A pounds 13.2m national radiation monitoring system, set up to give early warning of radioactivity from nuclear accidents, would probably still leave Britain unprepared for a Chernobyl-style disaster.
A report by the Government's Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committeee, published yesterday, said it was 'difficult to know' if the Department of the Environment's Radioactive Incident Monitoring Network (Rimnet) would have picked up the plume of radioactivity from Chernobyl - the very incident that led to it being set up.
The network, which costs pounds 1.4m a year to run, would register the radiation from a Chernobyl-style plume only in areas where heavy rainfall washed large quantities of radioactivity down to the ground. If it did not rain, the system would not detect the radiation. The report further suggests that the Government may have installed the wrong sort of radiation detectors, and that its plans for coping with a radiation emergency would neglect data vital to protecting the health of the population. The Rimnet system was designed to monitor external radioactivity rather than the degree of contamination of foodstuffs and water.
When the plume from Chernobyl was blown over the UK, heavy rainfall in the west of the country brought a lot of radioactivity down to the ground, whereas deposition in the South and East was less heavy. But most government agencies are based in the South-east, and they tended to underestimate the effects on other areas. Eight years after Chernobyl, this has still not been rectified.
The Rimnet network of 46 manually operated radiation detectors, which send readings every hour to a central database in London, has been expanded to 92 since it was set up in 1988.
A spokeswoman for the department said: 'We have found the review very useful . . . and have implemented a lot of their recommendations'. It had accepted that 'the current monitors do not by themselves provide information on radioactivity deposition. We accept the need to continue to consider the installation of nuclide specific monitors.' It is planning to test two such instruments.