HANFORD SITE, WASH. -- Across the gray desert soil and light brown sagebrush, near the edge of the Columbia River on what is now restricted federal property, the old Hanford School stands alone and slowly crumbling, a ghost of the little farming community that sacrificed itself for the atomic bomb.

In the nearly half-century since plutonium for the world's first atomic explosion at Alamogordo, N.M., was produced here, this corner of arid eastern Washington has embraced the nuclear age. With the future of nuclear power and nuclear defense more uncertain than ever before, some people have begun to suggest that the bustling communities that succeeded the little town of Hanford may also fade away.

"I sure would hate to see it close. A lot of people depend on it," Jim Blunt, a college student in nearby Pasco, said of this huge Department of Energy reservation that employs 14,000 residents, including his father.

If it is nuclear, Hanford has something to do with it. The site was chosen in 1943 as a remote area with abundant river water for cooling reactors. The citizens of Hanford and nearby White Bluffs were relocated to Richland and Pasco. American scientists and engineers, aided by 51,000 construction workers and $350 million, secretly produced plutonium for the Alamogordo device and the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.

Since then, Hanford has produced material for thousands of bombs and missile warheads, as well as experimented with nuclear energy, nuclear medicine and now nuclear waste disposal. A major nuclear power plant, Washington Public Power Supply System No. 2, operates here. Until its shutdown for safety modifications in January, Hanford's plutonium-producing N Reactor also provided 825 megawatts of power to the region.

The nuclear disaster at the Soviet power plant at Chernobyl in April 1986 focused new attention on the N Reactor, a large beige blocklike building issuing small plumes of steam. It also used a graphite core and lacked a reinforced concrete-and-steel containment dome. A National Research Council panel reported in October that the 25-year-old N Reactor and other bomb-production facilities would shortly be too old for safe operation and might have to be terminated before new reactors are in place.

The safety question and the possibility that arms control might reduce the need for plutonium have turned attention to possible uses for Hanford. Because of its vast emptiness (at 570 square miles nearly half the size of Rhode Island) and its pronuclear citizenry, planners for years have proposed Hanford as a future repository for the nuclear wastes building up at power plants around the country.

Now, it seems, Hanford may miss out on that chance for one of the same reasons it attracted reactor-builders in 1943 -- the proximity of the Columbia River. Flowing through the site past scenic bluffs and never farther than 15 miles from any point in the reservation, the river touches the work or play of millions of residents of the Pacific Northwest and stimulates strong environmental feelings throughout the area.

"The Tri-Cities have lived on the nuclear thing all these years, and it's over," said a prominent Seattle attorney who helped Sen. Brock Adams (D-Wash.) score an upset victory last year with a vigorous campaign against turning Hanford into the nation's nuclear dump. "We definitely want to get out of the business. We think its going to screw up the river and ruin the state."

Much of the Energy Department's research here has focused on the problem of depositing nuclear wastes in such a way that they would not seep into the Columbia. A huge red oil derrick stands in one dry little valley, waiting for paperwork and final approval that would allow it to punch a test repository hole down toward the ancient basalt left by prehistoric lava flows. Hydraulic pump tests are gauging the speed and direction of underground water flows.

But experts like former Environmental Protection Agency administrator William D. Ruckelshaus, now an attorney and environmental entrepreneur in Seattle, suggest that federal officials have always known the river would make Hanford a poor repository site. Hanford was included on the official list of three possible locations for a national high-level waste dump, experts say, mostly because it was the only potentially suitable place in the country with local residents enthusiastic about the idea.

Now Congress has ruined that chance with new legislation virtually assuring the high-level repository will go to another site, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, where the local residents -- most of them kangaroo rats and lizards -- have not formed an effective antinuclear lobby.

"Morale is certainly difficult," said Energy Department spokesman Michael Talbot, whose father-in-law, a pipefitter, also worked here.

Even before last week's congressional action against a Hanford high-level repository, it was clear the site's various operations would receive no additional federal appropriations to offset inflation. Anticipating significant layoffs, the Westinghouse Hanford Co., which supplies 10,000 of the site's workers, asked employes this fall to consider early voluntary retirement.

There were only 269 volunteers. The site has suffered reverses before, but some way has always

been found to keep alive an operation so vital to the local economy. Talbot described the prevailing mood as "cautious optimism." The real estate market is low, but stable. The Columbia Center mall is expanding.

The Tri-Cities -- Richland, Pasco and Kennewick -- have attracted considerable ridicule for their enthusiastic embrace of a terrifying industry -- the Richland High School teams call themselves "The Bombers." But most people say they are here for the good jobs, good weather and scenery and the chance to play a role in the national defense. And they are quick to mention the other local industries, such as wine, fruit and tourism.

A huge piece of desert supported by trained technicians familiar with hazardous materials should be good for something, many residents argue. "As far as nuclear weapons go, I think we've got enough as it is," said Blunt. "But I think there is something we can use it for."

The latest congressional action removed the prospect of only a high-level nuclear repository. A dump for low-level radioactive waste, designed to serve the Pacific Northwest states, has been located at Hanford. The Shippingport Atomic Power Station in Pennsylvania is being torn down, its irradiated parts obsolete, and its 770-ton reactor vessel will be shipped to Hanford for special burial.

Many more commercial nuclear plants eventually will be dismantled and require a dumping ground for their unusable parts, although Energy Department spokeswoman Ginger King noted that there are no plans to use Hanford for this. Hanford officials also must dispose of the waste built up over years of plutonium-making at Hanford itself.

There are new research projects. The SP-100 Space Reactor being developed here may survive budget cuts because it relates to the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) system, which the White House has given high priority. If the N Reactor shuts down permanently, it might be possible to move its plutonium-making and power-generation functions to the nearly completed WPPSS-1, a nuclear power plant mothballed because its financing plan failed.

Talbot looked off toward the stark vista of Rattlesnake Mountain and expressed confidence that Tri-Cities people will find some way to keep the site in action, given their feelings about the region and themselves.

"It's a wonderful place to live," he said. "The people are united -- they stick together, and so in that sense it is a beautiful place."