Taiwan hit by strongest earthquake since 1999

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Nine people have been killed and almost 1,000 injured in Taiwan after the country’s strongest earthquake in almost 25 years levelled buildings, halted rail traffic and forced the evacuation of semiconductor manufacturing plants.

The quake — which had a magnitude of 7.2 according to Taiwan’s earthquake monitoring agency and 7.4 according to the US Geological Survey — struck at 7.58am on Wednesday off the east coast, 25km south of Hualien, a city of about 100,000 people.

The government’s Disaster Response Center said nine people had died and 934 others were injured by the quake. All the dead were in Hualien and the surrounding county, which has borne the brunt of the damage.

More than 350 of the injured were in Taipei and New Taipei, the municipality surrounding the capital, where school and work were suspended for the day.

The Disaster Response Center said 127 people remained trapped. Many were stuck in tunnels in Hualien when landslides cut off a 118km-long cliff road that links the area to the north of the island.

Taiwan earthquake map

The earthquake is likely to reinforce western governments’ sense of urgency about making global technology supply chains more secure by diversifying semiconductor production away from Taiwan, which manufactures more than 90 per cent of the most advanced chips.

The high-precision machinery used for fabricating semiconductors is highly vulnerable to unplanned interruptions. When a quake measuring 7.6 struck Taiwan in 1999, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co, the world’s largest contract chipmaker, lost a full week of production.

The impact of Wednesday’s quake appeared much smaller than that of the one in 1999, which struck more densely populated areas at night and killed more than 2,000 people.

TSMC said on Wednesday it had evacuated personnel from some of its plants. “TSMC’s safety systems are operating normally,” the company said. “We are currently confirming the details of the impact.”

All of Taiwan’s semiconductor plants are located away from the quake’s epicentre and industry research firm TrendForce said neither memory chip capacity nor foundry contract chipmaking were heavily affected.

“The Dram industry, primarily located in the northern and central parts of Taiwan, and the foundry industry, spread across the north, central and southern regions of Taiwan, appear to have sustained minimal initial damage,” TrendForce said in a research note.

Emergency workers assist a survivor from a damaged building in New Taipei City
Emergency workers help a survivor from a damaged building in New Taipei City © CNA/AFP/Getty Images

While TSMC evacuated engineers from some plants in northern Taiwan, such evacuations did not happen at the Southern Taiwan Science Park, where the company makes artificial intelligence chips for Nvidia, the main driver of current semiconductor demand. TrendForce said that while equipment inspections did require some temporary shutdowns, those operations could be quickly resumed with minimal impact on supply.

Analysts said memory chipmakers including Micron, whose production capacity is concentrated in Taiwan, were set to restart negotiations for contract prices in the current quarter taking in any losses from the quake, but any price increase was likely to be limited because of soft demand.

A damaged building tilts to its side
A building in Hualien, the area that has borne the brunt of the damage © CNA/AFP via Getty Images

Wednesday’s quake temporarily knocked out power for more than 300,000 households, but electricity had been restored to most of the affected homes by 11.30am, according to the state-owned Taiwan Power Company.

Formosa Petrochemical in the afternoon restarted port operations at Mailiao, one of the world’s largest refineries, after suspending them following the quake.

A tsunami warning was issued after the quake for Japan’s southern island prefecture of Okinawa and later lifted.

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