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US-Bulgaria energy partnership: nuclear innovations, renewable strategies and LNG supply routes

Over the past months, energy talks between Bulgaria and the United States have intensified. Whether is reliance on US nuclear fuel or the role of Bulgaria as a potential recipient of US liquefied natural gas (LNG), the cooperation between the two countries has strengthened. Earlier in May, Bulgaria’s Energy Minister Vladimir Malinov paid a working visit to the US focused on building cooperation between the two sides to ensure energy security.

A responsible use of nuclear power that meets clean energy needs

During the first meeting of the Steering Committee under the Intergovernmental Agreement between Bulgaria and the US to build new nuclear capacities at the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant, progress on key projects for new nuclear capacities, diversification of fresh nuclear fuel and spent fuel storage, as well as prospects for using small modular reactors (SMRs) to successfully and timely respond to the challenges of decarbonisation and energy security, were among the main topics discussed.

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“Our cooperation with Washington is key to developing our nuclear industry and achieving the objectives of responsible use of nuclear power, meeting clean energy needs and maintaining a high level of environmental protection,” Vladimir Malinov stressed. “Bulgaria wishes its nuclear program to continue to meet the highest standards of nuclear safety, security, reliability and efficiency. Our country would like to benefit from the expertise of US government experts, regulators and the nuclear industry in pursuing this goal.”

The first meeting of the Steering Committee focused on the need for timely implementation of the project to build new nuclear capacity in Bulgaria with AP-1000 technology.

In April, the contract for providing services for the initial engineering and design activities for the construction of Unit 7 of the Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant with contractor Westinghouse was completed. That allows the project company “NPP Kozloduy New Builds” to prepare a procedure for selecting a contractor and conduct negotiations to secure loan financing for the project.

As regards the financing of the project, Minister Malinov recalled that, according to a decision of the National Assembly in December last year, the proceeds from the sale of the equipment for the Belene Nuclear Power Plant Project were to be used solely for the construction of units 7 and 8 of Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant.

Earlier in May, US, Bulgarian and Ukrainian experts conducted a site visit for a technical assessment of selected VVER/V466 nuclear power plant equipment items that have been stored for several years at Belene. The objective of the inspection was to provide a third-party assessment of the condition and conservation measures used to maintain the equipment.

In the meantime, a new type of nuclear fuel produced by US-based company Westinghouse has been loaded in Unit 5 of Bulgaria’s Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant.

“It’s always good to have a choice,” stated Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Dimitar Glavchev. “That is what diversification provides us with, a choice that offers better opportunities with a hundred per cent safety and security.” In his words, the implementation of this project is another step in promoting Bulgaria as a predictable partner with a significant role in guaranteeing the energy security of South-East Europe.

With regards to new technologies, namely SMRs, the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) has presented a program to finance SMRs coming from the United States, which would provide an additional possibility for clean energy production.

Not just nuclear: Bulgaria is betting on renewables and energy storage

According to the Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD), a European public policy institute, committing to accelerating the deployment of new nuclear reactors risks a long-term lock-in in a commercially non-viable technology. The expected levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) of the new nuclear reactors will be above 120 euros/megawatt-hours (MWh). In the CSD’s report entitled Exiting the Vicious Cycle – Long-term Vision for Decarbonisation and Transformation of the Bulgarian Economy, this means that the new nuclear facilities will be commercially non-viable and produce expensive surplus electricity with no clear demand in the region to absorb it. The result could be higher market prices, the emergency closing of old reactors and an enormous strain on the fiscal stability of the country.

In this context, the report found that it would be more reasonable to postpone the construction plans for new nuclear power plants until after 2040 when long-term decarbonisation scenarios show nuclear might be needed. Until then, the policy focus should fall on the implementation of comprehensive energy efficiency measures to reduce energy consumption and the faster uptake of power storage systems, alleviating the pressure on the power system linked to the surge in renewable investments.

In his visit to Washington, Minister Malinov also touched on the renewable topic when the parties agreed that technical assistance should be provided by the US DFC for a feasibility study on whether to build a new or rehabilitate the existing Pumped Storage Hydro Power Plant Chaira (PSHPP Chaira).

Indeed, the CSD’s report underlined the importance of expanding the Chaira dams, extending support for the installation of ion-battery-based storage systems and introducing a more efficient balancing and reserves market. The government has launched a tender for the addition of around 400 megawatts (MW) worth of batteries until the end of 2026 and by 2030 NEK, the biggest producer of electricity from renewables in Bulgaria, is planning to build two new pumped storage plants, Batak and Dospat, each with an installed capacity of 800-1000 MW. Although pumped storage is more efficient than ion-battery technology, the latter can be deployed much faster and at different locations around the country, making the power transmission system more flexible and easier to manage.

The Vertical Corridor: a strategic route for the supply of LNG from the US to the entire region

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The US DFC is also involved in financing the expansion of the underground gas storage facility Chiren. Indeed, at the end of 2023, the Corporation announced that it would guarantee funding for the project through Citibank, amounting to 208 million euros.

“The Project for the expansion of the underground gas storage facility Chiren is key to diversification and security of energy supply,” underlined Mr Malinov. “Expanding this infrastructure will allow additional supplies of LNG from reliable sources, including the US, not only to Bulgaria but to the entire region.”

“The finalisation of the Guarantee Agreement between DFC, Citibank and the Ministry of Finance of the Republic of Bulgaria is crucial for the successful and timely completion of the project,” the Energy Minister stressed as well.

Bulgaria’s energy security and gas supply is covered by the Vertical Corridor initiative, an ambitious project to enable bi-directional flows of natural gas from North to South and from South to North. The Bulgarian Government has consistently supported the Vertical Gas Corridor initiative to ensure gas supplies, allowing for enhanced diversification and full use of Ukrainian infrastructure after the suspension of gas transit from Russia as of the beginning of 2025. “Securing funding will ensure the timely implementation of this strategic corridor,” he added.

Deputy Assistant Secretary at the US State Department Kimberly Harrington reaffirmed the support of the United States for the Vertical Corridor as a strategic route for the supply of LNG from the US to the entire Southeast Europe.

Bridging borders: LNG integration within the Vertical Corridor Initiative

“Bulgaria’s excellent gas transmission system, as well as the significant capacity of regasification terminals in Greece and Turkey available to Bulgargaz, enable us to deliver substantial volumes of LNG to the countries of the region,” said Minister Malinov. “This capacity can be used by US producers and traders for strategic long-term deliveries and is a successful response to the challenges of diversification and substitution of Russian pipeline gas for the countries of South-East Europe”.

Minister Malinov drew serious attention to the fact that within the last six months, there has been a return of Russian natural gas to the markets in Bulgaria and the region through intermediary firms.

“In this context, it is necessary to carry out a thorough analysis of its impact on the market and possible measures to be taken,” the Energy Minister emphasised. In his words, LNG supplies from the United States play a key role in guaranteeing the energy security of Bulgaria and the region. “Deepening this cooperation is a top priority for the country.”

As a reassurance, Stephen Burns, Director of Energy Security and Jeremy Long, Director for the Balkans and Central Europe at the US National Security Council committed to supporting and seeking opportunities for the United States to provide US LNG to Ukraine and the entire region.

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