The "post-traumatic anxieties" have been caused by "fears of recurring catastrophe."

Under those criteria, at this time the court decision would apply only to a decision to restart the Three Mile Island reactor.

Frank Ingram, an NRC spokesman, said the policy means that there "may have to be deaths before we would consider psychological stress in licensing."

Ingram said that psychological stress issues have been raised in a number of licensing hearings, and that now those arguments would be disregarded.

William S. Jordan III, an attorney who represented People Against Nuclear Energy, the group that brought the case against the NRC, said: "It's been our view that the court's decision should be pretty narrowly applied to a place like TMI where an event is a catastrophe."

But Jordan said the NRC may have set too high a threshold for what it will consider a "catastrophe."