AFTER MUCH pulling and hauling, the Department of Energy has announced that the next nuclear research laboratory will be built in Newport News. Until late last month it was mainly the pork barrel aspects of the decision that attracted attention. Because the Argonne National Laboratory badly wanted the facility, a struggle began between the congressional delegations from Illinois and Virginia. But when it became clear that the quarrel threatened to stalemate the whole project, Argonne finally withdrew its claim. Now that the location has been settled, some of the other aspects of the new laboratory are worth noting.

It is to be built around an electron accelerator, and it comes to Virginia because the winning design for the machine was developed by a team, led by Prof. James S. McCarthy, at the University of Virginia. It's an interesting indicator of Charlottesville's rising strength in the sciences. Research machines of this sort are impressively expensive--this one will cost about $185 million--and each is unique. Because it takes a long time to construct them, they are aimed for the experimentation that seems likeliest to be productive not in the current decade but the next one. The money for this one is to be in the 1985 budget, if all goes well, and it will be in operation some time around 1990.

The purpose of this accelerator is to produce a beam that, like a gigantic electron microscope, is capable of looking into the structure of the protons and neutrons that make up the nucleus of the atom. Its benefit to the state has usually been cast in terms of payrolls and so forth, but that's the least of it. It is sponsored by a consortium of 23 universities throughout the Southeast and, as part of this project, they have committed themselves to creating some 35 new faculty positions in physics. That in turn will mean a broad strengthening of scientific research and teaching in half a dozen states.

There has traditionally been a markedly circular pattern in the dispensing of scientific research money. The universities and laboratories with the strongest research programs attract the brightest people, who then draw in the biggest grants to strengthen their research capacities further. The rich get richer, in physics as elsewhere. It is a pattern that has generally left the South Atlantic states far out of first place. The new electron accelerator at Newport News will create opportunities that, if the universities use them well, can elevate scientific capability throughout Virginia and a much wider region.