The Vulture Priests protect and maintain (as best they can) sites containing nuclear waste. This includes nuclear waste repositories, nuclear weapons storage sites, and nuclear power plants where waste remains on-site. They refer to themselves as priests and to the sites they watch over as temples.
The life of a Vulture Priest differs markedly depending on the nature of the temple. At some sites, they follow strict daily rituals to maintain the site, as even minor variance could, over time, lead the facilities to fail. For example, one temple may store spent fuel rods in a pool of water that uses gravity to refill it. Here, the priests may only have to turn a crank every day, but they must make sure that the crank never rusts or becomes damaged in any way lest they find themselves without any way to avert disaster. At other temples, the priests may need to haul water to keep a pool like this filled. At still other sites, the priests can do nothing but warn people to stay away.
Without protection from the radiation, Vulture Priests accept that they will die of radiation poisoning after only a few years of service. Most join the priesthood as elders who feel they don't have long to live and want to do one last thing to help their families before they die. Younger people who try to join receive extra scrutiny. The older priests usually succeed in scaring them away.
We give our lives to the vigil.
We give our bodies to the vigil.
So long as a single person breathes,
The vigil must go on.
The Vulture's Vow
As the collapse of civilization became more apparent, a group of nuclear physicists and engineers made the journey to the Yucca Mountain nuclear depository to figure out how to keep future generations safe. They referred back to the work of the 1981 Human Interference Task Force, and in particular to the work of Thomas Sebeok who had proposed an “atomic priesthood” that would preserve knowledge about nuclear sites in myth and ritual.
Perhaps because of their background in mathematics and science — or perhaps hoping to find religious imagery that would reinforce the importance of mathematics to their work — some of those earliest founders of the priesthood took an interest in Kabbalah. With the similarity between the English word “atom” and the name “Adam,” they developed a mythology that drew from Kabbalah and identified “splitting the atom” with splitting Adam into Adam Kadmon and Adam HaRishon. The Vulture Priests thus developed a mystery cult around their work which cast the work of humanity as reuniting Adam.
Later Vulture Priests came from animist communities, even when they have mixed that animism thoroughly with the trappings of other religions, and so this mythology has become more and more animist over the generations.
Each temple presents unique challenges, and so each temple approaches their task differently. Despite the inspiration that their original founders took from religious hierarchies in general and the Roman Catholic Church in particular, the Vulture Priests come from egalitarian communities and could hardly tolerate such a life. Instead, the Vulture Priests organize themselves as they see fit. Their shared purpose and the enormous sacrifices they have made to join the temple help keep everyone focused on performing their duties to the best of their ability.
A few temples stand out in the priesthood. They have an important history in the order, and most priests know of them, including:
Vulture Priests wear long black robes, black leather gloves and boots, a red head wrap, and a white, beaked mask similar to a plague doctor mask. The masks have glass lenses, often made from the bottoms of old glass bottles, to hide even the eyes. They sometimes stuff the hollow beaks with sweet-smelling herbs or incense, and sometimes even burn these, creating the appearance that they breathe fire.
Symbolically, the vestments make the priest resemble a vulture — a carrion bird that eats dead bodies, helping them return to the earth. The Vulture Priests see themselves in a similar capacity, trying to take the dead body of civilization — and its most dangerous legacy, nuclear waste, in particular — and helping it return to the earth.
The vestments also help to hide the priests' appearance, as beneath the robes the priests suffer from the terrible effects of radiation sickness. They start using herbs and incense, and then lighting it, as their condition deteriorates to hide the smell.
They also serve to make the Vulture Priests intimidating and otherworldly. The priests often use this to great effect, ensuring that their forbidding appearance keeps others a safe distance from their temples. At some sites, the priests can't do anything except try to warn people away. At such sites, a forbidding, monstrous appearance can help them to scare off people who won't listen to reason. The Vulture Priests find that appearing monstrous often aids in their work.
Initiation into the priesthood involves a sort of ceremonial death to your old life, in anticipation of the permanent, physical death that will sure follow soon after. The vestments also help to remind the priests of their separation from the normal world of the living.