PERTH (Reuters) - Tight global iron ore supplies could be stretched even further by a massive rebuilding effort in Japan while equipment shortages will prevent miners from ramping up production, global miner Rio Tinto (RIO.AX)(RIO.L) said.
The damage from the massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan on March 11 had widespread implications for the global mining sector, Sam Walsh, Rio Tinto's iron ore division chief, told an industry conference on Tuesday.
"The impact of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami have been many and diverse and they affect us," Walsh said. "Some steel mills have suspended operations and suppliers of heavy equipment, such as Hitachi, have been impacted."
He said that large plants, including ones operated by General Motors (GM.N) were running out Japanese component parts.
"There is a large reconstruction ahead, the magnitude of which is only just being realised," Walsh said.
Demand for iron ore and steel is expected to rebound when Japan starts rebuilding everything from homes to power plants and analysts say Japan's steel capacity, at more than 130 million tonnes, can support the reconstruction.
Spot iron ore prices .IO62-CNI=SI have lost 15 percent since hitting record highs in mid-February as slow steel demand in China, the biggest producer and consumer, curbed buying under pressure from Beijing's attempts to cool growth by tightening monetary policy and restricting credit.
Worries that disruptions in steel production in Japan would cut demand from the world's second-biggest buyer of the raw material in the near term pushed prices even lower.
Walsh said Rio Tinto's first-quarter iron ore production would be hit by a string of cyclones that lashed its mining operations in Australia last month.
"We have only just regained momentum and our quarterly production report will highlight the impact," he said.
Rio Tinto mines 225 million tonnes of iron ore annually, mostly in the Pilbara region of Australia, making it the world's no. 2 producer behind Brazil's Vale (VALE5.SA).
Australia's other big iron ore miners are BHP Billiton (BHP.AX) (BLT.L), and Fortescue Metals Group (FMG.AX).
Those companies are also expected to show production was curtailed by the storms, which flooded rail lines and forced ports to suspend operations.
The majority of the iron ore mined in the Pilbara is shipped to China, followed by Japan and South Korea.
Walsh later told reporters Japan's disaster could set back some of Rio Tinto's expansion plans if access to mining equipment, such as heavy machinery and truck tyres, became difficult.
Fortescue, for its part, said its expansion plans were on track as it buys very little mining equipment from Japan.
Until recently, Japan was the largest buyer of Australian ore, but has been supplanted by China.
Walsh painted a bright future for iron ore producers, saying the outlook warranted spending billions of dollars to expand mines in Australia and build new ones in Africa and India.
The company's Simandou iron ore mine project in Guinea -- touted by Rio Tinto as the single largest iron ore mine -- would be developed ahead of the current end-2015 target date if infrastructure restraints such as rail line construction could be overcome, according to Walsh.
The mine will have capacity to yield about 95 million tonnes of iron ore a year, he said.
Countering Walsh's positive outlook, Citibank analyst Daniel Hynes forecast the global iron ore market was headed for oversupply over the next few years and would see a 100-million tonne surplus by 2015.
The surplus would result from large production increases by Rio Tinto and other miners, he said.
(Additional reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr. in Singapore; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)