SANTIAGO, March 14 (Reuters) - Copper exports from world No. 1 producer Chile are unlikely to suffer from Japan's huge earthquake, as tight global supply means shipments can easily be rerouted to alternative markets, traders said on Monday.
Even if buyers in Japan are forced to declare force majeure in the wake of Friday's quake, which shut down smelters in the hardest-hit zones, top consumer China can absorb the slack.
"Any copper that can't be received in Japan will be redirected elsewhere," a trader in Santiago said. "Chinese smelters are working with plenty of unused capacity."
"We won't see lost output, but we could see lost time."
The world's top copper mine, Escondida, run by BHP Billiton (BHP.AX)(BLT.L), FreePort-McMoRan's (FCX.N) Candelaria mine and Antofagasta Minerals (ANTO.L) are Japan's top suppliers of copper concentrate.
In January, Japan imported close to a third of Chile's copper concentrate exports, some 47,000 tonnes, along with a small amount of copper cathodes.
Antofagasta Minerals told Reuters the majority of its shipments to Japan offload at ports on the country's southwest coast that were unaffected by the quake, although the company was awaiting more detailed evaluations from clients there.
BHP Billiton also said it was working with buyers in the affected region to determine the state of operations.
"We will take appropriate steps to mitigate any impact, such as diverting shipments to alternative markets if required," spokesman Ruban Yogarajah said.
Japan was still reeling on Monday from the impact of the earthquake expected to have killed at least 10,000 people, scrambling to avert a meltdown at a stricken nuclear plant after a hydrogen explosion at one reactor.
NO FORCE MAJEURE YET
The quake's immediate impact may fall more heavily on major copper producers that have a greater focus on the Japanese market, such as Indonesia, one trader said.
Japanese smelters had not declared force majeure as of 1600 GMT on Monday, according to market sources in Santiago.
Finance Minister Felipe Larrain said he expected the disaster to have a limited impact on Chile's economy. Japan was the No. 2 destination for Chilean exports by value last year.
Some see reconstruction efforts after the quake lifting copper prices in the medium term, depending on the extent of damage, but experts do not expect a major increase in demand.
Robust demand for the red metal has driven a more than 50 percent rally in copper prices since the middle of last year to life highs in recent months.