* Vale halts Goro nickel ops in New Caledonia
* China exports rise slightly in April, beat forecasts
* China copper imports rise to 450,000 tonnes in April.
* Coming Up: U.S. initial jobless claims at 1230 GMT
(Adds details, quotes; previous SYDNEY)
LONDON, May 8 (Reuters) - Nickel stormed 6 percent higher on Thursday to the strongest in more than two years as industrial consumers scrambled to secure supplies and speculators extended their buying spree after Vale halted its Goro nickel operations in New Caledonia.
Most other metals, largely ignored in the wake of nickel's rally, firmed slightly after better than expected Chinese trade data helped to burnish the outlook for base metals demand.
While the shutdown of Goro because of a spill was not expected to have a major impact on physical nickel supplies, it fired up bullish sentiment and chart-based purchases.
The nickel market, which has soared nearly 40 percent this year, was already nervous about shortfalls from top producer Indonesia and worried about potential problems with Russian supply.
"Today we've seen some panicked consumer hedging and the hedge funds have already been in there for a while," said analyst David Wilson at Citi in London.
Three-month nickel on the London Metal Exchange (LME) surged 6.1 percent to a high of $19,786 a tonne, the strongest since March 2, 2012. It retreated to $19,460 by 0954 GMT, up 4.3 percent.
LME nickel volumes were over 8,000 lots compared with 4,000 to 5,000 for copper and aluminium, usually the most active.
Nickel prices had been on the upswing since Indonesia banned exports of ore in January and recently received a fillip from worries that sanctions against Russia could hit top refined producer Norilsk Nickel.
Prices have also been supported recently by nickel buyers in China and Japan scrambling to secure supplies as fear of shortages boosts demand for both refined metal and long-term ore contracts.
The immediate trigger for Thursday's price jump was the suspension by Vale of production at the Goro mine and processing plant after an effluent spill. The company was waiting to hear from the local government about resuming operations.
While Goro has capacity of 60,000 tonnes, its production is much smaller because of technical difficulties, said analyst Joel Crane of Morgan Stanley in Melbourne.
"Physically, it doesn't do a lot to the market, but sentiment-wise I am sure it will help - the perception of severe tightness is driving prices," he said.
Vale said in November it expected to produce 40,000 tonnes of nickel from the Goro mine in 2014.
Wilson said the second quarter is the busiest period for stocking of stainless steel, usually tailing off from late May, which could bring a modest correction in nickel. Stainless steel accounts for about two thirds of global nickel demand.
"I don't think it's going to pull back very far. If there's a $1,000 pull-back, I think that would probably be something to buy into," Wilson said. "We definitely expect the market to move into deficit in the second half of the year and see peaks of $22,000, or maybe slightly above."
CHINESE TRADE DATA
Appetite for base metals also picked up after China's exports rose slightly in April, beating forecasts for a decline.
LME copper rose 0.1 percent to $6,663 a tonne. The most-traded August copper contract on the Shanghai Futures Exchange traded down 0.6 percent at 46,810 yuan ($7,500) a tonne.
China's imports of iron ore, copper, soybeans and crude oil rose in April on stronger seasonal demand, data from the General Administration of Customs showed.
Chinese imports of copper rose 7.2 percent in April from the previous month, extending gains made in March as stronger domestic prices boosted their appeal.
Goldman Sachs remained bearish on copper, given weakness in China's property markets, which with related sectors account for 60 percent of the country's usage of the metal. China is the top global copper user, accounting for about 40 percent of refined demand.
"We reiterate our bearish 2014 copper view and maintain our forecast that the price will fall to $6,200/tonne this year," it said in a note late on Wednesday.
Three month LME copper
Most active ShFE copper
Three month LME aluminium
Most active ShFE aluminium
Three month LME zinc
Most active ShFE zinc
Three month LME lead
Most active ShFE lead
Three month LME nickel
Three month LME tin ($1 = 6.2343 Chinese Yuan)
(Additional reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by David Goodman)