Nearly a century after the discovery of radiation and its possible harm, there is still no comprehensive federal or state program to protect the public, the General Accounting Office said yesterday.

In a lengthy report, it summed up the radiation control programs in federal agencies and eight typical states, including Virginia, and concluded that:

Federal programs fail to cover many radiation sources in industry, in laboratories and in doctors' offices and hospitals, and often give only limited protection in areas they do cover.

In the eight states, too, many radiation sources remain unregulated, coverage of regulated sources is highly limited and there is little assurance that hazards, once spotted, are corrected.

There is also inadequate coordination among responsible federal agencies, the GAO said, despite a similar June 1979 conclusion by a federal interagency task force and an October decision by President Carter to establish a new Radiation Policy Council.

The federal programs citicized were the supervision of general industrial radiation by the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the nuclear Regulatory Commission's nuclear industry controls and the supevision of medical-dental radiation by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare's Bureau of Radiological Health.

The federal government depends mainly on the states, the GAO said, for a close watch on the X-ray machines and related devices in doctors' and dentists' offices and hospitals. These, and not nuclear reactors or industrial sources, cause more than 90 percent of public exposure to ionizing radiation: radiation that can affect matter, including human tissues.

Every state registers and inspects X-ray machines, the report said. But of the states studied -- California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Vermont and Virginia -- only California and Vermont have certification programs to try to make sure that X-ray operators known how to use their machines.

State officials said they did not have enough people or funds to supervise radiation sources. In Virginia, on-site inspections of Radiation sources and X-ray machines were infrequent, despite the fact that in fiscal 1978, 273 dental X-ray devices and 48 medical X-ray machines were inspected and nearly half the dental and a fourth of the medical machines were out of compliance with safety rules.

During the GAO review, said agency officials, Virginia's radiation advisory board first proposed to start inspecting such machines on a regular schedule -- every four years in hospitals, every six years in dentists' offices, every two years in doctors' offices.

GAO Comptroller General Elmer B. Staats Said:

The NRC and the states should establish follow-up procedures to make sure serious nuclear industry violations are corrected.

The secretary of HEW should also develop ways to find out whether deficiences, once identified, are corrected.

The new Radiation Policy Council should give high priority to evaluating and improving current federal and state programs.