The award-winning 2023 movie "Oppenheimer" has raised and rekindled awareness of the secretive project to hurriedly build an atomic bomb for use in World War II. 

That project was mostly not known at the time to the general public or the news media. It has since become variously known as the Oppenheimer Project and the atomic bomb project. Mostly, it is known as "The Manhattan Project." 

There was a sub-part of the Manhattan Project known later as "Project P-9." It was carried out at Childersburg in east central Alabama.

A massive facility was hastily built outside Childersburg, officially the Alabama Ordinance Works. Locals called it "the powder plant." That's because a huge amount of gunpowder was manufactured there for the war effort.

Unbeknownst to the outside world, there was another section of the plant. It manufactured H202. Deuterium. Heavy water.

Heavy water was vital to the operation of a nuclear reaction. It buffered the reaction. Scientists secretly working to cause and utilize nuclear reactions tried various things to buffer the reactions, a necessary task to control the chain reaction. They tried and eliminated water and graphite, which had been likely buffers. They tried heavy water, and it worked.

One problem was that heavy water does not exist much in nature. It is highly scarce. You can't mine it or strain it out of the water. It must be manufactured by an industrial process constructed in Childersburg in the powder plant.

The Childersburg plant was one of three plants that produced the vital heavy water. Hundreds of pounds of heavy water were produced in Childersburg under the management of DuPont.

Due to the highly sensitive work being done at the plant, security and secrecy were considered top priorities. At its peak, the plant had 950 armed guards on duty for its 20,000 workers.

The management constantly reinforced the idea of "zip your lip," to not talk about what was going on in the plant, either inside the fence or outside.

Lt. General Leslie Groves of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was ultimately in charge of the Manhattan Project and set policy for the Childersburg operation. Groves explained how he used 'compartmentalization of knowledge' to maintain secrecy at the Childersburg operation.

"Compartmentalization of knowledge, to me, was the very heart of security. My rule was simple and not capable of misinterpretation—each man should know everything he needed to know to do his job and nothing else. Adherence to this rule not only provided an adequate measure of security, but it greatly improved over-all efficiency by making our people stick to their knitting. And it made quite clear to all concerned that the project existed to produce a specific end product—not to enable individuals to satisfy their curiosity and to increase their scientific knowledge."

After successful research and development involving tens of thousands of Americans and billions of dollars, the Manhattan Project became a success on July 19, 1945. That was the date a test explosion codenamed "Trinity" was carried by Oppenheimer and crew in New Mexico. It was the seminal event featured in the "Oppenheimer" movie. 

The test explosion worked, and two bombs were then readied for use against the Japanese. Bombs "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, causing the Japanese leadership to end the war.

The work of thousands in Childersburg produced its needed result. The work there produced a necessary part of atomic development.

In today's age of huge federal government spending, one fact about the Childersburg powder plant is almost unbelievable. The cost to build the plant came in substantially under budget. Allocated to the project was $8,285,000.00. Actual cost ended up only $3,466,171.00. How often do we see that happen?

Maybe more federal projects need to be located in Alabama, where we get the job done well, quickly and under budget.

Jim Zeigler is a former Alabama Public Service Commissioner and State Auditor. You can reach him for comments at [email protected].

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