On May 8 an incorrect abbreviation was used for the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee. The correct abbreviation is NSAC, changed to avoid a conflict with NUSAC Inc., a Virginia corporation.

A group of Southeastern universities, including six from the Washington area, have won a preliminary competition to create a $140 million national center for physics research and build the most powerful machine of its kind designed to explore the structure of the atom.

The facility, proposed to be built in Virginia, is almost certain to become one of the country's most important centers for physics research. It will also bring hundreds of millions of dollars and several hundred jobs with it, as well as providing the area where it is built with an advantage in attracting the high technology industries being wooed by many states.

Late last week, the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee (NUSAC), which reports to the Deparment of Energy and the National Science Foundation, accepted the recommendation of a consortium of 22 Southeastern universities to build the new national laboratory.

The winning consortium, called the Southeastern Universities Research Association (SURA), won its bid against four other proposals. The colleges and universities that form the consortium include the Universities of Virginia and Maryland, as well as Catholic, American, George Washington, Georgetown, George Mason, William and Mary, Alabama, Duke, and Georgia Tech. Nine of the schools are in Virginia.

The current site chosen by SURA for what is called the National Electron Accelerator Laboratory is in Newport News, Va., in buildings donated by the state of Virginia. Several other possible sites have been mentioned. All but one of those are in Virginia and include a Fairfax County site near Dulles International Airport.

In a letter accepting SURA's general proposal, scientists reporting to NUSAC suggested shifting the site from Newport News to an area closer to a large airport and a major university.

The new facility will study the behavior of the nucleus of the atom and its internal clockwork, particularly the states of matter that may be made up of what are known as quarks, which wander within the nucleus. It is now believed that quarks are the most basic of particles, and that it is combinations of quarks that make up protons and neutrons. Bundles of protons and neutrons in turn make up the nucleus.

The National Electron Accelerator Laboratory would house a particle-accelerating machine more than 1,500 feet long. It would be the world's only machine that could produce a continuous stream of high-energy electrons, the electrically charged particles that form the outer shell of atoms.

The new physics machine will carry out studies of the nucleus by accelerating electrons to very high speed. The electrons will then be fired at nuclei, occasionally penetrating a proton or neutron and bursting it.

The tracks of particles that will flow from this flash of energy can be studied like maps to determine the states of particles before the collision. The process, as one physicist put it, is like photographing a high-speed collision between two garbage cans, and from that reconstructing the arrangement of their contents.

The proposal to build the laboratory, which will cost $17 million a year to operate, has not received final approval by the Reagan administration for inclusion in the 1985 budget. The project is said to have the backing of the White House science adviser, George Keyworth. The administration has substantially increased its budget for physics in 1984 and is expected to continue higher funding in 1985.

D. Allan Bromley, a Yale University nuclear physicist and chairman of the group of scientists that studied the proposals, said there were several reasons for selecting the SURA proposal. First was the design of the physics machine itself, which was the most high-powered, the most capable of accepting additions later, and relatively easy to build without going to untried technology.

He also said that the universities have agreed to add to their faculties some 35 new positions in nuclear physics to bolster work on the machine and training of students on it. That would increase by 10 percent the number of all American professors in the field, Bromley said.

The atom has been studied in recent years in two distinct disciplines. Nuclear physics has measured the behavior of the nucleus at the center of the atom--its shape, components, and how nuclei interact when they collide. Particle physics, on the other hand, pushes the study of matter a level deeper. It examines the particles smaller than the nucleus, trying to discover the final, basic particles of which the matter is made.

It is now believed that quarks are the most basic of particles, and that it is combinations of quarks which make up protons and neutrons, and the bundles of protons and neutrons in turn make up the nucleus.

The new machine, its builders say, will bridge the gap between nuclear and particle physics.

Particle physics has looked at the behavior of quarks inside single protons and neutrons (each has three quarks). However, the atomic nucleus is not usually made up of single protons, but of many protons and neutrons packed together. No present machine can examine the behavior of quarks when they are packed together to make up a nucleus.

In the new machine, the nucleus will be able to be examined for the first time as a mass of quarks rather than as protons and neutrons.

Hans von Baeyer, a physicist at the College of William and Mary, said that scientists hope especially to observe the way neutrons and protons exchange quarks, and wander in the spaces between them. There may even be circumstances in which protons and neutrons lose their identities and melt into one another, forming unusual combinations.