THE STATES are playing nuclear Old Maid. They are fobbing off nuclear waste on each other. As of this moment, none of the country's three sites for burying low-level nuclear waste -- such as that generated by much vital medical research -- is even open for business. Universities and hospitals that do the research have the choice of slowing down or stopping it altogether until further notice. The burial sites in Washington and Nevada have been closed for investigation and correction of unsafe handling practices, and both should reopen. But the South Caroline site is closed indefinitely becaue Gov. Richar Riley -- as he explained on our op-ed page a while ago -- doesn't want South Caroline to become the nation's nuclear dump. Not surprisingly, a lot of other governors feel the same about their states.

Something similar is happening with the disposal of the 77 billion pounds of hazardous chemical wastes that are generated each year. As more and more unsafe sites and past abuses are uncovered, communities are increasingly reluctant to allow a new facility to be built nearby. Since 1976, when Congress passed a law setting the first standards for safe handling and disposal of hazardous wastes, virtually no new sites have been licensed, while many -- found to be unsafe -- have been shut down.

Minnesota's experience is typical. The federal Environmental Protection Agency gave the state a grant to demonstrate that a chemical dump site could be operated in a way that would not endanger local health or the environment. The state identified 40 possible sites and then narrowed the choice to 12. All 12 sites were eventually rejected by local government action. Four more sites were then located, but each of them met the same stiff opposition. Finally, after three years of futile effort, Minnesota sent the money back to Washington.

New Jersey -- home to many of the nation's largest waste generators -- tried a different tack. Because of its many rivers and swamps and the very high water table, New Jersey is uniquely ill-suited to safe burial of dangerous wastes. Afflicted with a flourishing industry of illegal "midnight dumpers" and unable to cope with its own wastes, the state tried to keep things under a little control by passing a law prohibiting companies from trucking in wastes from out of state. The Supreme Court, however, saw this as an unacceptable interference with interstate commerce and struck down the law. New Jersey then started to get tough with the illegal dumpers, staging elaborate raids and criminal investigations. The result? The dumpers trucked their cargo across the border to Pennsylvania, where some of it -- deadly hydrogen cyanide -- is now thought to be seeping out of abandoned mine shafts.

It's going to take some time to restore the public's confidence that chemical waste site can be safely operated. In the meantime, the wastes have to go somewhere. New industrial processes that generate less waste or make use of recycled wasteand new ways to detoxify wastes are the ultimate answer. Until these are developed, it may be that the only way to avoid an epidemic of the "not in my back yard" complaint is to have Congress distribute waste sites on a geographically sensible and fair basis.